By Valerie Fortney-Schneider
When Giancarlo Dall’Ara walks the silent streets of a crumbling Italian hill town he looks beyond the decay and overgrown weeds and envisions restored buildings neatly kept, people strolling and chatting, artisans at work in their shops, and lively exchanges echoing through the lanes.
The dapper Dall’Ara, a tourism marketing maestro, is the pioneer of a hospitality model called albergo diffuso. The idea is to establish a hotel in an historic but forlorn town, sprinkling rooms in renovated homes and palaces rather than cluster them into one building. This innovative approach offers a hotel’s hospitality and amenities without the sterile uniformity often found in tourist structures. An albergo diffuso not only avoids the construction of new (and sometimes ugly) hotels on the outskirts, it takes buildings that have been abandoned and gives them new purpose while keeping their antique appeal.
In short, the goal is to renovate abandoned buildings, revive local artisan crafts, and re-inhabit the town. A tall order, but one that has proven successful. Time and again, old towns experience a kind of metamorphosis when an albergo diffuso or a “scattered hotel” opens there. According to Dall’Ara, a town sees an immediate and notable effect. “The area lives up: lights are on, tourists start to arrive from other regions and other countries, shopkeepers see a rise in business, new restaurants open, and residents start to realize that their town has value after all,” he says.
Throughout Italy, there are villages full of character that lack inhabitants due in large part to urban migration. As these villages slowly crumble and fall, the traditions and history of the place fades away, too. Dall’Ara was convinced that tourism could aid these ailing towns if a fully sustainable approach was developed. He put his idea to the test in 1982 in Carnia, a town in the northern region of Friuli near the Slovenian border. The town was dying after an earthquake in the 70s, however it began to come back to life once the old historic center was renovated and turned into a hotel. Since its success, Dall’Ara has seen the fruits of his vision blossom. “There are now 53 alberghi diffusi, with more in the works, including some extending beyond the borders of Italy to Spain and Croatia,” he points out proudly.
Dall’Ara established the National Association of Alberghi Diffusi to standardize the model and ensure each hotel adheres to the manifesto of what has now become a movement. “There were some cases of hotels using the name without following the model,” said Dall’Ara. An albergo diffuso must be established in existing buildings and must hire local craftsmen like wood workers and stone masons to preserve each area’s unique characteristics, providing consistent hospitality without uniformity. Thus, each hotel has its own distinct identity. The restaurants at each hotel serve breakfast of breads and jams made in the area, and other meals consisting of regional dishes made from locally-grown produce.
Because rooms are placed throughout several locales, each is unique, and while some may maintain a rustic theme in keeping with local style, they’re anything but Spartan. Laden with luxuriant linens, gourmet bath goodies, and comfortable furnishings, they offer all the features and services of a traditional hotel: a central reception desk, concierge services, helpful staff, daily maid service, a restaurant, even breakfast in bed on request. As Dall’Ara points out, they’re actually more hospitable than a traditional hotel because the townspeople also play their part in welcoming visitors and making them feel at home.
The benefit for tourists is the chance to stay in an historic building, as well as the opportunity to experience a real town’s life, instead of being cooped up in a generic concrete block hotel. They get a genuine sense of place and the chance to see the lifestyle of the town up-close. The very structure of an albergo diffuso encourages travelers to immerse themselves into the village, to interact with neighbors, to absorb the atmosphere of the place, to buy fresh fruit from the local market and enjoy a cappuccino at the nearby coffee bar.
Dall’Ara says that the benefit for the town is a new lease on life, a transformation not only on the village itself but in the minds of the villagers, as they reclaim an appreciation for their cultural identity and the charm their town has to offer. In many cases, descendants – children or grandchildren of those who migrated to cities – return to their home villages, at least for vacations, to enjoy the relaxed pace and the traditions of their childhood.
All told, an albergo diffuso is more than a tourist structure and more than a renovation project – it’s a cultural encounter that enriches the lives of the locals as well as the travelers, and often forges friendships in the process. It’s more than a hotel stay; it’s a traveler’s immersion into a town’s history and life.