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.