Saving Santo Stefano

A village in the Abruzzi Mountains two hours east of Rome has become the poster child for Italy’s albergo diffuso (“diffuse hotel”) movement, preserving postcard-perfect towns by restoring long-abandoned peasant homes where visitors live as temporary residents.

Santo Stefano in Sessanio, home of Sextantio
Santo Stefano in Sessanio, home of the Sextantio albergo diffuso.
On the day he discovered Santo Stefano di Sessanio, the nearly abandoned Italian town that would change his life, Daniele Kihlgren was lost.

A philosopher by training, adventurer by nature, and serial holder of menial jobs, Daniele set out one day on his motorcycle to explore the Gran Sasso National Park in the Abruzzi Mountains two hours east of Rome.

He was trying to find a back road from the crumbling ruins of Rocca di Calascio (a castle that starred in ’80s classics Ladyhawke and The Name of the Rose) to the Campo Imperatore, an eerily gorgeous high Alpine plain known locally as “Little Tibet.”

Below the Campo, Daniele stumbled across Santo Stefano. The fortified town seemed forgotten by time, an elliptical knot of narrow alleys and stair-stepped streets twisting around buildings and tunneling under archways. The crenellated round tower sprouting from its highest point afforded a view over the terracotta roof tiles to the river valley below, striped with narrow farming plots and punctuated by a spring-fed lake beside which sat a tiny church.

“There were no cement constructions, no industrial warehouses, none of the Swiss-style tourist chalets which blight so many historic Abruzzese towns,” Daniele says. “All that remained was the stone village.” It was a stone village with virtually no residents.

A thriving way station in the Medici wool trade with a population of 3,000 in the 15th century, Santo Stefano had in the past 100 years gone the way of countless small Southern Italian towns: a long post-industrial decline followed by a post-World War II exodus of residents seeking a better life abroad. By the time Daniele arrived on his motorcycle in 1999, there were only about 70 people knocking around an otherwise empty town.

It takes vision to look at a dying town—the buildings missing roofs, the walls caving in around debris piles sprouting weeds—and think, “This would make a great hotel.”

But Daniele didn’t see a decaying mountain village. He saw an opportunity to preserve Santo Stefano, revive its peasant heritage, and breathe new life into the local economy though a novel technique: transforming the empty houses into an albergo diffuso, a “diffuse hotel” in which guest rooms are intermingled with the houses of village residents. He rounded up funding and founded a company—called “Sextantio” after Santo Stefano’s ancient name. Luckily, he staffed it with all the wrong people.

“The owner is a philosopher, the architect’s only building experience was in modern suburban houses, and the decorator was a gypsy.” Giovanni Pacifico—Sextantio’s site manager, who was himself formerly a telecom worker from a nearby village—is downright cheerful as he ticks off the complete lack of tourism industry experience on the Sextantio team. “But it was a good thing they didn't know what they were doing,” he says, “because it was a new idea: to have a hotel where guests inserted themselves into a living town and became part of it temporarily.”

Blueprint of a Dispersed Hotel

The road into Santo Stefano in Sessanio is narrow, hemmed by a stone wall on one side and a wooded drop-off on the other, and it ends at a medieval gate too narrow for cars. Just inside this gate, on a building to the right, hangs a hand-painted sign for the Albergo Diffuso Sextantio. There is no hotel inside this building, merely a reception desk.

After guests check in, Giovanni grabs one of the six-inch skeleton keys off the rack and leads the way back outside and down the street in search of one of Sextantio’s 30 guest quarters spread around town. Some are simple one-room spaces, others are small apartments, a few are full houses.

“The toughest part,” says Giovanni, in describing the six years of development it took before Sextantio opened for business in 2005, “was tracking down who had inherited rights to all these abandoned homes.” In many cases, he explained, the families had been in France, Canada, or the United States for generations, and most had no idea they had inherited property in some faraway Italian village.

Santo Stefano has that spare, carved-from-the-mountain look that comes from using the same bleached-bone limestone to pave the streets and build the houses. It is the kind of town where everyone you pass says “Buongiorno!” and no one locks their front door (the giant keys are really just to make guests feel more comfortable).

In each Sextantio room, a complimentary bottle of basil liqueur sits on the cassettone, a hope chest that has long been the most important piece of furniture in any Italian household. The decor is largely limited to sturdy, serviceable antiques, creaky clothes cupboards, and a few oddball found objects: an altar railing against the wall, an old saddle thrown over a sawhorse, ancient spinning trestles, or iron farm implements.

There is a touch of modern whimsy in the lighting: a single halogen spot aimed to reflect off a gold-leafed disc or a cluster of tiny glass globes like outsized grapes with a light bulb nested in the middle. For the most part, however, all modern minimalist design is limited to the bathrooms, with their Philippe Starcke toilets and oversized showerheads. (Some bathrooms are in a separate room but often, out of architectural necessity, they are wedged into the corner of the bedroom behind a new wall or screen.)

Sextantio is decidedly not for those who insist on CNN and a minibar, and the manager, Giovanni, is perfectly happy to recommend area hotels for guests who don’t appreciate the peasant-rustic atmosphere and panic when they realize there are no telephones in the rooms.

It is also not for those who prefer what Daniele dismisses as “the exasperating tendency toward uniformity” that defines most hotels. Every room at Sextantio is different. Some are dark and cave-like, others have sloping beamed ceilings and working fireplaces. Six units in a modest palazzo on the main square share a small loggia on the upper floor with countryside views. One room has a 16th-century painted wood ceiling; in another, metal rings hang from the low barrel vault above the bed, a sign that it was once a stall.

“We put all the electrical wires, fiber optic cables, and radiant heating in the floor so we wouldn’t ruin the walls,” says Giovanni, patting the smoke-blackened walls of the former stall lovingly. “We wanted to preserve their genuine patina of age.”

That, in fact, is the key philosophy behind the Sextantio project: to restore, not renovate.

Keeping It Real

“Many operations wipe the slate clean and erase the local patrimony to start anew,” says Daniele. “We use arte povera furnishings and architectural elements, even if they’re a bit beaten up, because it's conserving part of the material culture of the region.”

The Sextantio team consulted regional museums on local traditions before scouring the town and surrounding area for the everyday antiques and other raw materials that would help them re-create the simple homes once inhabited by shepherds, farmers, and artisans.

 “The point of our project,” says Giovanni, “was to keep everything as authentic as possible.” He proudly points out that the thick wooden doors are held together with hand-cut nails and that the beds inside are high off the ground—“like Grandma’s bed!”—generally consisting of a plank laid across iron sawhorses and topped with a hand-stuffed mattress.

The sheets and bedspreads were hand-woven on old-fashioned looms by a young weaver only after she had interviewed local women about their traditions, patterns, and textile uses. That weaver now has her own sales outlet and workshop in a little artisans’ courtyard in town where Sextantio provides free space to her and two other craftspeople—one who makes old-fashioned soaps and another who sells antiques and sculptures made from found objects.

Daniele, ever the philosopher, sees it all as a way of finding the nobility in the age-old traditions of Italy’s poorest people and of drawing attention to the richness and worth of their way of life. When asked about the reaction of his guests—about 80 percent of whom are foreigners (the rest are Italians with “a nostalgia for the Italy of 30 years ago”)—Daniele says the most beautiful, if tragic, comment came from an Italian woman who grew up in poverty: “You gave dignity to something I was always taught to be ashamed of.”

This adherence to authenticity and care for local sensibilities not only says a lot for the Sextantio team but might also be an enormous factor in their success.

The Sextantio Effect

The Sextantio Culinary Marathon
The Sextantio project continues to draw like-minded associates. Niko Romito, a self-taught local chef whose creative cuisine at his high-end restaurant further south in Abruzzo garnered him a Michelin star last year, actually approached Daniele’s team when he heard about an opening for a new cook in the fall of 2007. Romito had been looking for an opportunity to focus on reviving traditional regional recipes, especially dishes enjoyed among the poorer cultures and those tied to the agricultural and religious calendars.

When it comes to dining, Sextantio seems to have taken its cue from other restaurants in these parts. They all assume that each meal will be your last, and overcompensate accordingly.

The assault on your waistline begins at the Sextantio breakfast spread: fresh cheeses, piles of salamis and hams, homemade tortes and pastries, juices, yogurts, bread, and a half-dozen local preserves and honeys.

At the Sextantio-run Tisaneria, a cave-like café specializing in herbal infusions and tisanes, a $7 (€5) cup of tea comes with a selection of biscotti, cookies, chocolate-covered almonds, berries and dried peaches preserved in liquor, and a bubbling chocolate fondue for dipping strawberries and slices of banana.

Then there’s dinner, which may alter a bit under Romito’s direction, but for the moment opens with a flute of spumanti (Italian sparkling wine) and a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine. For antipasto there are three kinds of salami and prosciutto (all made in-house), grilled eggplant and zucchini, pecorino cheese both aged and fresh, a dollop of fresh ricotta topped with grape marmalade, and irresistible tiny fried pizzette puffs atop which balance thin slices of sharp pecorino.

Then comes a trio of first courses: lenticchie (tiny mountain lentils) with sticks of crisp bruschetta, farro (a barley-like grain) with porcini mushrooms and saffron, and homemade chittarini, a kind of square spaghetti (hand-cut with a “guitar” of closely spaced wires) tossed with a lamb ragú. Following this is a course of grilled lamb with roasted potatoes and red peppers, a green salad, and dessert—perhaps sliced strawberries and a saffron-flavored ricotta meringue sprinkled with raw sugar. To top it all of, the bodaciously bitter digestivo di ginestra, a liquor made from the roots of a local broom-like herb.

The Sextantio restaurant may close on Mondays or Tuesdays (they haven’t yet decided), but Giovanni is happy to reserve at any of the other five restaurants around town, each of which tries to outdo the other in how much local cuisine they can stuff into you for $42 (€30). Our picks: the Ostello del Cavaliere (, with valley views from the terrace, and La Locanda sul Lago (, an inn by the small lake in the valley below, a ten-minute stroll from town.
“I lived in fear that I would come off as a neocolonialist,” says Daniele who, half-Swedish, half-Sicilian, and raised in Milan, could easily have been run out of town as a carpetbagger. But he was careful to consult with existing residents over how best to represent their local traditions in everything from the home furnishings to the recipes in the restaurant (see sidebar).

“In empowering the local people to rediscover their heritage, they soon got behind the project,” he says, even if some grumbled about the way many Italian news articles gave the inaccurate impression that Daniele “refounded the town.” The tangible economic benefits surely helped, too.

Giovanni says that, prior to the opening of Sextantio, Santo Stefano “used to have just the little bar on the main square and an osteria that existed largely to provide meals for the local priest. Now it's a town with 80 people and 200 beds. It has put the town on the map.”

There are now at least three bars and shops selling local food specialties around town, and a half-dozen B&Bs, inns, and farm stays. Five restaurants cater to the increasing flow of visitors who pick Santo Stefano as a base for exploring the surrounding national park, 579 square miles of forested mountain wilderness (—though for English go to What’s more, property values have increased five-fold.

“Once these villages have a touristic purpose,” says Daniele, “they are reborn.”

For some, the temptation might be to build even bigger, but Sextantio is working with the regional government to maintain the precarious balance of respect for tradition with sensible development while avoiding suburban blight.

“As well as preserving the villages, we are blocking unsuitable new construction and safeguarding the countryside,” says Daniele, describing recent agreements with the local council and the national park to “prevent any new building in the village and protect the surrounding areas from unsympathetic development.”

The Future

Albergo diffuso is not yet a legal lodging classification in Italy—Sextantio is officially considered a combination of residence and rental room operation. For Daniele, though, what his project is called is less important than its results and the spread of its philosophy. “We hope our guiding principles of conservation will become a model for saving and preserving abandoned villages in Southern Italy.”

Armed with a pile of positive press since Sextantio opened in 2005, Daniele is now taking the concept to a half-dozen half-abandoned towns in the Abruzzi, Molise, and Basilicata regions along Italy’s mountainous spine and rural south.

He and his team have made the most headway on a project in Matera, an amazing city founded in i sassi—deep ravines honeycombed with caves. These caves constituted the entire city for millennia, although eventually most residents built a cube-like room with a front door over their cave’s entrance.  In the mid-20th century, however, authorities relocated most of the population to a modern city on the plateau above.

In recent years residents and businesses have begun trickling back into the ravine’s caves as they have slowly been linked to the municipal services grid. By the time you read this, the first few cave-homes in Daniele’s Matera albergo diffuso operation should already be open.

“It might be far from the canon of what's considered beautiful,” Daniele says of these isolated and forgotten corners of Italy steeped in poverty and traditions largely untrammeled by the modern world. “But ever since I was a child, I thought this was a beautiful and worthy part of Italy. ” If Daniele has his way, it will be part of Italy that more and more tourists will be drawn to discover, and in the process help to preserve.

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Santo Stefano in Sessanio
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