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Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reaching for the stars in Italy

New concept in sustainable hospitality - the very personal Italian way to support rural destinations

Innovative Italian concept of diffused hotel combines with history of powerful widespread Italian emigres to ensure village hospitality revival.

Picinisco is a hill town in Lazio near to Monte Cassino. It is one of the entrances to the National Park of Abruzzo. In 2017 it will celebrate 1000 years since its first mention in written records - although the history of the area is much, much older.

Described as Italy's little Switzerland or as a jewel in the mountains, Picinisco attracts visitors (and especially families of émigrés) back from Venezuela, Belgium, France and especially the uk - and in particular Scotland.

In June 2012 after 18 months of planning and a further 18 months of work Scottish lawyer Cesidio Di Ciacca, family and friends  opened Sotto Le Stelle as an "Albergo Diffuso"   with 6 suites.

This is the first phase of a project - the second being the restoration of a small hamlet and surrounding vineyard which was progresively abandoned between 100 and 40 years ago. We hope to create a vineyard, agriturismo with a twist (to include a centro di benessere), including the raising of traditional black pigs in the forest and a "living museum", if possible.

Cesidio is, with others, trying to promote this area to encourage investment. It is an area of history, nature and tradition which was at one time a popular stop over on the Grand Tour and is now largely forgotten.

The Albergo Diffuso concept is clearly ideal for this sort of sensitive development. The innovative concept of hospitality was launched in Italy in the early 1980s as a means of reviving small, historic Italian villages and town centres off the usual tourist track. Almost impossible to translate literally into English, the "widespread hotel" is conceived as a hotel that is not in a single block, but converted out of various historic buildings in a small community. It has to conform to the following requisites:

  • Run directly by an individual owner and providing normal hotel services
  • Rooms distributed in existing converted buildings in historic centres
  • Central reception area with cafe and food available
  •  Part of a genuine community so that guests can be part of local life

To date, there are 40 Italian "Alberghi Diffusi" grouped under a National Association and 13 Italian regions have adopted legislation regulating the concept. Interest in the "Albergo Diffuso" has also been shown abroad, with Croatia and Switzerland adopting the formula in their own territory. Corsica is expected to shortly follow suit.

Said Cesidio: "I was born in Scotland, although my father had been born in Italy and brought here when quite young. I was brought up in a small fishing village outside Edinburgh, called Cockenzie.

"There has always been a strong sense of being a little different - I suppose an Italian name does that - but so does the fact that my mother largely kept an Italian table at home and our wider family was important  - a visit by cousins and aunts and uncles, most of whom lived far away, was always a reason for a celebration!

"In any event, Picinisco held some romantic notion for us as children.  Being the eldest of eight children, I visited irregularly. The first time when I was 9 with my grandmother who spent 4 months in Picinisco every year and then again when I was 17. My wife and I spent a bit of our honeymoon there and tried to visit every year thereafter even for a coffee to meet a cousin, who was brought up in Glasgow or friends - many of whom were visiting from Scotland."

"In any event some 3 years ago, when business suddenly gave me more time on my hands, I persuaded my wife that we should buy a small apartment in the village. What I found was a building abandoned 30 years ago after an earthquake had caused much internal damage. "

"We subsequently found it had been built onto one of the original watchtowers of the town sometime around 1,000 AD and then rebuilt in the 14th Century before taking its current structural form in 1711.  We decided it was far too big for us but that it made sense to re-develop the building. At first I planned a sort of time share, but the local mayor persuaded me of the need to create an hotel. There had been a hotel in the village but it had closed a dozen years before suffering from the same earthquake damage and a lack of repair and maintenance since then. "

"After some debate we decided that we should create mini- apartments - suites - which would provide kitchens and sitting rooms to every guest - we get tired eating out all the time when we travel. We also decided that we should aim at a high level of quality both to avoid taking business from the local bed and breakfast but also because we were convinced we could attract a wealthy clientele back to the area. Val Comino and Picinisco in particular has an incredible history - pre Roman, post Roman with the Benedictine Abbeys, medieval, Pre Napoleonic with paper making and then post unification."

"Finally, we determined no bar or restaurant. Yes it would be difficult to manage and challenging explaining to guests that they would have to eat or drink outside the hotel, but having grown up behind a counter in a small holiday village, I understood who difficult it was for the existing businesses to make a living and how our competing wouldn't help."

"Aided by a fantastic and enthusiastic architect Assunta D'Andrea from Gaeta who now lives in Rome and a really professional team which she introduced including a great builder, Walter Menicchini, who works only in historic buildings,  I learned all about the requirements of the Italian authorities responsible for Belle Arte as well as the workings of the local communes.  Follow the rules, explain your position in a professional manner, suffer the bureaucracy and you will get there much quicker than you could imagine. Buck the system and lose….

"Arch. D'Andrea introduced a concept I had not heard about - Albergho Diffuso. Very Italian. Very different. Very Obvious. Help small towns by spreading the benefits. "

"Yes there were regulations to satisfy and criteria to meet, but Sotto Le Stelle managed. The professional team were very disappointed that the renewable criteria they met did not meet any of the recognised standards - largely because the standards were designed for new buildings and not for structures that are somewhere between 300 and 1000 years old."

"In any event, Albergo Diffuso Sotto Le Stelle, Picinisco has become a point of reference for many people and organisations in Val Comino and in the Region of Lazio as being an example not only of regeneration but also something which seeks to maintain sustainability - not only within the physical structure or with energy but more importantly within the community. Jobs to locals; four local restaurants using genuine local traditional biological products finding a new market; old walkways being cleaned; cycletrails being opened; a new buzz in the piazza; other projects being discussed; a new start for an old attraction."

"In the meantime, I have started to look at my next project, which is the restoration of a hamlet abandoned between 50 and 100 years ago just 1km from Picinisco. Called I Ciacca - in fact the church records prove my family have lived here for at least 500 years - there are 2,500 sq metres of buildings, without one singe stone being worked or carved. Here were homes for farm workers - and with it about 25 hectares of abandoned vineyard, olive grove, orchard and market garden."

"The project aims to restore all of these to the highest modern standards but in a manner, which bears tribute to tradition and the community and seeks to create a truly sustainable model farm. I cant do this alone so my aim is to do it in a variety of consortia with locals - each playing to their own strengths and experience, while aiming at markets in Europe's capitals. There, genuine traditional quality products will achieve a premium value and at the same time bring some of the benefits of the community and the area to the attention of frequent European travellers with high levels of disposable income, who may wish to visit this forgotten Shangri-la."

"If I succeed, with the assistance of friends and family, the community who are supporting me and the region who see a breath of change, I shall create not only jobs for local young people, who otherwise have to leave for work, but we have also found a great place for our family to grow up. "

Valere Tjolle

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