Santo Stefano di Sesssanio’s Albergo Diffuso
Pino often asks, “Quando andiamo di nuovo a Tagliacozzo?” (“When are we going again to Tagliacozzo?”)
Tagliacozzo (population about 6000) seems to hang on to the limestone cliffs backdropping it and the town’s medieval houses and Renaissance palazzi seem to climb the rocky face of the mountain. The main square, Piazza Obelisco, pulse of the town and one of Abruzzo’s most elegant piazzas, is surrounded by pastel-colored Renaissance palaces and graceful loggias. The fountain in the center is the town gathering place where the older men sit, surveying those strolling the piazza and resolving the world’s issues in their animated conversations. Some – Pino, for one – like to sit on the fountain border, reading the morning paper after an espresso at one of the cafes.
We’ve spent many a happy weekend there with Silvana and her husband Mauro and I still remember a trip there a few years ago and our weekend explorations.
After a short morning stroll in Tagliacozzo, we set out to explore together Santo Stefano in Sessanio, a medieval village once the home of shepherds, hanging on a rocky outcrop as do so many of the Abruzzo mountain towns and still characterized by the labyrinthine covered medieval alleyways. In the Middle Ages, overseeing positions on mountain peaks assured surveillance of the valleys below and narrow, curvy streets discouraged the easy passage of intruding enemies.
Before we wandered the maze of labyrinthine Santo Stefano medieval alleyways, we stopped for lunch at the Osteria del Cavaliere near the entrance to the village and not far from the imposing fifteenth-century guard tower built by the Medici. Luca, son of Rosa, the cook, was putting the final touches on the nearly full tables in this small, cozy restaurant. Silvana had read about this place in food reviews and when she told Luca, he moved out a table from a corner to make space for us. He advised us, though, to eat on the early side before the restaurant filled up (we were glad we did!).
Luca took me into the kitchen to meet his mother Rosa who was making a typical Abruzzo fried bread with another relative. They proudly showed me the freshly-made homemade ravioloni (“big ravioli“) stuffed with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta and finely chopped parsley. You never know what will be for lunch at the Osteria: the menu varies depending on the fresh foods available at the morning market and what their own garden and the surrounding fields offer.
Our lunch started with an assorted antipasto platter of local sheep’s milk cheeses, bruschetta drizzled with the family’s olive oil, a selection of prosciutto and that spicy salami, typical of Abruzzo. An Abruzzese soup made with chestnuts and chickpeas accompanied. For our “first” (!) course, Pino and Silvana ordered Rosa’s lentil soup (starring the organic lentils from their own farm) and Mauro and I reveled in the ravioli.
For the secondo piatto, a variety of roasted meats tempted but their specialty won us over: round discs of local sheep’s milk cheese tossed lightly in bread crumbs, then fried. Steamed greens from the garden tossed in garlic and olive oil followed. Rosa had prepared three or four enticing desserts but we renounced the temptation and finished up with cups of espresso. Luca was on the run to serve the full dining room, noisy with conversation and clanging forks, when we left to explore the town.
We had visited Santo Stefano di Sessanio a couple of years ago and the crumbled medieval houses were then just starting to come back to life. The resurrection efforts are all thanks to Daniele Kihlgren, a young Italian-Swedish entrepreneur, living in Milan, who stopped here in 1990 while on a motorcycle trip. He walked the town and fell in love. Not with a woman but with the medieval ruins abandoned by those who had immigrated to America or northern Europe in search of the livelihood which a pastoral mountaintop town far from any industrial center could not offer.
As he explored, Daniele felt the pull of the pastoral traditions of this town. The rural history spoke to him in the crumbling sheep stalls, soot-covered fireplaces, old wine and olive oil cellars with dirt floors. He decided to preserve the impoverished rural structures of this mountainous area of central Italy – and he had the means to do it.
Daniele set out to save Santo Stefano di Sessanio from “unsympathetic urbanization”. He bought many of the crumbling abandoned houses, wine and olive oil cellars, and stalls and with careful restoration utilizing original architectural materials, created an “albergo diffuso”, literally “diffused hotel”. He named his hotel “Sextantio” , the Roman name of Santo Stefano. A restored medieval olive oil mill houses the hotel reception. The hotel rooms are “diffused” throughout the village of Santo Stefano: some in former oxen stalls, some in old shepherd dwellings, and other rooms are now in rejuvenated medieval wine and olive oil cellars.
Daniele and his partners talked to the older villagers, gleaning from them all the information they could on the appearance of the dwellings in the past – and thus basing restoration on oral history. They chose to use local handcrafts in bedspreads and curtains and fabrics, reviving artisan skills which would soon have floated away into the historical past.
Rural pastoral traditions are cherished and preserved in each room. For example, the rooms do not have closets but simply old wooden trunks at the foot of the beds as the pastoral residences would have had. Silvana and I visited one. Like all the Albergo Sextantio rooms, the interior has been restored but not at all changed. Rough-hewn beams, ancient uneven brick floors, very little furniture and small windows characterize the rooms. Windows were precious commodities and glass was not “wasted” on stalls. Harsh winters also meant thick walls and few spaces open to the elements (ie,windows).
Abruzzo astounds for its endless, hidden treasures. Santo Stefano di Sessanio hides quite a few.