ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS

Opening a hostel is quite a common dream among friends. Indeed, many of us dream about having a house where people from all over the world could meet. Possibly with a cosy bar, live music, exhibitions, presentations and other cultural events related to the city. At least, this is what each of Ostello Bello founders had in mind at the beginning of this adventure, of this journey.

However, there’s a precise moment when each of us decided to make this dream come true. To someone it happened while traveling, to others at a very special moment in their life, to someone else it happened more or less by chance. To me, it happened at the end of a nine-months-journey from Cape Horn to Panama.

 

May 2006 – Cartagena, Colombia

I’m at the Casa Viene Hostel in a room with 12 people, there are 40° and there’s an intense smell of mango coming from the street, because of a stand right under the window. It must be some minutes after 5 pm, when Jake enters the door and asks “Hi guys, what about going out for dinner together tonight? Who’s in?”. We’re all perfect strangers. Two days later, we’re on a furgoneta trying to reach Venezuela through the Colombian coast. Eleven people coming from five different continents are driving right towards freedom. We challenged each other at guessing the songs at the radio, we swapped clothes or gave them as a gift, we shared empanadas between two, three, four, eleven people. We took breaks to challenge the locals at a football match. We took pictures smiling, laughing, hugging. Among perfect strangers, we were happy to exist and coexist.

In ten days we arrive at Tayrona National Park. We park the car and venture into the vegetation. After four hours we arrive at our destination: a small promontory that, after dark, remains isolated from land because of the high tide. There, under a brick structure, you can hang a hammock and enjoy the view of the Amazonia diving into the Caribbean Sea. The plan is to stay at Tayrona for two days. We end up staying for two weeks.

One night, sitting at the table with other travelers at the candlelight, we share stories and anecdotes, we ask for advice, we compare our stories: “I need to be in Ushuaia in six months, what shall I do? I’d better cross Brazil or follow the Cordillera?” “I want to reach Thailand by the sea. Is it true that it’s easy to find a job on a ship going from Santiago to Auckland?” “I still have ten months to reach Alaska: what are the places I really shouldn’t miss in central America?”

At that exact moment, something clicked.

Because it was like sitting at the G8, the most powerful people in the world were there with me. They could decide in any moment where to go, when to go and with whom to go. I was looking at the best people in the world, a people made up by those who travel. And we were all sharing that moment thanks to an hostel. I didn’t know when, but I decided that sooner or later I would have made it. I would have created a home in my city for the best people in the world. This is the reason why we, all of us, created Ostello Bello.

My very first travel mates were Pietro and Nicola, two of my oldest friends. Pietro Vecchi and I had already looked at a location for an hostel in 1997, without much commitment. In 2007, during a dinner in Buenos Aires, I met Nicola Specchio who was coming back from a long journey in South America, just like me. We started talking about this possible project.

 

September 2009 – Milan, Italy

The turning point, however, came in September 2009 when we started building the hostel foundation with Associazione 11 metri, that organized cultural projects in Milan. An architect presented us a reassessment plan for a building in Bovisa which seemed perfect for us: three floors, a nice courtyard, close to Dergano subway stop. For the first time we had to take part into a financial negotiation. In order to do that we had to found a society. We fixed financial criteria for the shares, and we asked dozens and dozens of friends if they wanted to participate. At the end, we were eleven. That’s how Ostello Bello SRL was born.

There are many people taking credit for the name “Ostello Bello”, and the story changes according to who is telling it, but there’s one certain element: Ostello Bello is the result of a very good night when we all had quite some drinks. We liked the name because it was simple, it was Italian, it was easy to remember for foreigners and it was stupid enough to represent us.

Once created the society, we could sign the preliminary contract to rent the building. After more than a year, everything was ready. In mid-October 2011, however, came a news no one was expecting: the property wasn’t interested in proceeding with the negotiations. One of our conditions was to use the space for cultural activities, but the owner found that unacceptable. Their final answer was: “Who tell us you’re not making a Mosque out of it?”, exact same words.

Luckily we had decided to go on looking for other buildings, in spite of the contract we had signed. We wanted to avoid the “If only we had known…” effect, that perverse and hateful dynamic that implies that a couple of hours after you have bought something, you meet someone who would have given it for free or would have given you something better at the same price. After the final “no” from Bovisa, we received a call from Mornata, the owner of the building in Via Medici (a previous design furniture shop) who had seen our society data and allowed us to go for a visit. He was one of our first fans, he liked the project from the very beginning. On December 23, 2010 we signed the lease. At that point, we only had to inaugurate the building with a big NYE party.

During the following months Pietro, Ceri and I have lived there, going home only to take a shower. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, we had a fridge for the beers and friends coming and going to give us a hand: we were people in their thirties living an Erasmus. We took care of the building renovation ourselves to save as much as possible: we would draw lines on the floor with some chalks to mark where walls, beds, bathroom and the reception would be. With the help of Ema, Alice, Luca, Barbara and the other partners we emptied five floors and removed the carpets from all the floors and the stairs. Nicola covered all the pipes; we made the core drilling for the whole system. We carried 3 tons of tiles up 5 floors. Laura took care of the terraces, Murielle and Chiara helped us with the interior design, Elena designed all the stairs and Giovanni, a 26-years-old architect that was with us, and his father Fabrizio, really gave it all to help us. Most of the furniture was collected with a sort of “Wedding List” that circulated online and on radio; we went to all Northern Italy to collect stuff from basements and warehouses. The external help we received was fundamental to understand that this was not only our project, but everyone’s. We soon realized that we liked the idea. And we soon turned the support we felt into positive energy.

On the morning of August 13, 2011 Ceri was painting the walls, I was sending some fax and Pietro was upstairs fixing some stuff, when Xenia (the first girl who worked at Ostello Bello), called us saying: “There’s a person asking if we’re open”. We were already registered at the Town Hall, the rooms were ready for use, the beer had already been widely tasted… We looked at each other as if asking: “What do we do now?” and we said “Yes, we’re open”. Out first guest was Salvator (a man from Sicily we thought was an under cover policeman), then two French guys, four from Australia… In two weeks, the hostel was full.

It may sound a bit megalomaniac, but I think that it all was possible not only because of our determination. There are some moments when groups of people are blessed by a “divine light”. And we were the right people, at the right place, at the right time.

Until now, the same goes for all the boys and girls we have shared our journey with, who have proven to be the right people at the right place at the right time. All of them have reached completely unexpected goals thanks to their work and dedication.

We wanted to make the best hostel in Milan, at a time when there were not many hostels in the city. We wouldn’t have imagined to become the best in Italy, neither. But when we saw we were among the best in the world, we decided it was time to raise the bar and keep the quality high. At the end of 2014 we opened Ostello Bello Bagan, after some months it was time for Ostello Bello Grande, then two other hostels in Myanmar and now Ostello Bello Como.

Once we opened the hostel we didn’t stop for a second, and it’s not been easy to realize what we’ve done. Once in a while, however, during the first months in Via Medici, I would stop and rest on a camp bed in the small office we created above the bar and I would hear the voices of our guests, the different languages, the laughters, the sound of the cups, someone who was shyly playing the piano. In those moments I realized that we had created exactly what we wanted. We had created something precious. And that was only the beginning.

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