MAKE LIKE A LOCAL
In a remote region of northern Italy, residents have taken a pragmatic approach to tourist accommodation, finds Frank Partridge
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, misprintprone name wanted to preserve its obscurity by putting us off 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 lady’s boot, FVG is at the point where you might catch a glimpse of stocking, just above the knee. Geographically speaking, it’s northeast 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.
Through 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 World War I, the city was annexed to Italy in 1920, annexed again by the Germans in 1943, became a free territory after World War II 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, 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 more than 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 known territory: the ski slopes include the renowned 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 sustained the worst damage and an international aid effort was required to put the region back on its feet.
Today, as you admire Gemona’s double ring of medieval walls and romanesque cathedral, it’s hard to imagine a cataclysm occurred here.
Another success story in the recovery plan is the region’s uniquely inventive way of accommodating its tourists: the albergo
Mountain magic: Tarvisio’s cathedral, cloaked in winter snow 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 Mt Zoncolan; in summer, they walk, cycle or horse-ride in the wooded foothills. I find my way to the village centre as night is falling. Eager to find my albergo , I am directed to reception, which turns out to be a busy office in a cobbled courtyard, unconnected to anything else: all that is missing is a hotel to go with it.
‘‘ Yes, we have your booking,’’ says Anna Lisa, the receptionist, between dealing with inquiries by phone and email. ‘‘ Your apartment is a five-minute walk across the village.’’ She takes a copy of my credit card, draws a diagram of the route, hands me a key and leaves me to it. Mine is one of 40 apartments of varying sizes scattered across the village within easy reach, belonging to the community-owned society that runs Sutrio’s albergo diffuso . Ordinarily, an alpine settlement of barely 1000 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, is rated one pine; the two-pine option would have secured a traditional property with rustic furnishings and three pines would have added luxuries such as satellite television, DVD player, microwave oven and dishwasher. But I wouldn’t have needed those things: there is too much going on.
Straightaway I am immersed in the everyday life of an Italian mountain village. Roused by the church bells, I tuck into freshly delivered breakfast in a basket while families in neighbouring apartments organise themselves for the day ahead.
Dogs bark, cars and scooters cough into life, children make their noisy way to school and shop shutters are raised. On the southern skyline, Mt Amariana gives us our weather forecast. The villagers call the mountain Marian, thinking of it 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 note, squinting into the sun to make out the snow-covered summit.
To sample my second albergo diffuso I drive 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 1400m, the highest settlements in FVG.
Until the road replaced the mule track in the 1930s, they were so isolated that inhabitants developed their own language, known as Saurano.
In Sauris, my apartment in a traditional two-storey house is beautifully appointed, with handmade furniture. An inviting trattoria is close by, but the village has a magical atmosphere and demands 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 beer. The ham factory offers a guided tour and a taste of the product.
I admire 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, explains how Sauris was once a rest stop on a medieval pilgrimage route across the mountains to Austria. Every turn in the road reveals another extraordinary view of the valley, carpeted with crocuses and rhododendrons, or of the magnificent mountains, with their steep escarpments.
I walk back up the hill, amazed at what you can discover if your hotel belongs to a community instead of standing apart from it, relishing the prospect of a warm fire and the chatter at an inn in a corner of Europe where conflict has 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 the website spells Friuli Venezia Giulia’s name wrong. Everybody does it, after all. The Independent The albergodiffuso in Sutrio is Borgo Soandri; in Sauris, it’s Borgo San Lorenzo. Prices typically start from about j18 ($30) a person a night. ■ www.albergodiffuso.org ■ ww.albergodiffusosauris.com ■ www.turismo.fvg.it
Home comforts: The picturesque alpine village of Sauris in the Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia has embraced the concept of the scattered hotel, with guests staying at community-owned apartments