Looking for a more authentic Italian holiday? Forgo the big cities and chain hotels and tap into one of Italy’s best-kept accommodation secrets – the “alberghi diffusi”.
The “albergo diffuso” (“scattered hotel”) model was conceived in the 1980s to offer an economic lifeline to small and often remote Italian villages that may otherwise have been abandoned as populations dwindled and buildings fell into disrepair.
Communities were encouraged, and often given financial incentives, to restore historical buildings and run them as scattered hotels, with a central check-in and rooms or apartments in renovated or preserved structures such as towers, mills and castles.
Accommodation can be simple or luxe; from a double room for €50 ($80) to a house for six at €300 ($470).
Best of all, staying in an albergo diffuso offers the opportunity for total immersion in village life in some of Italy’s most beautiful and un-touristed locations.
The fortified medieval hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the wildly beautiful Gran Sasso national park was all but abandoned after an earthquake in 2009.
But then many of the buildings were bought by a Swiss-Italian philanthropist who renovated them in painstakingly authentic medieval style (albeit with touches of modern luxury).
Housed throughout the village, some rooms have fireplaces, libraries or other surprises. There’s also a bottega selling local wine and a restaurant serving a micro-regional menu.
Tip: Ask about the traditional cooking, weaving and bread-making courses on offer.
Life moves at a gentle, seasonally-dictated pace in Ornica (population 160), a perfectly preserved medieval village with a film-set backdrop of mountains and alpine meadows.
Within a pedestrian-only maze of alleyways, stone-fronted buildings and tunnels, the village’s albergo is run by a “mountain women’s” co-operative.
Accommodation is in traditional houses and neat mountain chalet-style apartments with panoramic views of the Brembana valley.
The one restaurant in the village serves distinctive and delicious regional fare.
Tip: There’s a surprising number of events in the village throughout the year that guests are encouraged to join, from mushroom hunts to polenta cook-outs.
Around 70 kilometres inland from the Amalfi coast on the slopes of Mount Tuoro, Castelvetere sul Calore has been occupied since ancient Roman times.
The village’s heart, a feudal castle, and the hamlet that formed around it date from the second half of the 10th century.
Accommodation is in 17 apartments of varying sizes within the castle buildings, the walls and the tower – all restored with traditional finishes.
A restaurant and bottega serve regional food and wine; caciocavallo and scamorza cheeses, black truffle and local DOCG wines; Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Taurasi.
Tip: Come at the end of February/early March when the town celebrates with a centuries-old “carnavale”.
Officially designated one of Italy’s “most beautiful villages” and crowned by the Castle of Lucertola (castle of the lizard), medieval Apricale is a jewel set on the verdant forested slopes of the Ligurian hinterland, just 10 minutes from the coast and about 30 from the French border.
Rooms and suites of the albergo have walls of local stone, some with original wooden beams or frescoes and are situated in ancient nobles’ houses, towers and cellars in the pedestrian-only village centre.
Tip: Pack light – the name translates in the local dialect to “up and down”, a good indication of the walk to your accommodation.
Overlooking the fertile Comino Valley, Picinisco is where DH Lawrence lived while writing The Lost Girl.
Many residents of the well-preserved village were forced to emigrate in the 1960s due to economic disadvantage, abandoning their properties.
Sotto Le Stelle’s (“Under the Stars”) owners bought and restored a palazzo dating from the 18th century which had formerly been an abbot’s house and had been empty for 30 years.
There are six suites, with those in the lower part of the building once used as food stores and stables.
There’s also a lovely garden planted with olive and fruit trees enclosed by the original town walls.
Tip: Unusually, the albergo has a concierge, Daniele, who will arrange anything from an in-room massage to a private tour.
To find more of Italy’s ‘secret’ hotels, visit the National Association of Alberghi Diffusi.