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.
Looks like a wonderful option for both the visitors and the locals.—sort of a cross between a B&B and a small parador.
It was a totally special experience. Maybe somewhat like a B&B + parador, but the scattered aspect of the lodgings and most importantly, the interacting with the locals was quite different, I think.
I really like the idea of staying in a small community where you can be part of the party.
It’s an awesome concept and an experience that I was thrilled to part of.
I’m so glad you experienced that real Italy! It’s truly something special. We live in a small village with a population around 1400, so very similar to what you describe. I’m sure it’s entirely different and things would be much easier if we lived in a big city like Venice or Rome, but we enjoy the experience. And our favorite places in Italy are the truly hidden villages completely off the tourist path.
I hope I get to visit more small villages of Italy in much the same way. Actually, it sounds like maybe your village would be a good place to see. 🙂
What a charming setting, Cathy, and that’s a great accommodation concept, too. And once again, it’s plain that the people and the food are an integral part of the experience. I’m waiting for more…
Ah, yes. Food and people — a big part of what makes travel so great.
It looks like you had a really great time, and this place is definitely one to take in consideration when in the area. So many beautiful places to see, and a friendly family-host:)
I’ve known friendly hosts/hotel managers in places before, but never had this feeling of being part of the family and village. It would be wonderful to experience that again. Now knowing about Alberghi Diffusi, I know it’s possible.
I love small villages and I love the concept of albergo diffuso. What a wonderful experience you had – immersing with the locals and the village life. This is my kind of trip. Will keep this in mind next time I travel to Italy.
Definitely keep it in mind. New Alberghi Diffusi are opening throughout Italy, too.
Super! I already want to this village, especially because Italy is my favorite country.
I can see why Italy might be your favorite country. I always avoid stating “favorites” but Italy is sure with the countries at the top of my list!
Looking at the photos, Portico di Romagna looks like the perfect small town in Italy to live.
Just visiting there you almost feel like you live there — at least that was our experience and we were only there for a few days!
This place is amazing! anything community and food gets my nod…
Ha! Yes, food is a wonderful thing about travel and the food here was truly amazing. We’ll have more to come about that.
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I love visiting tiny towns like this in Italy and getting to know the locals who live there. We did something like this in Tuscany and it is one of my favorite experiences to date.
Oh, Tuscany is a region I want to visit. After being in these small villages, I can imagine how cool that was for you.
Hi, Cathy! I have a friend who lives nearby, and this post has given me one more reason to go for a visit!
This looks like a really charming village. I love it when you can be part of the community / family you stay with as this really adds a personal touch to your trip.
I love staying at places like this where you can have a hyper local experience! Portico di Romagna sounds divine.
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Ah this is the sort of Italy I would love to visit! Thank you for taking us along – I enjoyed every minute of it. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. Another place to add to my travel wish list! And thank you for stopping by my blog today.
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Oh, fun! You were there with Cathy. Sounds like a fun trip.
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Looks like an amazing authentic experience! That’s great you were able to be a part of the family and be Italian for a little while! Thanks for sharing!
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