It’s 8.30am on my first day in the town of Mottola when there’s a hammering at the door. “Giulia!” calls a man’s voice. “Giuuuuulia! I just wanted to give you una cosina before breakfast.”
I open up to find a beaming man with a beautifully manicured white moustache thrusting a package at me. For my first encounter with Osvaldo Zazzara, he has brought me warm, tomato-smeared focaccia, fresh from the bakery down the road. Who needs room service when you have this?
Osvaldo is part of a new breed of Italian hotelier — seemingly as keen on sharing their homes and traditions as they are on making money. His property, Villaggio Vecchia Mottola, is an albergo diffuso — a ‘scattered hotel’, created from rooms in empty or abandoned homes. Guests go to local cafes for their breakfast and the reception area is usually based in an office or shop.
My mother and I are staying in a cottage here, two minutes’ walk from Mottola’s main square. Osvaldo’s reception is his shop selling Pugliese products. It’s the perfect example of responsible tourism: visitors get to feel part of a community, while their money goes directly to small local businesses.
Alberghi diffusi are mushrooming across Italy, but they’ve found their spiritual home in Puglia, which teams with a wealth of empty housing, thanks to post-war emigration and the exodus from countryside to city. You’ll find them here in medieval fishing villages and the quintessential whitewashed, trullo-filled towns of the Itria Valley.
Unlike many other southern towns, Mottola isn’t on the tourist trail, and it’s fair to say it’s not as cute as the postcard-perfect Pugliese hilltop town of Ostuni. Nevertheless, the hill town boasts extraordinary views over Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria; hence why it’s known as ‘la spia dello Ionio’ (‘the spy of the Ionian Sea’). Plus its canyons are dotted with ancient homes hewn from the rock (admittedly not as spectacular as those at nearby Matera) and rock churches in with jaw-dropping medieval frescoes of saints whose almond eyes follow you around the room.
I stay three days in Mottola, with Osvaldo and his sidekick Mariagrazia calling me in for a chat every time I walk past (it feels like I spend as much time chatting as sightseeing, but that also feels very right). At the end of our stay, Mariagrazia tells my mum to keep the scarf she’d lent her, and Osvaldo presents me yet with another bag of focaccia.
As he helps us pack our car, Osvaldo tells me how important it is that his guests unwind. He wants them to realise they’re family, he says. If they seem overly formal on arrival, he’ll often kiss them — “to loosen them up”.
You didn’t look like you needed it, Osvaldo tells me, beaming like a proud father at the proto-Pugliese native I’ve become under his guidance. He directs a group selfie, hugs us, says goodbye. And then he and Mariagrazia wave us off, just as if we’re family.
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)