Entering Portico di Romagna, a small village about 65 miles from Bologna in the Apennine hills on the old road connecting Ravenna with Florence, I felt as if I was seeing the Italy of a long time ago – one that I yearned to experience when I was growing up and dreaming of international destinations. With a population of just under 900 inhabitants, this was the perfect place to indulge my fantasy of living in a small town of Italy past.
Our previous day’s visit to Modigliana and Tredozio gave me a taste of village life, now I would be further immersed in it — in an even smaller village, staying at Al Vecchio Convento, an albergo diffuso.
So what is an albergo diffuso (or plural — alberghi diffusi)? Before I was invited to participate in a tour of hidden Emilia-Romagna, I hadn’t heard the term. Our blog tour organizer, Alessandra Catania, explained the concept and a further internet search brought up a 2010 New York Times article.
It’s an intriguing concept conceived by Giancarlo Dall’Ara (now president of Associazione Internazionale Alberghi Diffusi) in the 1980s. He wanted to introduce tourism to economically suffering Italian villages where in many cases the younger generations were moving out, leaving the villages to become stagnant or abandoned. His solution was to renovate existing buildings in the towns to become lodgings for visitors – offering comfortable accommodations and hotel-like services, while enabling the visitors to live among the locals, often in 17th-18th century gems, essentially becoming part of the village rather than a guest in a hotel. Visitors would also enjoy regionally-sourced food and wine, learn about local culture and history, and learn traditional crafts. I relished the opportunity to enjoy alberghi diffusi in two villages of Emilia-Romagna, beginning with a four night stay in Portico di Romagna.
Arriving in the afternoon, the village was quiet but for the sound of occasional footsteps on the cobblestones and a church bell that rang regularly on the hour. The few shops were closed until early evening. The windows of our third floor room opened onto the street with a direct view of Chiesa della Compangnia and the hills of Romagna to the left of it.
Al Vecchio Convento has a total of 15 rooms, 9 in the main building. We were staying in one of the units in an 18th century building just down Via Roma from the main hotel and restaurant. I watched passersby on the street and the residents of the home for the elderly who sat outside for a while each day. While walking along the street, I felt elated whenever someone cheerfully returned my “Buongiorno”!
Part of the family
Marisa Raggi and Giovanni Cameli opened Al Vecchio Convento as a restaurant in 1975 creating first-class, gourmet food of homemade local recipes — the type of cuisine still being served here. Today, with their sons, Massimiliano and Matteo, and their sons’ wives, Ulla and Camilla (not shown above), they also operate the hotel and albergo diffuso, the first that opened in Emilia-Romagana. True to Giancarlo’s intent, we felt like we were staying at a home in a village, not a hotel. We felt part of the family.
The meals were delectable, multi-course and expertly prepared and presented by Giovanni, the master chef, and his sons. Each dish was accompanied by the perfect wine from the area, selected by Massimiliano, who is also the sommelier. There was much laughter and conversation among those in our group, as well as with the family who served us course by course. I will always fondly associate Marisa’s voice and laughter with our time in Portico di Romagna.
There are many activities within the town and nearby. With Matteo as our guide/teacher, we hiked the National Park of the Casentinesi Forest, made bread in Al Vecchio Convento’s kitchen, went truffle hunting and got up close to a live, although very small, volcano. Others gave us tours of the town, talked about area history and welcomed us into their shops to talk and learn crafts. More to come on all of those activities.
Part of the Community
Our timing was also perfect to be part of one of Massimiliano’s special events, the Portico in Arte festival with art installations curated by Matteo Lucca. The night before the opening, we were treated to a private showing of artist Luca Freschi’s exhibit, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” after dinner. I couldn’t have felt more part of something special as we hurried from the restaurant (at 11 PM), down the narrow streets in the dark and across the Maestà Bridge to the chapel “for a surprise”, where we were to be the first to see the exhibit. Afterwards, we joined family and friends for wine and conversation at a table in their private dining room, everyone excited about the upcoming festivities.
The following day, Massimiliano kicked off the events in a ceremony in front of Chiesa di Santa Maria in Girone, an old church rarely opened to the public. Residents, officials and visitors gathered for speeches that highlighted the exhibitions as well as the importance of bringing the message of Portico to the world, a direct reference to our small blogging group. I felt enormously proud.
It felt a little sad when it was time to leave our “family” in Portico, but Marisa assured us that we would be finding friendly people everywhere we went in Emilia-Romagna. Marisa was right! Next stop — Verucchio.
There’s still much more about Portico di Romagna, Al Vecchio Convento, Portico in Arte festival, and our activites in the area. Stay tuned!
Disclosure: Thanks to Al Vecchio Convento for providing our accommodations, meals and activities. Thanks also to Alessandra of 21Grammy and Associazione Internazionale Alberghi Diffusi for making this project possible.