skip to Main Content
Menu
A Week In A Magical Italian Village

A Week In A Magical Italian Village

 Have you dreamed of publishing those family stories that might otherwise be lost in the future? What about those travel experiences you always wanted to put to paper, or those food memories from childhood? Now, how many times have you told friends to go for it, using the phrase “You only live once”?
Well, how about following your own dream for one week while learning how to polish your prose, eating fabulous food and living in a magical village in an unspoiled region of Italy?
It’s a village where road signs might have distances between towns measured in the time it takes to ride a horse.
It’s a village that has quiet, secret corners and small treasures waiting to be discovered.
Why not do yourself a favor and sign up for “Italy, In Other Words,” a memoir writing workshop?   It takes place from June 15 to June 21st,  2014 and is held in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a medieval village in the Gran Sasso National Park. Located in the region of Abruzzo, Santo Stefano di Sessanio has been named one of Italy’s prettiest towns, or “I borghi più belli d’Italia.” You’ll stay in Sextantio, a unique hotel with rooms dispersed throughout the town. Yours might be warmed by this rustic fireplace (but don’t worry – you’ll have modern Phillip Starck bathroom fixtures):
This is the view from one of the rooms:

 

The wild poppies and mustard should be in bloom when we’re there in mid-June.

 

 

Kathryn Abajian, college professor, author, and writing teacher, will lead the writing workshop, and she is gifting at elevating pedestrian words to poetry.
You’ll get plenty of daily, helpful feedback from the other participants in the workshop too.

 

 

 I’ll be your cultural guide, taking you on nearby excursions. Some of the places you’re likely to visit are Rocca Calascio, a mountaintop fortress dating back to the 10th century.
We’ll pass by the church of Santa Maria della Pietà, built to commemorate what legend says was a victory of the locals over a gang of bandits.

 

We’ll walk along ancient sheep trails where you might even meet a modern day shepherd:
 It’s not unusual to have to stop along the road for a sheep crossing.
 
The bedspread in your hotel room is likely to be hand woven by women from the local area, and you’ll see a demonstration on a centuries-old loom:
 We’ll take an excursion to see how pecorino canestrato (sheep’s milk cheese) is made – .
 And how maccheroni alla chitarra is made – an Abruzzo specialty.
 
 And you’ll have plenty of opportunity to eat it at dinner.
But before dinner, have a seat in the cantina with your fellow students and enjoy a glass of wine with some cheese and locally made sausages.

 

 At dinner, take the opportunity to savor conversation and delicious food.
 Like these affettati (sliced, cured meats):

 

 

or  ravioli with gorgonzola and walnuts:

 

 

Or arrosticini – succulent skewers of grilled lamb.

 

Get your feet tapping at the finale concert with DisCanto and their fabulous Abruzzese folk music:

 

 You don’t have to be an experienced writer to sign up. You just have to have the desire to improve your writing.  Although we’ve had participants who were accomplished, published writers, we’ve also had homemakers, a postal worker and an artist in past years too.
Want more information? Check out all the details here on the Italy, In Other Words website. You’ll find contact information to register.  Hope to see you there in June. It’s a week that will stay with you forever.
Santo Stefano Redux

Santo Stefano Redux

 Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a town in Abruzzo that beckons with a quiet beauty. It doesn’t scream to be noticed, but its austere, centuries-old architecture and setting in the Gran Sasso National Park is a welcome balm to the visitor jaded with tourist traps and rushed itineraries.  It’s a place to savor a slower pace, a quieter time and to honor traditions of the past. I’ve written about it here and here, and went back six weeks ago to help co-teach the Italy, In Other Words writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian. This year, I was just as captivated as ever by this mysterious, enchanting village. I can’t think of a place better suited for a week of writing,  and I’m sure the other writers on this year’s trip would agree. Nature lovers, history lovers and anyone who values the work and world of cultures who came before us would find welcome respite here too, away from the frenzy of Rome, an hour and a half to the west.
It wouldn’t be so captivating a place were it not for one Daniele Kihlgren, who in 1999, happened to be riding past the village on his motorcycle, when he was mesmerized by Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
Daniele Kihlgren and his omnipresent bulldog

Like many rural villages in Southern Italy, young people were fleeing to the larger cities, leaving behind empty homes and a sagging economy that was destined to become worse. The population had dwindled to about 100 at the time, from about 3,000 in the 16th century when Santo Stefano di Sessanio was a thriving way station on the wool trade route. Kihlgren, whose mother is Swedish and father Italian, decided to do something about it. Fortunately he had the means to fulfill his vision, since his family had made a fortune in the cement industry. He bought up much of the uninhabited buildings, and set about creating Sextantio, an albergo diffuso.

An albergo diffuso, or “diffused hotel” is one with rooms scattered in various buildings throughout the town. The unique difference is that Kihlgren didn’t want to transform Santo Stefano into a “theme park,” but wanted it to be “authentic and real,” maintaining the integrity of time-honored traditions and materials, while providing comfort to hotel guests. “We didn’t want to erase the traces of people who lived here,” said Kihlgren, who has completed a similar project in Matera and also plans to renovate nine other towns he bought. The walls look just as they did centuries ago, the bedspreads are woven by the local women, but modern amenities are sprinkled here and there too – note the headboard photographic mural combining old and new.
Young children can be accommodated too, with small beds like this one, of handmade wrought iron:
Bathrooms are equipped with uber-modern fixtures, such as tubs by Phillip Starck.
The sinks are equally sleek, a counterpoint to the wooden towel rack and tin trash bucket.
Bring your own soap if you must, because the hotel provides only these artisanal products in the shower area, in glass bottles on wooden shelves. No aluminum, no plastic anywhere.
In some buildings, hotel rooms have a common space shared by several hotel guests.
The hotel also provides guests with a bottle of home-made liqueur, something typical of the region such as this rosa canina, ratafia, or saffron-flavored liqueur. Hand-woven linens serve as placemat.

 

Sadly, in April 2009, three years after the hotel opened, a devastating earthquake struck the Abruzzo region. Santo Stefano was luckier than many places that were totally destroyed, like Onna, but it still suffered some damage, including the collapse of its iconic tower (seen in scaffolding) that hails back to the days when the Medici family controlled the town. The hotel’s buildings, however, remained intact, thanks to reinforcement of the buildings during the renovation.
Even though the tower and parts of the town remain in scaffolding, Santo Stefano is still a beguiling place — with graceful arches and floral sculptural detailing evocative of the Renaissance:
Its beauty is due partly to the Medici family, whose coat of arms is still visible on a wall in town:
 But some of the enchantment comes from the locals who plant flowers in the town’s little picturesque nooks:
You’ll find courtyards tucked away in exquisite solitude:
And mysterious arched passageways:
And public piazzas too, where locals gather for a bit of fun:
The hotel’s restaurant beckons with a candlelit entrance:
Views of majestic peaks of the Gran Sasso mountains and far-off villages like Castelvecchio also lure the visitor to stay a while. “The real value of this place is the mutual and changed relationship between the historic village and landscape around it,” Kihlgren said. “And if you’re going to keep this relationship for the next generation, I think we are doing something very important.”
While we were in Santo Stefano this year, a Swedish TV crew filmed Daniele Kihlgren and some members of our writing workshop talking about the town. If you have a few minutes to listen and watch, you too, may become spellbound by this hidden gem called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Don’t worry, even though the beginning is in Swedish, it segues to nearly all English after the first 40 seconds.
My friend Helen, along with Sammy Dunham, of Life in Abruzzo, is hosting a blogging conference in Santo Stefano this September called “Hands On L’Aquila.” Proceeds help the people and region of Abruzzo. You can find out more about it here.
Missing Italy

Missing Italy

 I’ve been back for only a few days and I’m already missing all the places I visited in Italy — from the mountains of Abruzzo … to the beaches of Anzio…
From Rome’s well-known tourist sites…
to some hidden gems shown to me by a curator friend at the Palazzo Barberini…
From working with a serious but fun-loving group of writers at the “Italy, In Other Words” workshop…
To shopping time with them at the ceramics town of Castelli…
From the dazzling mosaics at Santa Maria in Trastevere of Christ the shepherd and his sheep…
To an encounter along the ancient sheep trails in Abruzzo with a modern-day shepherd and his dogs tending his flock…
From all the kitsch-y souvenirs along the streets of Rome…
To looking for real treasures in the city’s antique shops…
From a concert with the fabulous Abruzzese folk musicians DisCanto…
To the incomparable Riccardo Muti conducting Attila at Rome’s Opera House…
From my rustic room at Sextantio that still looked as it did in the middle ages:
To the beautiful patio of my blissfully quiet Rome hotel room.
From churches in far-flung places…
To participating in mass from behind the altar at St. Pietro in Vincoli, seated in a choir stall with a view of Michaelangelo’s “Moses.”
From the wonderful food I ate – cooking with Fabio in his Rome palazzo:
To watching Liliana make her spaghetti alla chitarra in Santo Stefano di Sessanio:
From pizza:
to pasta…
to meat…
to fish:
pastries…
and gelato too:
….How could I not still be longing to be back in this beautiful country and the people I spent time with in the last few weeks? Once I’m caught up with things on the home front, be on the lookout for future posts about recipes, sights and sounds I encountered during the last few weeks — and a giveaway too. Stay tuned ….
Italy, In Other Words

Italy, In Other Words

I don’t normally start my day eating tarts filled with freshly made ricotta cheese and topped with amaretti cookies. My weekday breakfast also doesn’t typically include a crostata made with fruit jams, marble cake, apple cake or any other number of sweet treats either.
Ditto for prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese and practically still warm-from-the-cow giuncata cheese.
I’m usually not lucky enough to have Emanuele asking me every morning if I’d like to have a freshly made frittata either.
But for one week in June I was. These were all part of the daily breakfasts served in a cavernous room called the “cantinone” (big cellar) that could have doubled as a backdrop for a movie set in the Middle Ages.
It’s also where I popped in occasionally before dinner for a glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and some munchies.
I wasn’t alone during the week. I was one of a group of five writers from California, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico taking part in a workshop in Santo Stefano di Sessanio called “Italy In Other Words.”  The group was led by Kathryn Abajian and Helen Free, two gifted teachers who helped us find our writing voice and discover the treasures and traditions of Abruzzo.
Kathryn conducted the writing classes each day, focusing on first person writing. Although I had worked as a journalist for decades, and write a food blog now, memoir writing is an entirely different genre and I had a lot to learn. Kathryn gave me the tools and the kick start I needed to get me moving in the right direction, in a teaching style that was both firm and generous at the same time. Sadly, she lives on the opposite coast from me. Otherwise, I’d be signing up for any classes she teaches. Listening to the other women’s own stories and receiving their feedback was an invaluable part of the week as well.
Top row, Julie and Lori and Cynthia. Seated, Linda, Kathryn and Diane

Helen instructed the group on Abruzzese traditions that link us with our past, regardless of nationality.
We read the words of Italian writers such as Ignazio Silone, who wrote about the long-ago struggles of peasants in Abruzzo, struggles that are still relevant around the world today. We walked in the footsteps of shepherds who led their flocks in a twice-yearly migration over hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous paths in search of warmer climes, a custom known as “transumanza.”

Near the Gran Sasso mountains we ran for shelter as the rain fell, while the cow nearby didn’t budge:

We returned on a sunnier day to climb higher on the path through the town of Calascio.
Lori, Diane, Juli, Linda, Helen and Cynthia
Until we reached the ruins of a fortress built in the 10th century, once owned by the Medici family.
Nearby in isolation overlooking the mountains stands an octagonal church erected between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a site where legend has it, locals fought and won a skirmish with brigands.
Santa Maria della Pieta

 

We also had time to think, in a place with few tourists, and no television or telephones in our rooms. We had time to roam the village and reflect on its quiet beauty and on our purpose for being there.
Time to explore the mysterious narrow streets and pathways.

Time to wonder who lived in houses like these:

 

And wonder how long ago someone rode this old motorcycle.
Even time to let Federica, who lives in the village, have a go at painting with my travel watercolor set.

We had time to walk below the town where poppies bloomed beside a church boarded up since the 2009 earthquake:

Where fields of yellow mustard greens swayed in the wind beside stalks of wheat and more poppies.
Where road signs indicated the distance it took to ride between towns on horseback:

We had time to transfix our gaze on the broad, open views to other hill towns in the distance.

Naturally, we had time to eat too – from restaurants where the atmosphere was funky-
and the food traditional like these gnocchi:
To restaurants that were more formal –
And that served modern interpretations of food, like these veal cheeks and potatoes with citrus flavors:
“Italy, In Other Words,” gave us time to slow down, to appreciate all the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes around us, and to write about what was important to us. Thank you to Helen and Kathryn, and to all the friendly townspeople of Santo Stefano and to the employees of Sextantio, the hotel where we lodged, including Gabriella, who offered me the recipe for the luscious torta shown at the top of this post.
Gabriella
Arrivederci Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Alla prossima!

Gabriella’s Torta Di Crema e Ricotta 


Printable Recipe Here

This recipe was enough for a very large pan – probably 10 to 12 inches in diameter.

for the dough:
2 1/4 cups flour
2 sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. baking powder

For the filling:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
grated peel from one lemon
1/2  cup to 1 cup ricotta, depending on taste
amaretti cookies crumbled on top – about 1 cup or so

Blend the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the softened butter by hand or put everything in a food processor until it forms a ball. Roll out and place into a buttered 10 to 12-inch baking dish or tart pan.

For the filling:
Bring the milk to a boil with the lemon peel. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs, sugar and flour. Slowly add the mixture to the hot milk, stirring together for two or three minutes until it is thick and amalgamated. Let it cool slightly, then add the ricotta, using as little or as much as you like. Crumble the amaretti cookies on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes

In Italiano:
per la pasta base ingredienti:

325 grammi farina
175 grammi burro
100 grammi zucchero
una bustina lievito

Procedimento: Impastare il tutto e intanto preparare il ripieno:

per il ripieno:
4 tuorli
150 grammi zucchero
75 grammi farina
buccia di limone
500 ml latte
100-150 grammi ricotta

Procedimento: Far bollire il latte con il limone e intanto sbattere le uova, lo zucchero e la farina.
Stendere la pasta e metterci la crema e la ricotta. Sbriciolarci gli amaretti sopra. Cuocere a 180 gradi per 25 minuti.

 

Santo Stefano Di Sessanio

Santo Stefano di Sessanio

 This is the view from my bedroom window. Not the one in Princeton, New Jersey, but in Italy, at least for the first week of my trip. I’ll bet you didn’t even miss me, since I set the blog to automatically publish new posts while I was away. For the last three weeks, I’ve been traveling from Abruzzo to the Piedmont region with a few stops along the way to visit friends and relatives, relive old memories and make some new ones too.
I’ve returned with lots of inspiration for writing, for recipes and for great places to visit. One of them is Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a charming medieval village in the region of Abruzzo, located about two hours east of Rome at the edge of the Gran Sasso national park, home to the eponymous mountain range.
The town has only about 180 permanent residents, and like many small villages in Italy, most of its young people left to take jobs in other, more urban places. At one point in recent years, its population had diminished to only 70 people. To the rescue came Daniele Kihlgren, a wealthy man whose Italian mother’s family made its fortune in the cement industry. Kihlgren bought many of the town’s buildings and set about restoring them and creating an “albergo diffuso,” or “diffused hotel” called Sextantio. Sadly, the crenellated tower that dominated the skyline crumbled during the 2009 earthquake in Abruzzo, while a metal scaffolding now defines its outline.
Here’s what the tower used to look like before it succumbed to nature’s forces.
Despite the scaffolding in some parts of the town, Santo Stefano di Sessanio remains a beguiling village and has been named one of Italy’s prettiest villages – “I Borghi Piu’ Belli D’Italia.” A walk down its cobbled streets or into one of its restaurants is enough to charm anyone.
In an albergo diffuso, rooms are scattered throughout the town, unlike traditional hotels that have all rooms in one building. Here in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Kihlgren was meticulous in maintaining the medieval character of the town, which means no plastic, no aluminum or other modern day materials sullying the rooms and common meeting places.
Here’s a look at my bedroom, for example. It’s ascetic in the way a monk’s cell might be, with centuries of layers of whitewashed walls instead of painted wallboard. Out of view is the huge stone fireplace and bathroom with modern fixtures, an exception to the more primitive furnishings. The bed is covered in a bedspread woven by the local women.
My sheets were made of handwoven linen, embroidered with the initials of someone I’ll never know.
Even the key that unlocked my door looked like it came from an antique shop.

The views of surrounding fields were mesmerizing too, swathed in yellow and red flowers from mustard greens and poppies.

 

And of course, you know I couldn’t omit some reference to food, especially since I ate some wonderful meals there, including fettucine with truffles –
really fresh truffles, that had just been gathered that day –
The town is known for its small lentils, so naturally I sampled them a couple of times.
Plus spaghetti alla chitarra (guitar), made by extending the pasta over a rectangular stringed implement and pressing on the dough with a rolling pin – a dish closely associated with Abruzzo.

 

I ate wonderful meat, vegetable and dessert dishes too, but I’ll save some of them for my next post. But I will show you what was offered when I arrived – a glass of prosecco, some breads, crackers and the freshest and creamiest ricotta I’ve ever tasted –

Followed by a lunch of pappa al pomodoro, barley risotto and asparagus soup – in other words, a warm, delicious welcome. And you’ve just been given some clues about what I was really doing there – all to be explained in my next post.

Until then, here’s a recipe for pappa al pomodoro. For those of unfamiliar with it, be warned, it’s not at all liquidy – it’s a very thick tomato soup – almost more of a bread pudding with tomatoes – perfect for when those red beauties start ripening in the garden. The recipe below is from Napa Valley’s Michael Chiarello, one of my favorite chefs.

Pappa Al Pomodoro


Printable Recipe Here

Directions

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
Pinch salt
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
3/4-pound day-old Italian bread, roughly sliced
2 cups water
1 cup basil leaves, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, optional
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a 12-inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over a medium-high flame until hot but not smoking. Add the onion andgarlic and saute for a few minutes, until onion is translucent. Add a pinch of salt. Add the chopped tomatoes and their juices and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let cook until the tomatoes begin to soften and break down, about 5 minutes.
Place the bread slices in a bowl and cover with 2 cups water. Tear the bread into rough pieces and add to tomato mixture. Add the remaining water from the bowl. Continue simmering until all the bread has absorbed as much liquid as possible, yielding a baby food-like consistency.

Stir in the basil. Season, to taste, with pepper. Add extra-virgin olive oil, if desired. Let the soup continue simmering for 10 more minutes, then serve immediately in warmed soup bowls. Garnish, to taste, with Parmigiano-Reggiano.