Colletta di Castelbianco: A Visitor’s Eye Review

Back in 2002 I read La Dolce Vita, Internet Style, an article in Fast Company magazine about Colletta di Castelbianco, a self-described “medieval hill-top village restored as an internet e-village.”

I was shopping around for a place to teleport with Oliver and Catherine for a longer-than-regular vacation where I could work part of the time and vacation part of the time. And because I work “on the Internet,” Colleta’s bandwidth, along with its architecture, its history and its location, was a selling point.

As things turned out, we ended up going to Spain, and then going to France and Colletta got moved to a corner in the back of my mind.

Until this fall.

With Catherine and Oliver heading west to visit family for two weeks, I was faced with the prospect of living by myself for two weeks in Charlottetown or living by myself for two weeks in Italy. After wrangling with air tickets and my conscience (Catherine gets Ontario, I get the Italian Alps), I decided that one only lives once, the last shirt has no pocket, etc. and I was booked.

As I write I’ve been here in Colletta, living in a little one-bedroom loft apartment called il Nido, for almost two weeks. A good time, in other words, to take a moment and assess how Colletta works in the real world as an “internet e-village” for visitors on a “working vacation” like me.

It’s important to note, to begin, that Colletta is not, in fact, primarily a “holiday community.” At least not in its conception of itself. Colletta is a condominium — a condominium with thirteenth century roots that’s more Carcassonne than Cancun, mind you, but a condominium nonetheless. The fundamental idea of Colletta was to restore the village into a living, breathing, modern-day community — one that “wouldn’t be some hive for home-working hermits, but a proper community,” Fast Company quotes the site architect Giancarlo De Carlo as saying.

In practice it seems that developing a “proper community” like this, especially in the off season, has been easier said than done. Many of the purchasers of the apartments in Colletta have been Italians looking for a holiday home in the mountains; many others are English, Irish, Scandinavians or Americans who only have an opportunity to visit for short stints over the year. So the number of full-time residents of Colletta is, relatively speaking, quite small. What you have, then, in place of a “proper community,” is a mixture of permanent and itinerant residents and vacationers.

From what I’ve been able to glean, at its best the makes for a diverse constantly churning community of interesting people; and at its worst it means that Colletta is home, in the true sense of the word, to only a precious few.

One of the upsides of this arrangement, however, is that many of the units at Colletta are available for rental to people like me.

And Colletta certainly has the whole online rental thing down: Colletta.it, the village website, has more information than you could ever possibly consume about the village, the apartments, the rental process, and the region. Once I decided to book it took only a few minutes to select my unit and dates, enter my details, and send in a deposit online.

And a month later, after flying across the Atlantic to London, then from London to Nice where I rented a car, I found myself speeding along the autostrada as night fell with Colletta as my destination.

While the village is easily reached from either Nice (France) or Genoa (Italy) airports, it’s not exactly a “centrally located” place. After you turn off the highway, you drive along a series of smaller and more rural roads, driving up the Pennavaire valley around twists and turns ever higher, until, after about 20 minutes, Colletta rears up out of nowhere.

While it’s possible to reach the village by bus, I can’t imagine how this would work in practice, as buying anything from bread to laundry soap means driving at least two or three villages down the way. So Colletta residency, permanent or temporary, almost certainly demands that you have a car. And if you’re hesitant about driving on tiny roads up into the mountains, where boisterous Italian drivers will come up behind you and pass on blind curves and sometimes the road narrows to one car-width, you might want to find someone else to drive! It’s not like driving to Colletta is otherwordly, but it’s not like driving on the I-95 or the 401, and it’s certainly not like driving around Charlottetown.

Of course Colletta’s remoteness is part of its appeal. It is truly a stunning location, 300m up into the hills that eventually become the Italian Alps; the village appears almost as though it grew out of the rocks it’s perched on. No matter how much old European architecture you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the passageways and bridges and towers and subways and terraces that accreted over the years to form the present day village.

And while there are plenty of trails to explore, and nearby villages to visit, the seashore only 30 minutes away, and Nice and Genoa about 90 minutes in either direction, the remoteness also means that you feel that you’re far away from everywhere. And if part of your rationale for visiting is to get some work done, that feeling can be a tremendous stimulus to work: there are simply no distractions here.

Well, not exactly no distractions. There is the Internet, after all.

When I took my first trip to Europe with my parents in 1972, we still lived in a world where trans-Atlantic communication was some combination of slow, expensive and/or impossible. When you went to Europe you were going very far away and nobody expected to hear from you except via the occassional postcard.

Thirty-five years later, I walked into my apartment Italy, plugged my laptop into the wall, and my email started to roll in, my Plazes presence got updated, friends started to show up by IM and the effect was not unlike having walked 10 minutes to the office. In fact because I had my office phone call-forwarded to my phone here in Italy, even the telemarketers and the bill collectors could track me down (“okay Mr. Rukavina, do you want to call me back with the confirmation number?” — “well, I’m in Italy right now” — “oh, okay, I’m sorry, ah…”)

This new-fangled connectedness (if that’s what you want to call it) is, of course, the only reason it’s possible for me to relocate for two weeks and continue to run my small web business. I was able to plug my laptop in and start back working where I left off at home three days earlier. I did the monthly payroll, paid all my bills, kept in touch with clients, and actually did get a freaky amount of work done.

Oddly, given Colletta’s billing as a “internet e-village,” it doesn’t actually seem to be particularly well-suited, architecturally and ergonomically, to being a workplace. My apartment, for example, which is very well outfitted with kitchen gear, has a comfortable bed and a nice couch and a sumptuous marble bathroom, has its only Ethernet port beside the bed upstairs in the loft. What’s worse, there’s no desk, no desk chair, and thus not really any place to practically live out the “e” part of “e-village.”

So I spent the greater part of the first day here jury-rigging a temporary workspace: buying a 5m Ethernet cable to throw down into the living room, tying together a garden table so that it came out at right height for typing, and covering a wooden garden chair with a blanket to approximate a vaguely comfortable work chair.

I gather that my experiences are not necessarily reflective of all the units here — each unit is furnished by its owner to their particular taste — but there does seem to be a general consensus that Colleta in general isn’t presently the best place to get work done for the drop-in visitor.

One answer to this is the e-office complex, a new development, funded by the condo owners themselves, that’s slowly coming together under the parking lot at the edge of the village. One of those projects with a deadline forever in the future (it was supposed to open in July, the website now says “opening December 2006” but I can assure you that it won’t), when the e-office complex is finished it’s supposed to help solve this workplace problem by offering a sort of “Queen Street Commons in Italy:” meeting rooms, “hot desks” and other facilities to allow people to get work done.

While this does seem like a positive development, and something that might help to stanch the creeping “vacation condo” trend here — one resident was quoted as saying “The village was deserted, we have reconstructed it: but what of the future? Either we do something or it will become a holiday home place.” — I must say that one of the appeals of a “working vacation” for me is working and living in the same space. I like cooking a little pasta, hacking a little Javascript, cleaning the bathroom, rebooting the server: it’s a very sensible way to work. I’m not completely convinced that having “an office” to go would be the solution for me.

The other odd thing about the “e” in “e-village” is the actual Internet bandwidth itself. While there is a big honkin’ 155 megabit fibre connection down into civilization, the village has only contracted for 1 megabit of it. Which is less bandwidth than I’ve got running into my home in Charlottetown. There was much discussion over the olive-harvesting weekend about the need to renegotiate this contract, and even replacing fiber with copper. That said, with the exception of a few Internet failures, some explained and some mysterious and somehow related to a DHCP problem, the bandwidth served my purposes here well; the fact that I could suck up all of the available Internet with a couple of Bittorrents, however, suggests that as the village evolves, it will need more juice.

Speaking of the olive festival: as I blogged about at some length, this was an unexpected present on the weekend in the middle of my stay. After a week of hard solitary work where I seemed to be the only person in Colletta, all of a sudden people descended from all points — Dublin, San Diego, Brighton, Milan — to pick the village’s olives, watch them be turned into oil, and eat and drink well throughout.

This very plesant weekend not only got me out of my e-dungeon for a break, but I also got to meet some interesting people, eat some excellent food, and learn a lot about the people who actually own apartment here (I was, I must say, much less inclined to “trash” my unit after hearing some of the stories from owners about what their apartments have been like after being rented by ne’er-do-wells; my empathy kicked in).

Without the olive festival, I wouldn’t have understood nearly as much about what Colletta is, how it works and doesn’t, and what kind of community, faux or not, has developed here.

Another side-effect both of Colletta’s remoteness and of its part-time community is that it is lacking the sort of resources that, if you were to sketch your “ideal Italian cybervillage in the hills,” you would be sure to include. There’s no bakery, for example. To get groceries of any sort you need to get in the car and drive either into or towards Albenga. In this way, Colletta is not much of a real “village” at all.

And, of course, there aren’t any actual everyday Italians here either. That’s not entirely true, of course. There are actual everyday Italian residents, and actual everyday Italian staff. But it would be foolish to pretend that living in Colletta is anything but a removed approximation of what “living in a small Italian village” might be. That’s perfectly fine (I’m not convinced I would actually survive in an actual small Italian village), unless that’s what you’re looking to Colletta for.

The original plan for Colletta, back when it was going to be a vrai community, included two bars (one at either end of the village) and full-service restaurant. The restaurant was built, operated, and then closed (it’s being converted into an apartment for a couple from Pittsburgh); and only one of the bars was ever built.

It’s that bar — the Telecaffé La Colletta — that is the saving grace of the otherwise under-resourced village. The bar, and the piazza that extends out from it and overlooks the valley below — are obivously the heart of “public Colletta.” When the village filled up over the weekend, that’s where people gathered; it’s open early and late, you can get a drink or a light meal, it’s wifi hotspot, and it’s where you go to find Massimo, the go-to man for anything practical in the village (laundry tokens, directions, help with electricity, etc.).

I’ve been told that in the summer months, when the pool is open, the area that surrounds it is another community nexus.

For anything other than a drink, some people to drink it with, and a dip in the pool, however, you need to hop in the car. There are several good restaurants very nearby — one right at the bottom of the hill where the Colletta driveway meets the main road — and if you drive up the valley you find several interesting villages, each of which has a little store, a post office, and a view.

The main service centre for Colletta, however, is Albenga, a mildly post-apocalyptic town that’s 20 minutes down the road on the shore. Actually, Albenga isn’t all that bad: it has an excellent cooperative grocery store, a couple of movie theatres, a waterfront boardwalk and a public library. It’s just not the kind of place that you dream about when you dream about quaint Italian towns; for that, go just up the coast to the much more pleasant Alassio. And in just over an hour you can be in the big city of Genoa if you take the train one way, and the big city of Nice if you go the other.

So would I move here?

Probably not. Colletta is a beautiful village in a beautiful place, and has the bandwidth to tether me to the rest of the world. But I don’t think I could ever survive in what amounts to a rag-tag community of expats and vacationers. I like Charlottetown as a home, perversely, for its diversity: there are more people from more walks of life hailing from more countries within a mile of our house in PEI than there are within 100 miles of Colletta. And all of those neighbours actually live in Charlottetown. All the time. There’s something about that — a commitment to place, a sense of shared resistance against adversity, a community that, I’m surprised to find, is very important to me.

However, I’m quite likely to pay Colletta another visit. And next time I’m going to bring Catherine and Oliver; I can only withstand so much travel guilt, to say nothing of missing them dearly: despite its limitations and quirks, there is much to recommend Colletta as a place to temporarily relocate, whether to escape, work, vacation or some combination thereof. Perhaps we’ll all come back for next year’s olive harvest.

If you’re considering a visit to Colletta yourself, and have any practical questions, I’d be happy to help where I can; drop me a line.

Comments

Jt Wagner's picture
Jt Wagner on March 27, 2009 - 04:25

Hello..Im an actress in New York..Film…I was thinking of going to Colletta and staying for 2 years. While I work on my next movie..Can you tell me approxcimentally(did I spell that right?) what you paid for your flat when you went..I dont understand the money…I enjoyed reading about your journey..I just lost my husband and I thought this would be a nice place to be for awhile…Thank you JT Wagner.

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