William Flew and ‘albergo diffuso’ Part 1

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

A new hotel concept is sweeping Italy. William Flew checks in at the town hall and discovers the ‘albergo diffuso’

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rything in my room is beautiful, from the warped oak door to the Philippe Starck bath

Somewhere between the hotel bedroom and the hotel dining room I get lost. Not, one might think, an unusual event. Hotels, with their identical cream corridors, anonymous nylon carpets and touches of homogeneous homeliness (a Rothko print here, a pretty vase there), are often confusing places. But this is unusual. For I lost my way not in an Identikit strip-lit labyrinth but on a cobbled street, somewhere between a crumbling Cadfael arch and a towering town wall. Now I am alone in a darkened dead end. For once I find myself wishing for a spot of strip lighting.

For tonight I am staying in Sextantio, an albergo diffuso in the Italian village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo. Alberghi diffusi are a new type of hotels that have no corridors. Nor do they have lifts, car parks, beige nylon carpets or any of the other unlovely trappings of tourist accommodation. What they have instead are extremely beautiful rooms, embedded directly into the already existing buildings of ancient Italian villages. Peculiar though they sound, the way they work is simple. Like normal hotels, alberghi diffusi have bedrooms, bars and restaurants; and like normal hotels the rooms are designed, booked and managed centrally. But unlike normal hotels, they aren’t located centrally but spread (“diffused”) through a whole village: the hotel’s reception may be opposite the town hall, its restaurant next to the church, and your bedroom above a trattoria. So alberghi diffusi are just like hotels — just without the hotel.

A concept that is itself rapidly diffusing. The idea of the albergo diffuso was first conceived in northern Italy in the early Eighties by a hotel marketing consultant. Now there are 40 across the country. Each is individually run, and individual in style, ranging from the luxurious — Sextantio has Philippe Starck baths — to those that are more stark than Starck. But while all vary in their physicality, all share the same philosophy: to bring the benefits, but not the blights, of tourism to small villages. The scheme has been so successful in Italy that villages in Switzerland and Croatia are considering similar schemes.

This particular albergo is not only an hotel without the hotel, but also, as I am discovering, without street signs. This, I am told, is because “the village is too small” to need them. Finding myself in yet another dead end, I wonder about that. Still, so beautiful is it that I hardly mind my enforced tour. Santo Stefano has barely changed since the days when the Medicis roamed the Earth. The perfection of its preservation is extraordinary and, in the moonlight, slightly eerie: a mountaintop Mary Celeste.

The restaurant, when I reach it, is a delight: also ancient but in a merry Friar Tuck way, with long wooden tables, wood fires and candles. Over supper I speak to Daniele Kihlgren, Sextantio’s owner. Though he founds hotels, Daniele is more philosopher and philanthropist than entrepreneur: he created Sextantio not to make money but to save his “patrimony”. He is also somewhat eccentric, travelling everywhere with a surly-looking bulldog called Milone because otherwise “he complains”.

 

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