In the quiet Abruzzo region of central Italy is an old and characterful sixteenth-century village with the name Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Here the massive, ancient stones speak volumes, and narrow passageways and porticos-with-stairs open onto sun drenched piazzettas or a labyrinth of alleyways. Some of the houses are barely still standing.
At 1,200 metres above sea level and only a stone’s throw away from the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga national park in the Apennine Mountains, Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a well-kept secret. All around is the incredible beauty of the Abruzzese landscape – reminiscent of New Zealand or maybe Patagonia, but with mountain peaks as high as the Alps.
The quintessential villages of Abruzzo are all too often abandoned to the hands of fate. Young people move away so only an older generation remains; and slowly but surely the villages become dominated by uninhabited houses, deserted squares and empty benches.
This was the case in Santo Stefano di Sessanio – until 1999 that is, when Swedish-Italian maverick and millionaire Daniele Kihlgren rode into town. He was on a solo motorbike tour and, as an idealist, felt compelled to do something about this sad situation. Kihlgren started out buying one house in Santo Stefano; he quickly followed that with another ten, acquiring plots of no less than 4,000 square metres from various owners who had let their houses go to rack and ruin.
He made a deal with local government officials to preserve Santo Stefano and restore it to its original state: no new houses and a ban on the use of concrete. And, in exchange, Kihlgren would invest the considerable sum of around 4.5 million euros (a combination of personal and borrowed funds) to give the village a new lease on life.
In 2004, five years after Kihlgren first wandered the streets of Santo Stefano, the village was ready to begin its new life. Kihlgren enlisted the help of big names including architect David Chipperfield, who also supports the concept of conservative restoration. The project was a new concept in the hotel business: Albergo Diffuso now consists of hotel rooms spread over 32 restored houses in the existing village.
Staying here is like stepping back in time. Don’t expect high luxury in a conventional way. In rooms that look as though they might have always been like this, nothing obviously added or changed, a working fireplace is always lit when you check in. Cleverly hidden away are modern elements such as home automation systems and underfloor heating. The Folk Museum of Abruzzo and some of the older residents of Santo Stefano were involved in the restoration project. Beautiful little details are everywhere, like the heavy bedspreads and patterned linen – based on traditional weaving designs and specially commissioned for this venture.
At the wine bar, Il Cantinone, guests and locals meet up for an aperitivo and a glass of local Pecorino wine. At Kihlgren’s own restaurant, the Locanda Sotto gli Archi, his passion for preservation is again seen in the menu. The dishes are made with ingredients once widely used, but now largely forgotten, such as certain varieties of herbs and vegetables and, most notably, the Santo Stephano grey lentil, which fell out of favour elsewhere. The attention to detail is extraordinary; even the blue edging on the plates is a particular shade that has historical value. It was tracked down by Kilgren’s team (with help from the museum) and specially mixed up to be put to use again.
At night, an intense silence wraps itself around this tiny village, surrounded and protected by a vast, mountainous landscape. Walking back from the cosy restaurant to the warmth of your own private, medieval house tucked away in the village has a comforting and calming effect. Where once were empty buildings and locked doors, now fireplaces burn again and soft light pours through the small windows of the century-old dwellings. Santo Stefano di Sessanio is alive again, in a gentle and most charming way.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.