A ghost town might seem like the last place you’d want to spend the night, but a new breed of hotel is now thriving in previously abandoned villages. First emerging in Italy, the alberghi diffusi model (meaning ‘scattered hotel’) aims to provide a sustainable tourism model for rural villages suffering from population decline, a lack of viable industry or simply in need of a way to preserve valuable architecture.
The approach is working – Italy now has more than 100 alberghi diffusi across the country and a dedicated Alberghi Diffusi National Association. Scattered hotels have caught on in Asia, too, albeit with a greater focus on preserving historical communities in the face of rapid development.
One of the latest examples in Asia is Capella Shanghai, Jian Ye Li, which opened in September 2017. Located inside a traditional shikumen (a stone-gate residential complex), the hotel stretches across 22 alleyways – all part of the Hengfu cultural and heritage preservation zone, within the French Concession. This historic district was originally built in the 1930s by the Foncière et Immobiliere de Chine property company as a mid-upper-income merchants’ town, where both expats and Chinese traders lived side-by-side.
Over the years, the compound suffered severe structural damage. In an effort to preserve the architecture, the government earmarked the courtyard-style residential area as a protected zone in 2003, later enlisting hotel group Capella to take over the renovations. The two-year restoration process followed archive drawings and blueprints closely in order to retain the distinct East-meets-West architectural elements associated with shikumen estates, such as Chinese matou (‘horse head’) gables alongside Western-looking brick townhouses.
The hotel’s 55 villas and 40 serviced residences sit in the heart of the Xuhui district, which is alive with small restaurants, shops and people going about their everyday life – washing laundry, mending shoes and hawking food from street stalls.
A turn into the hotel grounds is, as it once was, a contrast to the everyday lives of Xuhui residents. Across the 2.3 hectare property, you’ll find romantic courtyards, gardens, a library and a spa. In a Capella-managed shopping and dining promenade right outside the resort, French chef Pierre Gagnaire has opened his first restaurant and bar on the Chinese mainland. Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire (below right) is an elevated all-day dining experience channelling old-world Parisian Shanghai in both the decor and menu.
Indonesian firm Jaya International designed the interiors of the villas, where Sino-French style takes the form of French furniture juxtaposed with Chinese artwork. Decked out in warm wood and serene green shades, each of the one- to three-bedroom villas includes a private courtyard, entertainment room, desk, rooftop terrace, marble bathroom and a dedicated butler to lean on during your stay. capellashanghai.com
Brickyard Retreat, Beijing
Not quite as new, but another notable project in China is Brickyard Retreat, near the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. This hotel is an excellent example of how to elevate a struggling community, preserve historic architecture and provide a luxurious home base for travellers at the same time.
While living in Beijing in the 1980s, Liang Tang and husband Jim Spear – a self-taught architectural designer – first visited Mutianyu. Lured by the fresh air and views of The Great Wall, the couple leased a village house and turned it into a modern home with a heritage-chic aesthetic, later moving there to live full-time. Spear continued to renovate village houses for private clients, and the local government took notice. Encouraged by the mayor to jumpstart the ailing economy with a sustainable tourism model, Tang and Spear transformed an old tile factory into the Brickyard Retreat, which comprises 25 rooms all facing The Great Wall as well as 11 independent houses scattered across four nearby villages. brickyardatmutianyu.com
Casale Panayiotis, Cyprus
During a trip to Cyprus last October, I was impressed by the government’s efforts to incentivise residents into renovating old village houses, largely left abandoned as young people moved to the cities. In most cases, it’s a family house here or there, renovated with funds from the government and then listed on Airbnb. But in the Troodos Mountains we found one of the most comprehensive village renovation projects.
The nearly abandoned spa city of Kalopanayiotis spills down a steep hillside in central Cyprus. The village was floundering due to a population haemorrhage in the 1900s, but founder (and former resident) John Papadouris wasn’t having it. To give travellers a reason to visit, he leased dozens of empty homes from their owners and renovated them in classic-contemporary vibes to create Casale Panayiotis. In addition, Papadouris built communal venues throughout the village, including a reception area, lounge, cafe, wine bar and a few destination restaurants with mountain views. casalepanayiotis.com
Italy’s first successful alberghi diffusi. In the 1990s, the tiny hill town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio struggled with a dramatic population decline, as young people moved to urban areas to pursue jobs. In 2005, the owners of Sextantio began renovating buildings across the area and repositioning the town as a charming countryside heritage experience for foreigners. While the 31 suites might look luxurious now, almost all of the rooms required extensive renovation – some converted from shepherds’ lodges, others pigsties. You’ll also find a series of former dungeons converted into a meeting room, a restaurant, a wine bar and a wedding venue. Over the past decade, the population has doubled as people move back to the area to open new restaurants and bars, and offer tourism experiences to visitors. santostefano.sextantio.it