We kicked back at Relais del Maro – an Italian idyll set to the sound of church bells.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
Borgomaro epitomises the laid-back, sun-drenched, tranquil Italian charm that fills the dreams of incurable romantics. Nestled amidst steep, verdant hills, it is accessed by a winding hill road — as most of Italy’s best surprises seem to be.
Children kick a football in the cobbled town square on long afternoons, bouncing it with little reverence between the nearby fresh fruit and vegetable stall; against the faded, raw sienna walls of the church.
The piazza is overlooked by traditional houses, painted an array of worn yellows, pinks and oranges. Uneven stone streets zigzag up the hillside towards the trees and, ultimately, the brightest of blue skies.
On the opposite bank of the river which splits the village, men sip bitter coffee at roadside tables, families spill out of the buzzing pizzeria and visitors amble into the reddish pink-painted Casa Madre: once a butcher’s shop — the sign remains proudly on display outside — and now home to the fabulous Relais del Maro.
Elena – owner and unfailingly friendly host – is a veritable tour de force. Having grown up in the hotel industry, and spent time living in Milan, London and Sydney, she returned only a few years ago to this quaint and quiet town, where her mother, Piera, was born. Back in Borgomaro, she somehow fell into — she sounds surprised and delighted at this point — creating her own albergo diffuso.
Relais del Maro’s fourteen rooms are thus scattered about the village: some in Casa Madre, Elena’s grandmother’s house; others in Casa nel Borgo, once the home of her great-aunt, across the charming, single-carriageway bridge which connects the river’s banks; and the final two up the hill, in that maze of tiny streets.
We are greeted brightly, warmly, and with friendly efficiency, in the charming reception. Following Elena across the little bridge and past the church, we settle swiftly into our beautiful mezzanine room, tucked into the renovated and artfully decorated Casa nel Borgo.
Luxury and environmental-awareness fuse seamlessly: from the ‘bio’ switch next to the bed, which allows us to eliminate all electrical power in the room, to the spacious rain shower heated by solar panels, care has been taken to ensure that the sustainable ethos is present throughout.
Life, here, is very much in the detail. From the guide to local restaurants, olive presses and vineyards, which guests are given upon arrival, to the stacks of Aunt Bruna’s biscuits on offer at complimentary afternoon tea – not to mention the warmth of every member of staff we encounter throughout our four-day stay.
Coffee preferences — cinnamon-dusted cappuccinos filling pretty cups — are effortlessly remembered, restaurant recommendations are offered and reservations swiftly made, as guests are invited to relax, to soak up and savour a slice of rural Liguria at its best.
Breakfast is a feast. The buffet table in the dining room of Casa Madre is laden with local produce: brimming with a sumptuous spread that includes freshly baked bread, bio yogurts, olive tapenade, smoked fish, tempting cheeses – and more.
We nibble on homemade cakes each afternoon, accompanied by a satisfying selection of teas. Elena is a self-confessed tea lover and, feeling starved of the good stuff on this coffee-mad Continent, we are entranced.
We spend a whirlwind few days exploring Liguria: venturing to the striking port city of Imperia, ambling through picture-perfect villages and gorging ourselves on tasting menus of seasonal specialities at family-run restaurants, such as the lovely Trattoria dalla Etta.
The tastefully appointed and incredibly cosy common sitting rooms are the ideal place to curl up with a book and a cup of tea from the carefully-equipped mini-kitchen, hidden in a wooden cupboard in our room; the balcony atop Casa nel Borgo a wonderful spot to sip a glass of local red and gaze out at the soaring church spire; and the pool-side loungers in the gorgeous garden of Casa Madre make snoozing in the sunshine all-too-tempting.
The focus on local produce, traditional businesses and rejuvenating this small part of Liguria’s hinterland is admirable. The albergo diffuso concept, centred upon using what is already there – incorporating history into the everyday and championing sustainable development to benefit the community – leaves one wondering why one might ever stay at any other kind of hotel.
Set up by a family whose roots are here, this is a place at the very heart of a village, and one which is giving it new life. Locals, Elena explains, originally had little faith in the project: “Why would people want to come here?” they wondered.
Five years on, regulars wander in for a morning coffee, white-clad brides have stepped over the little bridge from the reception to the church, and many guests are choosing to return again and again.
Elena and her team — of just eight or so local women — have created a real oasis: a place which feels like a wonderfully familiar — albeit far more luxurious — version of home.
Travel is undoubtedly a journey of discovery: of new landscapes, cultures, people, food and history. Some places, however far from home they may be, make a first-time arrival seem like a return; a reunion, of sorts. Such is the case at Relais del Maro.
Ensconced in a stylish armchair in the sunshine, strolling through the picturesque village or tucking into breakfast to the sound of the church bells, one is certain that the world beyond Borgomaro’s borders can wait just a little longer.
As we depart along a meandering mountain road – recommended by Elena herself – we bid Borgomaro a reluctant goodbye. Our MINI, piled high once again, has a new passenger: a bottle of local olive oil clinking gently at our feet – a parting gift from our host, to be savoured over the coming weeks. When it’s finished, we’ll have our excuse to return.