“Alberghi diffusi” in Switzerland: Quiet and almost forgotten

The Italian concept of reviving lonely places through “scattered hotels” has arrived in Switzerland. Something should be going on in Corippo soon.

The village of Corippo in Ticino's Verzasca Valley

The village of Corippo in Ticino’s Verzasca Valley Photo: Daniel Schoenen/imago

You have to find the village of Corippo in Ticino first. After a number of train delays, I just catch the last bus, which climbs up a number of serpentines from Tenero on Lake Maggiore late in the evening. After twenty or thirty minutes he releases me at the Corippo Bivio stop into the night darkness. If my host Jeremy Gehring didn’t pick me up, I would now have to walk up an unlit, winding country road with my luggage.

Arriving in the village, the landlord accompanies me to my room in one of the rustici: thick walls, low ceilings, a large bed, a small wet room. No table, chair or closet. Everything made of solid materials, tasteful but spartan. Instead, the next day I can see green vegetation and blue mountains from my small balcony.

Below, houses made of granite blocks crouch under roofs made of stacked stone slabs. Silence. Only interrupted by the frequent chimes. For whom do you think the bell rings so often? This is how Angiolina, Martino, Siro or Luigino, who once lived in Corippo and after whom the hotel rooms are named, used to find out what time it was. When the village still had up to 315 inhabitants, they farmed, but life became more and more difficult, so many emigrated to California or Australia.

When a few Italians posted a video of the Verzasca Valley on YouTube in 2017, where they plunged into the emerald-colored pools of the mountain river, the tranquility in the Ticino valley was over. Tens of thousands came the following weekend to see “Le Maldive di Milano” – the Milanese Maldives, as they cheekily called the small piece of Switzerland near Lavertezzo.

Almost exclusively day tourists

“The whole place, everything was parked up,” recalls an older man from the village. “There was a huge traffic chaos.” Meanwhile, the excitement has subsided. But on beautiful summer days, countless adventurous people still come to jump into the water from the Ponte dei salti, the photogenic bridge from the 17th century, to chill on the polished rocks and to be admired by Swabian tour groups.

After all, one would think, this brought life to the remote valley near Locarno and ensured the livelihood of the inhabitants. But far from it. Almost exclusively day tourists come to Lavertezzo. “They usually bring their sandwiches from home, take their selfies and drive off again,” says Jeremy Gehring, who runs an Alberghi diffuso here. “In any case, they drive past Corippo.” The neighboring village is not only one of the most beautiful villages in the Verzasca Valley in his opinion.

Jeremy Gehring and Désirée Voitle moved here with their little son at the beginning of 2022, increasing the population by thirty percent and at the same time dramatically reducing the average age in the aging town. They have come to run Switzerland’s first official Albergo diffuso, which opened in spring 2022. “We’ve wanted to have a restaurant or hotel for a long time and heard about the project on the radio,” explains the trained Swiss chef. He has already worked in France, Italy and Peru, while his wife, who is from Lille, has relevant experience in the hotel sector.

The concept of reviving endangered sites through “scattered hotels” or hostels originated in Italy. When there was a severe earthquake in Friuli, many residents left their villages. The houses fell into disrepair and with them a considerable architectural heritage. In order to persuade the residents to rebuild the buildings, it was suggested that they set up holiday rooms. They could use this to finance part of the construction costs. They should be complemented by a trattoria, a bakery or another central building in the village where visitors can be fed and at the same time come into contact with the villagers.

There have long been Alberghi diffusi in all parts of Italy. The member companies of the Italian association Associazione Nazionale Alberghi Diffusi (ADI) are spread from Abruzzo to Umbria to Sardinia. They combine the charm of historical, often medieval buildings with holistic, resource-saving tourism. In its 20-year success story, the association has steadily gained new members. Because while many big cities are bursting at the seams, the rural exodus has depopulated countless villages.

Not only does this mean that the sometimes rich architectural heritage is decaying. The quality of life of the remaining people is also becoming increasingly precarious. A problem that does not only affect Italy. The Italian model has also caught the attention of other countries. Even in Japan there are one or two associate members of the association. In addition, several such projects have been started in Switzerland. “However, not all of them meet the conditions to receive the association’s label,” explains Marco Molinari, President of the Corippo Foundation. The term Albergo diffuso is not protected.

Good conditions in Corippo

But according to the Italian concept, the place in question not only has to have a historically more or less preserved building structure, but also an osteria, a restaurant with a reception, i.e. a kind of service center with common areas that can be reached on foot from the scattered rooms. This is to ensure that guests and villagers come into contact with each other.

Corippo offered good conditions for this. But it took several years before it finally happened. The Fondazione Corippo, the Corippo Foundation, was founded in 1976 to preserve the village and fill it with new life. It had previously been selected as a historic settlement in the 1975 European Year for the Preservation of Monuments and Cultural Heritage to represent Switzerland. With capital from the federal government and the canton of Ticino, specific projects such as sewage systems or parking spaces at the entrance to the village were financed – in the hope that young families would settle there. “But we didn’t make it,” admits Molinari. Instead, the inhabitants have gotten older and have migrated further.

At the end of the 1990s, the foundation tried to turn Corippo into a Reka holiday village. But the concept, which envisaged an expansion with a large reception building and new structural elements, would not have been compatible with the architectural tradition and was not approved. As a result, the entire Board of Trustees resigned. After a period of perplexity, the new board of trustees came up with the idea of ​​an Albergo diffuso and sought subsidies. After all, it was an investment of around four million Swiss francs.

Once the funding was in place, construction work began in 2020 under the direction of the late architect Fabio Giacomazzi. They were delayed again by the pandemic, but the Albergo diffuso was finally able to open in April 2022. Twelve buildings were bought for this purpose, and ten rooms with 22 beds were set up, with more to follow. The formerly closed osteria has been converted into a restaurant with a reception, and the old mill and stone terraces have been restored. But the holistic concept is also about landscape maintenance.

Marco Molinari talks about other projects. The chestnut forest is to be restored and fruit trees planted. “We also want to revive agriculture and traditional culture and set a production cycle in motion,” he says, looking to the future. In addition to corn, you can plant rye, for example, which is ground into flour in the old mill and then made into bread in the restored oven. The foundation also wants to buy a private drying hut in order to preserve chestnuts, which are part of the region’s traditional food.

But first the Albergo diffuso has to prove itself. According to the operators, things got off to a better start than expected. Many Swiss people were made curious by the media reports, but guests from Germany, Italy and even a family from India also came. Jeremy Gehring is convinced that “due to the pandemic, more and more people simply want to go on vacation away from civilization”. “But the challenge is the winter. We want to remain open more or less all year round, also to give our employees work,” adds his wife.

Hiking, swimming, mountain biking

And what are the guests doing in Corippo? “Hiking, swimming, mountain biking, reading, enjoying the peace and quiet…” lists the restaurateur. Without mentioning its excellent food, which I’m sure is important for many. The same applies to the PostBus, which heads for the other towns in the Verzasca Valley and Locarno on Lake Maggiore almost every hour. The use of public transport for overnight guests is free throughout Ticino.

So I can discover the wild mountain valley without a car. Although it is much nicer to set off on foot. I start walking straight away from Corippo, climb the hiking trail next to the Verzasca via Lavertezzo to Brione. Here there and old rustici, the typical stone houses, waterfalls, deep gorges and bizarre granite rocks, between which the turquoise-green water of the mountain river meanders. Eventually I arrive in Sonogno, the last archaic village in the valley with a well-done little museum.

Yes, yes: the concept of the Albergo diffuso convinces me. But what do the local residents say? I hear some are skeptical. At first they didn’t believe that the project that had been talked about for years would actually come to fruition. Then they were annoyed by the construction work. Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman who moved to Corippo from Lucerne more than a decade ago is happy that he can finally drink his wine and eat so well in the osteria. But whether the Albergo diffuso works in the long run remains to be seen. For the standard that the rooms offer, the prices, which start at around two hundred euros, are quite high. “Other than that, it’s wonderful here,” is his summary. “You have everything you need. There is the Internet, and if you want culture, you can quickly get to Locarno, Lugano or Milan.”

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