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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering