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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels – and where they’re staying instead

Traditional hotels are falling out of favour in Italy as the rise of sustainable, experiential travel takes more people off the beaten path, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels - and where they’re staying instead
The breakfast terrace at the Sotto Le Stelle 'albergo diffuso' south of Rome. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

The pandemic has changed the way we travel, and the type of accommodation we want. Tourists flocking to Italy for the summer holidays are now looking at alternative places to stay, according to recent surveys, that transcend the concept of traditional hotel and allow them to fully savour the local vibe and lifestyle.

The change in preferences is also linked to greater environmental awareness. People are picking more sustainable, small-scale, low-impact and energy-saving accommodation options, as suggested by the recent ‘Future Travel Behaviours’ survey by the EY observatory: the study found 74 percent of travellers are planning eco-conscious holidays in ‘green’, Covid-safe resorts.

OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

Among these options are Italy’s so-called alberghi diffusi (scattered or ‘diffuse’ hotels) which I believe are the safest in guaranteeing pandemic social distancing and fewer crowds – still top concerns for many travellers.

This type of accommodation is not concentrated in one single building but scattered across a whole medieval village, often remote, sleepy and depopulating. The rooms are in former barns, stables, farmer or shepherds’ homes, elegantly renovated with their authenticity preserved. The reception is often in an old pigsty or little chapel at the entrance to the village. 

Here, you’ll avoid the risk of bumping into other guests and get to meet locals and savor the small-scale village buzz. The only drawbacks are that you’ll be walking a lot from one cottage to another for your spa or evening drinks, while to get to the breakfast room in the morning, prepare to walk around in your pyjamas and flip flops!

That’s what I did when I visited Borgo di Sempronio, an albergo diffuso in the secluded Tuscan village of Semproniano in the Maremma area, where wild boars crossing streets are a common sight. A maze of winding steps connect the reddish stone dwellings, which feature ceiling-high chimneys and modern facilities. 

The Borgo di Sempronio ‘albergo diffuso’ in Tuscany. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

At breakfast, owner Fulvio treated me to fresh, still-warm ricotta cheese straight from the shepherd and tasty seasoned hams. We dined at the main village restaurant, eating fettuccelle in a wild boar sauce, because the philosophy of the albergo diffuso is to experience the places where locals hang out. They offer the opportunity to live the village life and discover hidden spots, admiring the views each time you leave your doorstep. They’re a real throwback to the old rural days.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Tour operators I spoke to say current bookings at these ‘scattered resorts’ are 40 percent higher than in pre-pandemic times. The main reason alberghi diffusi are taking off as an ‘alternative’ form of accommodation is that they offer greater flexibility and freedom in holiday schedules, allowing to also keep working remotely. 

Following the pandemic, many travellers still don’t want to go back to small confined spaces like hotel rooms with elevators; they long for outdoor space in a place that feels like home. 

Cottages in the Sotto Le Stelle albergo diffuso in Picinisco, a village in the wild Ciociaria region south of Rome, come with private kitchens, dining and living rooms and terraces. When I visited, old village ladies knocked at my door in the morning bringing breakfast: home made jams and acacia honey on thin slices of pecorino sheeps’ cheese.

The reception at Borgo di Sempronio in Tuscany. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

As traditional hotels become less popular, other types of accommodation people are  increasingly opting for include so-called agriturismi: rural farm-resorts with animals, orchards, traditional taverns and a few rooms rented on a bed-and-breakfast basis, which were once food stores and barns. 

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

Usually family-run, they’re located in quiet areas outside of towns and villages. At agriturismi guests enjoy being surrounded by nature and eating locally prepared foods, or relaxing by the pool and doing outdoor activities like horse riding.

Staying at an ‘agriturismo’ in Ciociaria. Photo by Silvia Marchetti/The Local

There are even more quirky options: you can book stays in medieval towers, old pirate lookout fortresses that come with a private dinghy, restored lighthouses, and sea-view bunkers with panoramic patios. All these offer a knowledge jolt, allowing guests to fully experience and learn about Italy’s architectural past. 

And then there are caves turned into apartments, like on the islands of Ponza and Palmarola off Rome’s coast, where prehistoric people once lived. These whitewashed grottos feature layered stone terraces overlooking the sea. And the cave rooms are naturally cool during hot summer days, which cuts down on electricity costs.

I believe the quest for such alternative stays proves how the pandemic has boosted the desire to experiment with trips which were not the first option before, as people now long for greater exclusivity and privacy and more opportunities to interact with their surroundings.

Member comments

  1. alberghi diffusi sound charming. Can you suggest ways to find these? I google the term, but don’t come up with much information.

  2. From other articles I’ve read about alberghi diffusi, they are pretty expensive, so not an option for many people.

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FOOD & DRINK

How Italy’s farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

As traditional crops fail, a rising number of farmers in southern Italy are turning crisis into opportunity by cultivating everything from avocado to ‘chocolate fruit’ and coffee. Silvia Marchetti looks at how the landscape is changing.

How Italy's farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

We’re all accustomed to seeing the Italian countryside characterized by ancient olive groves and vineyards, but a change in the rural landscape is occurring.

If you drive across southern Italy today you might be amazed to find exotic fruit plantations alongside the usual lemon and orange trees.

In the regions of Puglia, Calabria, and most of all Sicily, a rising number of farmers are adapting to climate change; or rather, they’ve learned how to exploit the impact of rising temperatures and have embraced non-traditional, non-indigenous fruit species.

They now grow bananas, mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, finger limes, pomelos and avocados, alongside lychees and even cocoa beans and coffee, replicating what is being done in tropical areas.

Sicilian bananas are popular among consumers in Italy. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I remember the first time I discovered and tasted a Sicilian black sapote: Italians call it ‘chocolate fruit’ and I love this weird persimmon that has a soft, dark Nutella-like pulp easy to spread on a slice of bread or scoop up with a spoon.

I walked into the supermarket, spotted this weird-looking dark apple, and as I grabbed it the lady at the counter told me I was buying Sicilian produce, which made me happy twice over because it was delicious and I was helping the local agriculture.

But the greatest surprise was when I discovered that my much-beloved Italian kiwi was the first exotic fruit grown in Italy, since the 1970s, particularly in the area of the city of Latina, Lazio, where there is a top kind of variety.

OPINION:

According to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti, there are currently 1,000 hectares of exotic fruit estates in Italy. The number has tripled in the last few years. 

And the great news is that Italians are eating more and more of their own exotic fruit with an annual consumption of 900,000 tonnes.

This ‘fruit revolution’ is good news in terms of cutting food miles and imports from tropical countries, while at the same time reducing the amount of pesticides we eat after they are used in transporting fruit to Italy.

The Italian plantations are still niche and experimental, so farmers are lobbying and campaigning to get extra funding from the state to help them really take off.

I think they do deserve help for the huge efforts they are making in transforming Italian agriculture. 

The ‘tropical experiment’ has been a real success so far and the farmers I spoke to are super satisfied with their results.

Sicilian farmer Rosolino Palazzolo shows off one of his coffee plants. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The Palazzolo brothers are two Sicilian farmers growing bananas, little bananas dubbed ‘bananito’, mango, passion fruit and papayas on the warm coast near the city of Palermo. They’re leading producers of tropical fruits which they ship across Italy and even abroad, and have seen demand for their made-in-Sicily produce grow over the last few years.

“We must thank this superb patch of land where the sea wind acts as a natural balm. We are extremely careful in that we don’t stress our plantations and have adopted a green approach”, says Rosolino Palazzolo. 

There are of course many challenges: first of all making sure that the fruit seeds, which come from the origin countries in South America or Asia, actually grow on the Italian soil. That is why many of these farmers start planting the seeds in a greenhouse and then once the plants start growing, transfer them onto the open-air terrain. 

Another important aspect is that most of this exotic fruit is organic so there’s no use of pesticides or chemicals.

Rosolino says they heal their tropical trees, when needed, with other plants and herbal remedies by applying so-called agro-homeopathy. 

He says Italian customers are much happier to buy Italian exotic fruit than the produce imported from abroad; they trust the domestic origin because it is easier to trace.

Rosolino Palazzolo holding his coffee seeds. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The last time I visited Mount Etna near Catania I could actually spot the yellowish plantations of avocado grown on the volcano’s black flanks where past lava flows of massive eruptions have made the soil extremely fertile.

This summer along the coast between Rome and Naples I discovered a small farm that grows finger lime, which is considered quite luxurious and elite, as well as being extremely expensive. 

It’s even called ‘lemon caviar’ and is used by top restaurants to prepare fresh fish dishes, usually it is sprinkled on top of raw shrimp as a substitute for ordinary lemon.

If temperatures continue to rise and we cannot stop disastrous climate change, at least this is one local positive: eating ‘homemade’ Italian papayas and bananas. And who knows what next: perhaps coconut?

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