Sojourns in "Borghi" Offer a Sampling of Small-town Italian way of Life

December 18, 2020
When Italians take a vacation in their country, their choice of destination often is one of these: the sea, the mountains, a city renowned for its art treasures, or...a “borgo.”

Borghi, roughly translated as hamlets or villages, are very special to Italians. For some, a borgo might be the village their ancestors came from -- nestled in a valley, perched on a mountaintop, or at the seaside. For others, it is the town in the countryside they stumbled on one day -- a place on the byroads they stopped at to ask directions or get a pick-me-up coffee on a road trip -- and became instantly charmed and determined to linger, and return.

Part of a borgo's attraction is its reassuring simplicity. It's a compact, comforting place. Most have a bakery, a grocery shop, maybe a butcher shop. For borghi so small that there isn't a supermarket, a few times a week, a truck or perhaps a horse pulling a wagon will come through, loaded with fresh produce, or, if it's near the sea, a fishmonger, hawking the catch of the day in local dialect. Almost invariable there is a cafe -- or maybe two rival cafes -- and a church. This, being Italy, often the "local" church is a cathedral dating back several centuries and decorated with art from a series of civilizations.

Italians sometimes brag that their favorite borgo is the best in the country. For others, it's a best-kept secret. Reflecting a fervent search for hidden gems of a borgo, there's even a program on Italian state television that pits towns and hamlets in a competition to be declared the "borgo dei borghi'' -- the town to beat all towns. Viewers vote online to express their preferences after watching TV crews spend a couple of days in the towns and enjoying breathtaking panorama shots made by drone cameras.

Four of the last several winners have been borghi in Sicily. The sun-kissed Mediterranean island abounds in borghi. Too many of these borghi risk turning into quaint but uninhabited locales. Often far from bustling cities, many borghi have seen their youngest citizens migrate, leaving their hometowns in the hands of aging elders, who almost miraculously seem eternally nimble enough to navigate steep, stony paths linking neighbors' homes.

At least a handful of Sicilian borghi, determined to keep their population growing, have offered homes to be purchased for as little as 1 euro on the condition they be restored. Eager to attract retirees from abroad, along with their pension checks, some towns' buy-in plans have touted big tax breaks. Americans and Britons and other Europeans have been among those flocking to these "borghi" to see if they want retirement homes, second homes or even first homes.

For those not ready to move, bed-and-breakfasts places in borghi are plentiful, hospitable, lodgings, often with a mix of antique furnishing and modern accouterments. While many tourists base themselves in more well-known larger towns, say, Lucca or Siena in Tuscany, Parma or Ferrara in Emilia Romagna, or Matera in Basilicata, and then set out to meander through nearby borghi, it's fun to flip the arrangement around. Stay in a borgo and make it your jumping-off point to explore the better-known towns.

Sampling daily life with a stay in a borgo is an experience. Locals welcome visitors, both because tourism has become an economic mainstay, but also because they genuinely are flattered outsiders have come great distances to learn about their way of life.

Some of the walled towns have farms just outside the borgo's limits. In the case of Liguria, with several enticing borghi dotting the coastline -- the perennial popular Cinque Terre are essentially five borghi clustered near the sea -- vineyards are often close by. A stay in late summer or early autumn can mesh into an opportunity to watch grapes picked on terraced lands, seemingly impossibly carved out of steep hillsides.

The name of at least one borgo evokes fables. Collodi, in Tuscany, not far from Lucca or Pistoia, became the home to Pinocchio's Park. The name of the town became the pseudonym of the author of the children's story about the wooden puppet who came to life.

Other possibilities for a borgo stay take you right into the heart of a region, like the towns of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano in Basilicata, in the mountainous ''instep" of the Italian peninsula. For the brave of heart, there is a cable car that zips over dizzying heights between both towns.

A testimony to Italy's being steeped in centuries of different, and sometimes, overlapping civilizations and cultures, even the tiniest of borghi can offer amazing variety for visitors: perhaps an ancient Jewish or Arabic quarter, medieval neighborhoods, archaeological ruins from Roman times, exquisite wood carvings in churches on windswept hills, mosaics in abbeys, castles and towers to reward hikers at the end of a path.

Borghi are also proud of their pageants, with townspeople turning out in medieval or renaissance-styled costumes. And they like to boast that their breads -- or maybe their biscotti -- are different from any other towns in Italy.

Borghi are so familiar to the Italian way of life that even the chaotic capital of Rome has one. The neighborhood known, yes, as Borgo, lies just outside Vatican City walls and is a quaint corner of the city, with little traffic. Shopkeepers and artisans seem to all know each other and the residents as well, giving Borgo a small-town flavor that has survived for centuries, beyond the well-trodden streets and piazzas of the city.