Modern Traveller heads into the hills to experience Sextantio Albergo Diffuso‘s astounding take on back-in-time conservation.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
For more stirring images from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, check out our “A village revived” photo piece here.
A dense mist unfurls itself across little roads which zigzag their way up and up the hillside. The light grows dim as day gives way to early evening and travellers feel, as wheels crunch on gravel in the near-silence, that they have left the ordinary world behind — exchanging it for something altogether more mysterious and infinitely more marvellous.
Half-lost and somewhat disorientated, we leave our car at the edge of the village, and proceed on foot in the darkness, tiptoeing along the slippery cobbles which line the ancient, narrow streets.
Stepping through a worn wooden doorway, we find ourself ensconced in the cosy candlelit glow of a friendly, Italian welcome at Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, high in the hills of Abruzzo.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio, like so many of southern Italy’s forgotten, impoverished towns and villages, was gradually abandoned to the mercy of the elements. Economic refugees locked their doors, packed their suitcases and left for the United States in the 19th century – and for elsewhere in Europe after the Second World War.
When entrepreneur and conservationist Daniele Kihlgren came upon the village in 1999, fewer than fifty inhabitants remained, living in a rare place untarnished by modernity.
Instead, a time capsule of sorts existed, hidden by that thick evening mist and the crumbling stone walls which surround these stone dwellings. Those inhabitants who had left in pursuit of far-flung opportunities rarely returned. Their homes stood silent, empty, naturally preserved as they had been on the day of their departure.
Kihlgren took on the challenge of a lifetime – one which remains far from complete (if completion were an attainable goal at all). Descendants were contacted, properties purchased – one by one – and sensitively restored in as authentic a manner as was possible.
Teams of local builders and workmen were offered contracts to shore up, to rebuild and to re-enliven the homes of their distant ancestors. To this day, scaffolding stands and the quiet, stone streets of Santo Stefano are populated by grinning workmen, nodding greetings to passing travellers who have chosen to leave the modern world behind for a time.
This is an astonishing project — not only in terms of its scale, but in the attention to detail paid by the passionate team behind its execution, too. The Albergo’s 29 (and counting) scattered rooms are carefully furnished with handmade wooden antiques, with artisanal chairs and earthenware jugs salvaged from the same abandoned homes.
Wood is stacked in old fireplaces and smoke-smudged walls reveal the passing of time: that strange sense of human habitation which makes the traveller, tucked under woollen blankets knitted by nonne as they have always been, wonder at who lived and loved and ate and sang and danced and died here. Their traces — from the children’s rocking horse to the wedding chest at the end of the bed — are everywhere.
Visitors make their way, as we did on that eerie evening in the fog, to the reception, to be greeted by smiling members of staff and led up steep steps, around tight corners and under ancient arches. A heavy iron key unlocks an innocuous, creaking village door — and wonders are revealed.
Part of the charm here lies in never knowing where the other rooms are, unlike in an ordinary hotel. Any one of the doors — all of which are unmarked — might hide a huge iron bed, a warm hearth or a candlelit oasis. Every window might reveal a couple, a family or a single traveller reading, pondering and contemplating this world into which they have warily immersed themselves.
That is not to say that one must forgo all modern comforts. On the contrary: Kihlgren’s renovations have introduced heating below floors of cracked tiles, polished by years of use; electricity, with lights carefully disguised in blown glass sculptures; and stunning bathrooms, complete with free-standing baths.
There is a desire to preserve what has been, and to create a scene in which nothing snags the eye of the visitor, emerging as inauthentic, or not in-keeping with the spirit of this place. Rooms retain their original purpose as much as possible, and few additional dividing walls have been erected; bathrooms are rarely separate, and luxurious tubs laden with fresh white towels sit close to the cosiest of big beds, mattresses balancing on traditional iron frames.
Guests amble through the village to congregate at the atmospheric Locanda sotto gli Archi, for hearty breakfasts of fresh fruit and heavenly peach juice, homemade yogurt, traditional tarts and teas, all laid out in handmade earthenware plates and bowls. Each evening’s supper is an event in itself: beaming waitresses navigate between minimalist wooden tables with jugs of water and wine, presenting delicious dishes.
Here, as at breakfast and elsewhere in the Albergo, only local, seasonal ingredients are used, and traditional, rural recipes followed to create fabulous, fresh fare. Tuck into lentil soup, for instance, or wash down platters of cured meat and cheese with a tasting of wonderful regional wines at heavy wooden tables dominated by the enormous, smoke-stained hearth of the Cantinone.
There is, of course, plenty to discover beyond the stone boundaries of the village; yet the temptation to stay, to preserve this slice of stillness whilst one can, is overwhelming. Simple pleasures are a hands-down highlight, and guests are encouraged to discover Santo Stefano’s secrets independently.
Dip traditional biscuits into loose-leaf local teas laced with honey in the Tisaneria, battered novel in hand, or wander through the streets, pausing to peer through open doorways at dark spaces awaiting rejuvenation, admiring the striking views across the valley, or gazing up at the tiny, charming church — still open for mass on Sundays — deciphering the fifteen names on the war memorial, and musing over the fate of those whose home this once was.
Sexantio casts its spell quietly, without pomp or ceremony, fostering a certain stillness in the soul of those romantics with whom Daniele Kihlgren seeks to share this unique project: a taste of something ‘real’ in an increasingly inauthentic world.
Forget time and retreat to the hills, where a 16th-century Renaissance townhouse is considered ‘new’; where the descendants of previous inhabitants return to see stories told by their grandparents across the ocean brought to life; and where the soot-stained walls of warm, candlelit rooms hint at those who once dwelt in this town that time forgot.