Italy's 'scattered hotels': Lodging like a local

In a remote, mountainous region of northern Italy, residents have taken a pragmatic approach to tourist accommodation. Frank Partridge books a room in a 'scattered hotel'

Friuli Venezia Giulia doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Tucked away in a corner of Italy that is not wholly Italian, it's the smallest, least populated and least visited of all the country's regions. It's as if the people who gave it such an unpronounceable, misprint-prone name wanted to preserve its obscurity by putting us off the idea of visiting. No such luck.

So where is this triple-barrelled place, which the cognoscenti know as FVG? If you imagine Italy as a full-length ladies boot, FVG is at the point where you might catch a glimpse of stocking, just above the knee. Geographically speaking, it's north-east of Venice, south of the Austrian province of Carinthia and west of the Slovenian Alps. In other words, it's at the point where three of the great European cultures – Latin, Germanic and Slavic – come together.

Down the years, this unusual collision of civilisations has been the source of much conflict and change, illustrated by the wildly fluctuating fortunes of the regional capital, Trieste. Belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire until it disintegrated after the First World War, the city was annexed to Italy in 1920, annexed again by the Germans in 1943, became a free territory after the Second World War, and was returned to Italy only in 1954, occupying a somewhat perilous position a few kilometres from Tito's Yugoslavia and the Communist Bloc. Today, at last, both Trieste and FVG are secure. The neighbouring Austrians and Slovenians are close friends: you barely notice the frontier as you pass from one country to another.

One of the beauties of the region is the speed at which the horizon changes as you follow the central autostrada from south to north. In a little over an hour, you cruise from the strip of golden Adriatic beaches that curve around the Gulf of Trieste towards Venice, through the agricultural, vine-rich plains of the centre, to the high meadowlands and jagged, corrugated Alpine peaks of the Italy/Austria/Slovenia border country.

For winter sports-lovers, this is not unknown territory: the ski slopes include the legendary Prampero run at Tarvisio. The heart and soul of the mountain country comprise the hardy, remote communities that have somehow kept going in the face of nature's overwhelming odds.

FVG is not only a region of borderlines: it is riddled with geological fault lines. In 1976 it suffered a series of earthquakes that flattened 11 Alpine villages, with a heavy loss of life. The medieval town of Gemona suffered the worst damage, and an international aid effort was required to put the region back on its feet. But three decades on, as you admire Gemona's double ring of mediaeval walls and Romanesque cathedral it's hard to imagine that a cataclysm occurred here. Another success story in the recovery plan is the region's uniquely inventive way of accommodating its tourists: the albergo diffuso, or "scattered hotel".

Sutrio is an intimate, picturesque settlement nearly 600m above sea level, known as the "carpenters' village" for the skill of its wood-carvers, who turn out furniture and handicrafts from their homespun workshops.

Winter visitors come to ski on nearby Mount Zoncolan; in summer, they walk, cycle or horse-ride in the wooded foothills. I found my way to the village centre as night was falling. Eager to find my albergo, I was directed to "reception", which turned out to be a busy office in a cobbled courtyard, unconnected to anything else: all that was missing was a hotel to go with it. "Yes, we have your booking," said Anna Lisa, the receptionist, in between dealing with inquiries by phone and e-mail. "Your apartment is a five-minute walk across the village." She took a copy of my credit card, drew a diagram of the route, handed me a key – and left me to it.

Mine was one of 40 apartments of varying sizes scattered around the village within easy reach, belonging to the community-owned society that runs Sutrio's albergo diffuso. Ordinarily, an Alpine settlement of barely 1,000 inhabitants would be unable to sustain a conventional hotel: Sutrio is one of seven remote communities to have created alberghi diffusi out of the properties left empty by the population drift to the city.

Local communes take 10-year leases on the properties, renovate them, rent them out to tourists, and hand them back to the owners at the end of the term. Everyone gains: the villages can put up more tourists; visitors can enjoy hotel-standard comforts at a budget price, and the owners have their second homes done up free of charge.

Fittingly, in a region that has relied on the tree for its survival, alberghi diffusi are categorised as one, two or three pines. My place, with a fully equipped kitchen, in an unassuming, modern block, was rated one pine; the two-pine option would have secured a traditional property with rustic furnishings; three pines would have added such luxuries as satellite TV, DVD player, microwave oven and dishwasher. But I wouldn't have needed those things: there was too much going on.

Straight away I was immersed in the everyday life of an Italian mountain village. Roused by the church bells, I tucked into the freshly delivered breakfast in a basket while families in neighbouring apartments organised themselves for the day ahead.

Dogs barked; cars and scooters coughed into life; children made their noisy way to school; shop shutters were raised. On the southern skyline, Monte Amariana gave us our weather forecast. The villagers call the mountain "Marian", thinking of her as a woman who some days dons a hat (of clouds, signifying bad weather approaching), and on others goes bare-headed (a fine day in prospect). "When Marian has her hat on, drop the scythe and pick up the rake," farmhands used to be warned at harvest-time, to keep the hay dry. There would be no need for the rake today, I noted, squinting into the sun to make out the snow-covered summit.

To sample my second albergo diffuso I drove west, skirting the Lumiei Valley on a 30km mountain road of switchback turns, tunnels and bridges to reach Sauris, a collection of Alpine hamlets rising to 1,400m – the highest settlements in FVG. Until the road replaced the mule track in the 1930s they were so isolated that the inhabitants developed their own language, known as Saurano.

In Sauris, my apartment in a traditional two-storey house was beautifully appointed, with handmade furniture. An inviting trattoria was close by, but the village had a magical atmosphere and demanded to be explored first.

Sauris is renowned for its distinctive prosciutto: cured ham smoked over beech wood, spiced with juniper and herbs, and ideally accompanied by locally brewed, wholemeal beer. The ham factory offered a guided tour and a taste of the product. I admired the church of St Oswald, with its exquisite wooden altar carved and gilded in 1524.

Up the road, an ethnographic museum, converted from an old hayloft, explained how Sauris was once a rest-stop on a medieval pilgrimage route across the mountains to Austria. Every turn in the road revealed another extraordinary view – of the valley, carpeted with crocuses and rhododendrons, or of the magnificent mountains, with their steep escarpments.

I walked back up the hill, amazed at what you discover if your hotel belongs to a community instead of standing apart from it, relishing the prospect of a warm fire and the evening chatter of the inn – in a corner of Europe where conflict has, at last, been convivially resolved.

Indeed, the three border communities share a website – www.playingtogether.com – aimed at encouraging visitors to try them all: "Breakfast in Italy, lunch in Slovenia, supper in Austria."

Relations do not appear to have been strained by the fact that the website spells Friuli Venezia Giulia's name wrong. Everybody does it, after all.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Trieste.

Staying there

The albergo diffuso in Sutrio is Borgo Soandri. Book at Via Roma 56 (00 39 0433 778 921; www.albergodiffuso.org). Prices start from €16 (£12) per person per night.

In Sauris, the albergo diffuso is called Borgo San Lorenzo (Fr. Sauris de Sopra 7/G (00 39 0433 86221; www.albergodiffusosauris.com). From €18.50 (£14) pp per night.

Visiting there

The prosciutto factory in Sauris (00 39 0433 86054; www.wolfsauris.it) organises tours and free tastings.

More information

www.turismo.fvg.it; 00 39 0432 734100

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