The idea is as ingenious as it is charming: in order to keep their little village in the countryside alive, the inhabitants have transformed Portico di Romagna into a hotel – BRIGITTE author Christine Dohler has checked into this “Albergo Diffuso”.
Albergo Diffuso? Anything but ordinary
Where’s my bed again? In the darkness, after a dinner with lots of pasta, I stumble across the medieval cobblestones. In Portico di Romagna the shutters are folded and I really can’t remember which of the houses my suitcase is in. I only remember that my room was rustically charming, with dark wood and whitewashed walls, and somehow smelled of history. It can’t be that hard, there is only one main street in this village …
Anyone who stays overnight in an “Albergo Diffuso” does not stop at any accommodation, that is now finally clear to me. The alley counts as a hotel corridor, the market place goes through as a lobby, and the pub is the hotel bar.
This morning photographer Julia Rotter and I took two hours from Bologna airport to Emilia-Romagna. Our goal: We want to become part of an Italian village with 400 inhabitants.
Portico di Romagna is situated in the mountains between Forlì and Florence, idyllically on the tiny course of the river Montone. What we quickly notice there is the bell tower towering over all the buildings, which sounds as if it is still rung by hand, the absence of hectic activity and the friendly residents of an old people’s home who sit on benches in front of the entrance door until the bingo game begins in the evening on the market square, to which we are cordially invited.
An entire village becomes a hotel – and thus revived.
So far, so unspectacular. What makes this place so special? It was converted into a hotel 13 years ago. The reception is located in an old palazzo that has been converted into a restaurant with guest rooms. Around it, one can stay overnight either in the former butcher’s shop, under the bell tower or in an apartment with a romantic garden, in which once Dante’s alleged muse Beatrice is said to have lived. Up to 55 guests can be accommodated, and there are also apartments for families. And so every year 3500 visitors of the “Albergo Diffuso” populate the alleys.
The villagers offer their guests accommodation in their parental homes, which have been passed down from generation to generation. For example, Bruno, the pensioner who is happy when tourists move into the apartment where he grew up. His parents have been dead for a long time, and without visitors the apartment would be empty.
“Thanks to the tourists, the rooms are being revived,” says Bruno and opens the windows so that we can feel the fresh wind blowing here.
And in fact, we would like to sit down at the table with flowers or walk from the balcony into the green hills.
In many picturesque spots of Italy the question has been asked for years how to save the place from the departure of the boys, from desolation. An Italian tourism consultant finally had the brilliant idea: “What if you made the whole village a place to stay?
Albergo Diffuso means “scattered hotel”, and there are now more than 100 of them in Italy, each different from the other. Some are more luxurious, others follow the ecological approach, but all meet the same conditions: The residents themselves have taken the initiative; they ensure that the guests get food and contact with the locals; nothing must be rebuilt, the original structure of the place must be used, and the individual rooms should not be more than 150 metres away from the “reception”. There will always be a permanent contact person. And all residents have a similar wish: they want to bring the world to their little village so that they don’t have to leave it.
Real master chefs cook here
Our “caregivers” are Marisa Raggi and her husband Gianni Cameli. While 64-year-old Marisa is still working in the company, Gianni has already handed over the kitchen to her two sons Massimiliano, 44, and Matteo, 41.
With a top restaurant and the rental of the rooms, they have made a living here: Gianni helps in the restaurant, Marisa manages the service, and three grandchildren play football with the young guests. And we’re supposed to be part of it for a few days now.
Massimiliano and Matteo learned the fine art of cuisine at the Paul Bocuse Institute and cooked in houses like the world-famous “Noma” in Copenhagen. They would find a job anywhere, but they want to stay here in their village, which is certainly not as picturesque as Florence, but home. They all couldn’t survive without the holidaymakers in Portico di Romagna.
Some holidaymakers stayed forever – for love’s sake
Once a week the locals organise a festival on the market square, sometimes a giant event with 20 chefs and 600 international and regional guests. “It’s amazing what such a small place can do,” enthuses Matteo. No comparison to the village where I grew up and which I left because it was so boring.
“More than 53 nations were already visiting”, Marisa proudly tells us, who whirls through the restaurant full of energy. “And some women stayed here forever because they fell in love” – she winked at me.
The Danish wives of her two sons, for example, who once came as tourists and now help out in the language school and restaurant. In general, there are seldom as many marriages on holiday as here in Portico di Romagna, even a Japanese woman lives here today, although everything is really different for her than in her home country.
One feels like being in a big family
We are not surprised at all – wherever Julia and I appear, we have to invent excuses to get away again. The painter, for example, who exhibits in the bell tower and explains each of his works to us in detail. “Shall I paint you a picture,” he asks. Or with the artist, who runs a small ceramic shop and invites us to one of her workshops. The teacher at the language school wants to teach us Italian immediately, and the three hipsters who run the “Chiosco di San Rocco”, a small restaurant on the river, and even offer vegan food, generously provide us with tips for restaurants in the area.
Like family members, we are sent on to distant relatives and acquaintances. “In Rocca San Casciano you should buy cheese and have dinner in Tredozio!” It’s noted! Let’s see what we can do in four days … Italian and pottery probably don’t learn, but the cooking course, the truffle search, and the olive oil tasting also sounds tempting.
But first I relax in a rocking chair on the sidewalk. He stands in front of the open library, which has moved into the old butcher’s shop. It’s better here than in a sterile lobby with elevator music, and life plays around me: The ladies from the old people’s home come by and sort the shelves from which you can help yourself. Everyone gives me a smile and a cheerful “Buon giorno”. I let the rest of the day ripple by comfortably.
With Matteo and the dogs we go on truffle hunt
The truffle hunt starts the next morning – cook Matteo takes us with him. Otto and Rex, his two dogs, one black, the other white, chase ahead. We hurry after them through the forest, take morning dew and spider webs with us.
Such tours can also be booked elsewhere in Italy, that’s clear, but probably we wouldn’t be so close to everyday life anywhere else, because basically we are “only” company. I have to harvest tomatoes in the garden by the river and then immediately stand in the kitchen so that lunch gets to the table on time.
As soon as one of the dogs starts digging like inebriation, Matteo rushes to him, distracts him with a treat and continues digging himself with the spade. Each time a shriveled little tuber appears. “Four euros per gram are paid for this,” he says. But Matteo doesn’t sell his truffles, they all end up in the kitchen. He will later turn them into ice cream for us and grate them so generously on spaghetti as if we were his very best friends.
One highlight after the other
On the way to the garden he shows us one of the most bizarre sights I have ever seen: the mini-“volcano” Monte Busca on a hill overlooking the village, a pile of stones with a flame that is kept alive by natural gas and has been burning since at least the 16th century. “In the evening we barbecue marshmallows here from time to time,” says Matteo. I immediately make a selfie, nobody else believes me!
We return with three truffles, a box of home-picked tomatoes and lots of herbs, where the village nun Elia is already waiting for us with two aprons in her hand. We should make our own ravioli, says the 75-year-old, from the flour and egg dough to the well-filled pasta.
My Italian is too poor to chat with Elia, but I can imitate her movements and movements, and I understand that when you roll the dough you not only have to make sure that it stays intact, but also that your hips wiggle.