The affordable hospitality concept that’s taking over some of Italy’s exquisite historic buildings – then uniting locals and tourists through art, music and food
Rome, Venice and Florence may have their Colosseums, Grand Canals and Botticellis, but eager visitors to these great cities can often struggle to find decent food, reliable wifi and a comfy bed. “Often their experience can be underwhelming,” says Italian entrepreneur Michele Denegri. “There is a big gap between the luxury hotels and the weak, poor offering at the bottom end.” A fleapit hotel will dissipate any joy at seeing Michelangelo’s David, while the grunt from a surly concierge can snuff out all wonder at witnessing the Sistine Chapel; as the founder of new hospitality concept Combo, Denegri wants to address this disconnect.
Combo might be described as part hotel, part hostel and part cultural incubator, and is aimed at young, discerning travellers who want to see the sights and hang out with young, discerning locals while sidestepping tourist traps. The first one opened in May in a restored convent in Venice; a second opened in a typical casa di ringhiera in Milan’s hip Navigli district in July; and in November, a third site opens in a former fire station in Turin. Accommodation in each Combo varies from single and double rooms to studios and dormitories. The bar and restaurant typically offer regional specialities (Turin’s will will source its ingredients from the nearby Porta Palazzo food market, for example) while a communal gallery, performance space and DJs entice the locals.
A serial entrepreneur and the son of an Italian businessman, Denegri has a knack for seeking out cool locations such as disused convents and monasteries, and former schools and army barracks. “Italy is full of buildings that are abandoned or bound up in prohibitive heritage legislation, making them too costly to repair,” he says. Some he buys, others he rents; convents and monasteries, with their dormitory layouts and small bathrooms, lend themselves particulaly well to a hostel set-up and embody Combo’s desire to be a catalyst for social change. By the end of 2020, Denegri aims to be in Rome, Verona, Florence and Bologna, with each Combo playing on its host city’s strengths. In Bologna, there will be an emphasis on DJs; Florence will tap into the city’s musical community; and in Venice and Turin, art will be a theme. In each city, “Combo aims to bring locals and tourists together through music, art and literature,” says Denegri.
Combo aims to bring locals and tourists together through music, art and literature
Turin is Denegri’s home city, and he already has experience of boosting its fortunes: in 2012 he transformed Del Cambio, a fabled yet faded restaurant, into a hotspot for food and art lovers. For Combo Turin’s opening in November, the venue is collaborating with the annual art fair Artissima (see p130), where an artist will stay at the space and produce a performance over the course of their six-day residency. (For the launch of Combo Venice, German artist Dara Friedman collaborated with guests and locals to make a film which will also be shown in Turin.) Combo and Artissima fund all the artworks and their network of contacts, from Turin’s Castello di Rivoli to the Madre Museum in Naples, ensures that they will be exhibited in established gallery settings.
“The secret of a good hostel is that it is like a home in the city. Not only a comfortable place to sleep and hang out, but also somewhere locals and tourists can meet,” says Denegri. During Artissima, Combo Turin will host live music and DJs and bring new energy into what has been a depressed stretch of the city. Combo may not be able to solve the problem of mass tourism in Italian cities, but perhaps it will become a “third space” for locals and tourists alike. Watch this space.