t was a balmy summer evening nearly a decade ago when Daniele Elow Kilhgren, a young philosophy graduate of Swedish-Italian descent, took a motorcycle trip among the towering mountains of the Gran Sasso-Monti della Laga National Park in the heart of Abruzzo. As he zoomed up the twisting, near-deserted tracks connecting the vast Navelli Plain with the winter ski resort of Campo Imperatore, he suddenly came upon the tiny village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
The discovery changed his life.
Hidden behind ancient medieval walls and crouched on a rocky outcrop 1,250 meters above sea level, the village had stunning 360-degree views of the surrounding Monti della Laga peaks and valleys. Once an important wool production center for the powerful Florentine Medici family, the town Kilhgren found was reduced to near abandonment and neglect. Its population had shrunk to some 80 souls, most of them elderly folk eking out a frugal existence with money sent by emigrant relatives. The only real industry was the cultivation of an exclusive variety of lentil.
The village was pure medieval, with rough stone dwelling houses built into the thick defensive walls, a maze of winding, cobbled alleyways and steps, and a monumental gateway, crowned with the Medici family coat of arms. In the center lay a cozy piazza where all the most important buildings were grouped. The village seemed caught in a time warp.
Taken by the picturesque charm and the melancholy solitude of the village, Kilhgren immediately asked two local architects, Lelio Oriano Di Zio and Antonietta Di Clemente, to commission a feasibility study toward restoring some of the buildings. This marked the beginning of a titanic entreprenurial project that has absorbed much of his time, resources and energy.
“What struck me most was that the village was perfectly intact,” Kilhgren, now 37, recalls. “And it survived this way because it was so poor and off the beaten track. New buildings that would have altered the original medieval layout were never constructed.”
Kilhgren, the son of a Swedish father and an Italian mother, first purchased two abandoned houses — “property was really cheap then,” he says — and later founded Sextantio (the name derives from the earliest known settlement in the area), a limited company dedicated to injecting new life into the dying village by taking over old buildings, restoring them and adapting them to accommodate a new and unique form of tourism. Now nearing fruition, his plan is to resurrect the village as an “albergo diffuso” (a term that can be loosely translated as an “extended, or decentralized, hotel.”)
This means converting existing houses and public buildings into visitor accommodation without altering the outside appearance of the village. At present, the company owns some 3,500 square meters of property, including the opificio (the former public mill or warehouse), and the charming renaissance Palazzo delle Loggette (Palace of the Loggias), which overlooks the village square and the Medici gate.
Though Kilhgren now owns much of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, he’s hardly lord-of-the-manor, nor is he even particularly wealthy (his family owned a cement-producing business). Financing for the project came from bank loans and the sale of some farmland. The restoration of the village, he stresses, is a communal effort. “We’re doing this with the support of architects, historians, the Abruzzo folk museum (Gente di Abruzzo), the local university, the regional tourist board. There are lots and lots of people involved.”
But Kilhgren is the one putting up the money, hoping later to recoup it. His Italian roots are deep. His grandfather, a Swedish Honorary Consul in Genoa in World War II, helped Jews escape the Gestapo and was later honored by Israel.
His enthusiasm for his project is infectious. His dark blue eyes gleam as he shows me around. “When I went touring round Italy on my motorbike, I used to get so angry when I saw how many of these lovely old towns had been ruined — indiscriminate building, modern and traditional all mixed together, original street plans distorted. Santo Stefano is practically a miracle. It was left for centuries, virtually untouched.”
He doesn’t want Santo Stefano to fall into the trap of Tuscany and what he labels its “fake” medieval renditions. Tuscany and Umbria are filled with lavishly restored castles, villas and old farmhouses. “We want to keep things as authentic as possible. There are still old people here who remember how life was here before World War II, and we are able to consult them on the old ways of life and how things ought to look.”
Although Kilhgren markets Santo Stefano as “a Tuscan borgo in the heart of medieval Abruzzo,” he seems determined to give his town a genuine medieval feel. Rooms have original chimney pieces and pre-war peasant furniture culled from local flea markets and antique shops. “These things have practically disappeared in Tuscany and Umbria, but you can still find them here at a reasonable price.”
Much of the furniture, he explains, once belonged to local shepherds, who loaded it on mules and carried it with them on twice-yearly transhumance treks with their flocks. Among Kilhgren’s most exciting finds was a faded, but wholly intact, hand-painted wooden ceiling, now installed in the master bedroom in the picturesque Palazzo delle Loggette.
In the bedrooms and the restaurant (inside the old opificio, a four-storied edifice built into the massive bulwarks of the village fortifications) all the flagstones have been laboriously lifted and reset to install unobtrusive under-floor heating. Sagging wooden ceilings have been repaired with old beams garnered from builders’ yards and abandoned farm buildings in the surrounding countryside. Bedcovers will be woven on handlooms and colored with natural dyes. Concessions to modern comforts, including in suite bathrooms, are discreet. Electric lighting functions by remote control, to avoid installing light switches.
Kilhgren’s quest for the authentic is nearly obsessive. “I hate to knock nails in the walls,” he explains, apologizing that a carved figure of a saint in one of the bedrooms hangs oddly to one side of a bed. Not everyone will appreciate the soot-blackened wall at the back of the conference hall in the upper part of the opificio, deliberately left untouched as a tribute to the hard life of the villagers in the past. “The people who lived in here at one time didn’t even have a fireplace. In order to survive in the winter cold, they just lit a fire in the corner of the room.”
Some aspects of the Sextantio project have proved more laborious than anticipated. The core plan includes reviving typical aspects of village life by encouraging local artisans to move in and set up workshops. But traditional craftsmen are few.
For now, there is an operating goldsmith’s workshop, and Kilhgren hopes to open a potter’s kiln and a handloom weaver’s shop soon. “We want to offer tourists hand-made objects they can’t find anywhere else. There will be nothing mass produced with “Souvenir of Santo Stefano” stamped on it!”
The atmospheric “Locanda sotto gli Archi,” as the tavern-style restaurant is called, has had trouble attracting chefs prepared to serve the traditional mountain dishes. “Abruzzo chefs are world famous, but the young chefs coming out of hotel schools want to do international cuisine. And that’s not what we intend to give people here.”
Dealing with the locals, says Kilhgren, hasn’t always been easy. “Life was hard here. Until recently, people were very poor and there was a lot of hardship. It was a closed society. As a result, they tend to keep to themselves. They are shy and diffident.”
He expects fewer problems tilling the land. His company has purchased land in the valley under the town to encourage the cultivation of traditional crops, such as lentils and emmer wheat. The isolation of the village (electricity was only installed in the 1950s) meant that many old farming practices survived.
The exclusive lentils of Santo Stefano di Sessanio are much sought after by Mediterranean diet buffs and precious saffron is still harvested in the area. A particularly interesting find in a nearby valley was an indigenous variety of grape vine, dating back to pre-Roman times and growing, astonishingly, at altitude of over 1,000 meters.
In its populous and prosperous days, Santo Stefano was an important center of production for tough black wool known as “carfagna,” sought after for making monks’ cowls and soldiers’ uniforms. It was part of a large feudal estate known as the Barony of Carapelle and owned by rich Tuscan families. Decline set in during the 19th century, when carfagna wool lost out to imported wool. Kilhgren is somber as he contemplates the population drop. “In the 1870s, there were 3,000 people living in the village. In 1901, there were 1,500. Today, there are only 80.”
Dying villages are an increasingly worrying problem in Italy. Two years ago, La Rocca, an ancient mountain village near Rieti, north of Rome, bought adverti-sing space in a Rome daily offering free property to anyone ready to move there. Concerned about the dramatic drop in population in the village of Vastogirardi in Molise, Mayor Vincenzo Venditti made national headlines when he proposed introducing a special tax penalizing single men. Settled continuously for 2,000 years, Vastogirardi had seen its population plummet from 3,000 in the 1960s to the present 823.
Abruzzo, which straddles the Apennine range, has hundreds of out-of-the-way mountain villages struggling to survive. Over the last few years, the regional tourism board has launched numerous efforts to boost visitor numbers. Antonio Bini, who heads the tourism development department, is enthusiastic about the Sextantio project. “This is the kind of development we want to encourage,” he says. “We don’t want to create a mass tourism market. That wouldn’t be appropriate in a region like ours. What we would like to see here is the discerning type of tourist — people who appreciate nature and are genuinely interested in our local ways and culture.”
Sextantio Ltd. expects to invest over €8 million in the Santo Stefano development. The finished project contemplates 120 beds in self-contained apartments, a tavern-style restaurant, a multimedia conference center and concert hall, a wellness center and a wine cellar stocked with the wines and culinary products of the area, all hidden inside the original medieval buildings. Kilhgren expects to open officially in March 2005, with the first block of suites completed inside the Palace of the Loggias. For now, there’s a friendly little inn with a couple of rooms, named rather quaintly “Tra le braccia di Morfeo” (In the Arms of Morpheus).
Santo Stefano di Sessanio is officially listed as one of the most beautiful borghi (historic villages) of Italy. The terrain is breathtaking and ideal for walkers. Quiet shepherds’ tracks are abundant with local wildlife. Within a few miles’ radius, are monuments such as the ruined fortress of Rocca Calascio, immortalized in the movie “Lady Hawk,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
Also nearby are the haunting remains of the Roman city of Peltuinum and the monastery of San Giovanni di Capestrano (the Jesuits founded the famous mission in California in his honor, though they converted his name into the Spanish “Juan”). Campo Imperatore, the biggest mountain plateau in the Apennines, is an earthly paradise with herds of cattle, horses, sheep and goats roaming freely. In winter, it’s a popular ski resort. Shrouded in mist at the head of the pass is the faded 1930s hotel where Mussolini was once confined until rescued by the Nazis.
Staying at Santo Stefano di Sessanio is not for the comfort-seeker or nitpicker. A dip into authentic peasant life of a century ago, even if softened by modern conveniences, inevitably brings surprises. Be prepared to negotiate steep, uneven flights of stone stairs and sit on hard wooden benches. Houses in mountain villages have thick walls and small windows. Apartment layouts tend to be quirky and multi-levelled.
“We’re hoping to attract the kind of people who are looking for the authentic flavor and feel of a place,” Kilhgren says. “Italy isn’t only the Coliseum, Venice and the Uffizi Gallery. It’s a whole distinct world of traditions and sensations that risks disappearing in today’s global reality. My hope is that Santo Stefano di Sessanio will become a model for the preservation of the territory.”
Santo Stefano in Sessanio is located less than 150 kilometers from Rome and may be reached from the Rome-L’Aquila Autostrada, a superbly panoramic highway that sweeps over viaducts and plunges through the tunnels burrowed into the heart of the mountains. From the Abruzzo regional capital of L’Aquila, take the state road SS 17 to Barisciano. Then, drive up the mountain road to Santo Stefano in Sessanio (about 10 kilometers.) For further information contact: SEXTANTIO s.r.l. Tel/fax 39.085.497.2324. Online bookings are now available.