By Valerie Schneider
Dotting the countryside across Italy are castles, villas and monasteries–remnants of a rich past. They bear testimony to epochs of architectural styles and often lend a defining landmark to the villages where they are located. Yet weathered by years of abandonment or lack of government funds to restore and maintain them, some are slowly crumbling.
In an effort to save ancient castles and noble villas that are either too big for one family or require extensive renovations and costly upkeep, the culturally sensitive approach of the albergo diffuso may prove to be just the right solution. The founding principle of albergo diffuso is simple: recuperate homes in several buildings of a town and “diffuse” hotel rooms throughout the village instead of constructing a new traditional hotel. A great side benefit of the movement is that it also revives the life in ailing villages where they are located. Now, this is being applied to estates in rural settings, as well. This way, these important edifices retain their place in history with a new use.
With the albergo diffuso concept, extensive and sensitive renovations are undertaken using original materials and local craftsmen. The amenities of a traditional hotel are all utilized–a central reception desk, helpful staff, daily maid service, and a restaurant, but rooms are placed in various areas of the restored structure. Sensitive, often painstaking restorations are undertaken, using materials that maintain the character of the property. The hotels’ restaurants serve dishes made from time-honored regional recipes and local produce.
So just where can you go to spend a night in historic surroundings? Here are three examples of different architectural and regional offerings that carry a unique sense of place and history.
In the verdant hills of Umbria, the square stone castle of Casigliano stands sentinel above vibrant fields ablaze with sunflowers. Built in the 1500s, it is surrounded by a little labyrinth of lanes and homes. The tiny village is known as a borgo, which is cuddled within the protective walls of the castle and was constructed to house the peasants who worked the fields and served the noble family in the daily operations of the mansion. It is a common example of communal life in the Middle Ages.
Casigliano is still owned by a noble descendent, the Duchess Lucrezia Miari Fulcis dei Corsini. She threw open the doors of the castello in 1997 in order to preserve and share its unique aspect of history as well as to highlight the region’s culinary traditions.
Seven apartments scattered around the borgo are outfitted with a living room, fully-equipped kitchen, double bedroom and modern bathroom. Inside the castle itself are suites with high vaulted ceilings of handmade and fired bricks, the old time-worn tile floorings, wood beams and carved wood antiques. Everything looks typically Old World except for the hydro-massage showers placed within the ancient stone walls that form the bathrooms. Soft lighting and warm stone and wood complete the enchanting effect.
The restaurant, aptly named Locanda Il Re Beve (“the king drinks”), showcases an impressive fireplace, and tables fashioned from wood salvaged from old wine barrels.
The stately country mansion looks like a movie set with rolling hills, valleys and blue skies. It is located near the art city of Urbino in the region of Le Marche, which many say resembles Tuscany, but without the crowds or high costs.
Villa Tombolina overlooks vineyards that stripe the hillsides, interspersed with pockets of woodlands and green fields of grains. It was built in the 1700s as a country villa for a wealthy family and includes a private chapel and outbuildings for the farm’s workers. It also served as the residence of the archbishops of Urbino.
Rooms are found in the Villa Padronale (the manor house) and in the “Casolare,” the building that once housed the farmers who labored the fields in exchange for rent and half the produce they grew. The villa has a refined ambiance with high vaulted ceilings and parquet floors, along with spacious marble baths. The casolare is more rustic with wood beamed ceilings, terra cotta tiled floors and hewn wood doors lending a country feel. Both are built of pink-beige bricks, and the grassy garden is scented with roses and shaded by umbrella pines.
Located in the “lost” region of Molise, cradled between Campania and Puglia, the lodgings at La Piana dei Mulini make it worth the trip to discover the hidden treasures in the hills of this part of southern Italy.
The long cluster of buildings lines up along a canal, belying its former life as a water mill. Constructed entirely of stone quarried in the surrounding hills, it was built as a workshop for dying wool, an important commerce for this area a few hundred years ago. Later it served as a small hydro-electric facility. Today, echoes of the mill’s past are seen in the arches, canals, bridges and the original water turbine that are evident throughout the complex.
The restoration went beyond the buildings to the surrounding streams and woodlands, creating a trail network along the Biferno River for walking, biking, and bird-watching, and access for kayaking and canoeing. There are little beaches for fishing, too.
There are twelve cozy rooms in various buildings of the mill; some are even set above the water canal that once operated the turbine. They integrate the antique feel and purpose of the mill with modern comforts. Views take in the unspoiled river and mountains. For nature lovers there is plenty to do; those who prefer to relax can have the pampering of a shiatsu massage under a sunny umbrella of foliage.
The rustic, stone restaurant is in the old work room once used for dying wool. And the arched stone vaults and candlelight give it a romantic atmosphere.
These country inns provide a sense of history, a warm welcome and comfortable lodgings with spectacular views, along with the benefit of helping preserve these pieces of the past. They also come at a good price: Rooms at La Piana dei Mulini range from €66 – €85 per night; Villa Tombolina range from €60 per night in the Casolare and €85 per night in the Villa; and Castello di Casigliano ranges from €90 nightly in the borgo to €180 per night in the castle. All rates include homemade breakfasts, and the thrill of sleeping in antique surroundings.