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Reviving the Italian Village

Woman crossing a courtyard at Borgo Finocchieto.

Photo: Martin Morrell

Since then, scores of abandoned or near-abandoned Italian towns have been reimagined as village hotels. The Associazione Nazionale Alberghi Diffusi, of which Dall’Ara is president, now counts 48 member properties across the country, with dozens more currently taking shape. Meanwhile, the Swedish-Italian hotelier and philanthropist Daniele Kihlgren has raised the bar with his Sextantio brand, creating hardcore-authentic alberghi diffusi out of a 15th-century mountain village in Abruzzo and, even more impressive, inside the Sassi di Matera cave dwellings in Basilicata. (Kihlgren has acquired nine more sites across southern Italy, which await similar transformations.)

Ironically, the economic stagnation that nearly decimated so many Italian villages in the 20th century wound up saving them for the 21st. Mired in poverty, passed over by modern development, they were essentially suspended in time. In a country whose celebrated hill towns are commonly littered with Vodafone signs and Benetton shops, this is a welcome outcome indeed.

And the albergo diffuso turns out to be a sustainable model for both development and preservation. Repurposing existing structures costs less, and has a much smaller carbon footprint, than constructing new hotels. Alberghi diffusi create jobs for area residents and, if they source products locally, help sustain traditional crafts and trades. Furthermore, they pass along much of the cost of preservation to a demographic that strongly benefits from it: travelers. That last part is crucial. Tourism is so often blamed, sometimes accurately, for reckless and degrading development. (See: Vodafone signs and Benetton shops.) But under the albergo diffuso rubric, tourism becomes an agent for preservation, providing both the catalyst and the capital. And hotels, rather than overwhelming the historic fabric, can form an integral part of it.

What’s remarkable is how many of these ghost villages still exist in Italy, ripe for the taking and remaking—untold hundreds, emptied out by rural flight and barely touched, or even much noticed, in the decades since. This, in one of the most well-charted and tourist-trafficked landscapes on earth.

The secret is out. More and more wealthy buyers are acquiring defunct villages as their own private vanity fiefdoms. Not surprisingly, many of these latter-day doges—call them the borgolomaniacs—are from overseas: Americans, Koreans, Russians, Japanese. But borgo fever has swept the home country as well. Rare is the Italian designer who hasn’t accessorized with a village. Alberta Ferretti bought up the tiny hamlet of Montegridolfo, in Emilia-Romagna. Brunello Cucinelli took over most of the Umbrian village of Solomeo. And Massimo Ferragamo has spent four years—and untold millions—turning the medieval borgo of Castiglion del Bosco, just downhill from Finocchieto in the Val d’Orcia, into an extravagant resort and residential complex.

Ferragamo’s is the latest and most over-the-top entry in a variant breed of village hotel, which takes the same humble setting and rusticated trappings but ramps up the luxury quotient. Examples can be found across the Continent: from Castelnau des Fieumarcon, a fortified Gascogne village that became a 33-bedroom retreat, to Aman Sveti Stefan, a Montenegrin hamlet turned hotel care of Amanresorts.

Still, Italy is the nexus of the alberghi diffusi movement, and a good number of them, unsurprisingly, are in Tuscany. One of the high-end pioneers of the trend—and still among the most convincing—was Hotel Borgo San Felice, which occupies a 1,300-year-old church and settlement in Chianti, 13 miles northeast of Siena. Converted to a hotel in 1979, and now a Relais & Châteaux property, it makes clever (re)use of original village details: street names and address numbers were left intact, while restaurants and shops are marked with old-fashioned signage.

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