Sunday, October 1, 2023

Hidden Italy: Santo Stefano di Sessanio – at taste of the Middle Ages

Image: James Ward via Flickr

If you closed your eyes and imagined a Medieval village, Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo in the mountains of central Italy could well be what you are conjuring up: a bunch of stone houses with red-tiled roofs clustered around a tall, crenellated lookout tower.  Although only thirty kilometres by car from the regional capital, L’Aquila Santo Stefano seems to have emerged from a fairy tale, with no car parks, no billboards, no supermarkets.  As one of the old locals told me, ‘Visiting Santo Stefano is like taking a holiday from the modern world.’

Until the early 2000s, Santo Stefano was a village in serious decline.  Its origins go back into the mists of time, probably dating from the 9th century when it started as a small fortification controlling a stretch of the vast highland pastures that surround it.  Sheep were the town’s fortune.  The wool produced in these harsh mountains was of the finest quality, soft and robust, and was used for military uniforms and monks’ cassocks.  The town’s glory days were in the16th century when the Medici family from Florence took control of the wool production and much of the town’s current architecture dates from this boom time: the encircling walls and a number of small but surprisingly elegant palazzi.

When the wool industry collapsed in the mid to late 19th century, due mostly from the new international competition from countries like Canada and Australia (sorry), the town began to dwindle, many people migrating to the USA.  The population dropped from 1,400 in 1901 to around 200 after WW II. 

The decline continued until recent times.  Ironically, this decline has been the key to the town’s latest rebirth, it spared Santo Stefano from the unfortunate modern development that has afflicted many other similar towns in Italy (and beyond!).  In 1999, Daniel Kilhgren, a young entrepreneur of Swedish origin from Milan, was riding his motorbike through the area, when he discovered and fell in love with this beautifully preserved little village.  Literally a few days later, he had bought a third of the houses of Santo Stefano and had decided to revive the town by transforming the tiny, abandoned homes into an ‘albergo diffuso’, independent accommodation organised around a central reception zone.

In collaboration with the local government and the neighbouring national park authority, the acquired homes were painstakingly restored, recycling materials and conserving the simplicity and integrity of the buildings on the outside but also on the inside.  The interiors have retained much of features.  The smoke-stained chimneys, the stone pavements, the wooden doors, the walls and the beamed ceilings are all original, as is the simple furniture.  Even the linen and towels have been produced by traditional methods using traditional fabrica. 

The albergo diffuso, Sextania, has brought new life into the village.  There is now a bar/alimentare (Santo Stefano hadn’t had a bar since 1970), a couple of small restaurants and some B&Bs.  There is a daily guided walking tour of the village.  Santo Stefano has a hum of life, but not too much.  Visiting here, and staying for a couple of days, is indeed like a holiday from the modern world.

Image: James Ward via Flickr

How to get there:

You’ll need a car, or motorbike, to get the most out of your visit to Santo Stefano.  From Rome, you take A 24 autostrada to L’Aquila, taking the L’Aquila Est exit before you arrive in the capital and then the SS 17 for Barisciano and from here follow the signs up a winding road for Santo Stefano in Sessantio.

Where to sleep:

Sextantio (Via Principe Umberto,  The rooms of this ‘albergo diffuso’ are have been created out of old homes, stalls and barns within the village walls.  They have been meticulously restored have all the modern comforts in a traditional key.  Rooms from around 180 euro per night, b&b.

Residenza La Torre (Via degli Archi,  The accommodation is self-contained apartments in restored residences in the centre of the village.  A delicious breakfast in served in the rooms.  From around 75 euro per night.

Where to eat:

Image: James Ward vis Flickr

Locanda Sotto gli Archi (Via Nasario Sauro).  Entering this excellent restaurant in the heart of the village really is like stepping back into the Middle Ages.  It is part of Sextantio and has been created with the same rigour and flair as the accommodation.  The cuisine has also been inspired by research into the villages traditions and uses local produce.

La Bettola di Geppetto (Via Prinicipe Umberto).  A relaxed family-run restaurant that specialises in delicious local home-cooking such lentil soup, pasta amatriciana, arrosticini (lamb skewers) and fresh ricotta with cantucci biscuits.

La Locanda sul Lago.  Set in a restored farmhouse on the shores of a small lake at the foot of the town, this restaurant offers modern versions of traditional dishes, such as spaghetti alla chitarra and barbequed lamb ribs.

What to do: Friday and Saturday


Get to Santo Stefano early so you can check in and explore the village.  Free guided walking tours are available, starting at the council offices.  Check with your accommodation for details.  Otherwise, of course, you can just wander around the village and soak up the atmosphere. 

Things to see include the Porta Urbica, the historic entrance into the village, which was restored in the 16th century and bears the crest of the Medici family; the two village churches (the Chiesa Madre di Santo Stefano, which dates from the 13th century, and Santa Maria delle Grazie, which dates from the 18th century); and the Medici tower (which was built in the 13th century, long before the Medici got here) that was destroyed in the 2009 earthquake but has been painstakingly rebuilt, brick by original brick.

Have an aperitivo at Il Cantinone, part of Sextantio, an atmospheric wine bar set in a vaulted ex-cantina that was originally used to store wine and produce for the bitterly cold winters, and then head off for dinner.

Saturday: explore the surroundings.

Morning: go for a walk

There are a number of other, lovely, beautifully maintained little villages in the mountains close by to Santo Stefano.  Probably the best know is Calascio, which is dominated by a ruined castle, Rocca Calascio.  There is an easy five-kilometre walk from Santo Stefano to the Rocca, which takes around 1 to 1.5 hours.  It follows a marked grassy trail along ridges with a steep climb at the end to the castle.  The castle is a gnarly ruin, with spectacular views as far as the Majella mountains to the north.  It was very important for controlling the very lucrative wool country.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1703 and never rebuilt. The little ‘borgo’, the hamlet at its base, was also destroyed but has recently been restored and brought back to life.  There are a couple of nice little bars for refreshments before following your footsteps back to Santo Stefano in time for lunch.

Afternoon:  go for a drive

Calascio village is a short drive from Santo Stefano.  Despite the disconcerting Fascist declaration on the entrance, a relic of the 1920s (Credere, obbedire, combattere of Believe, obey, fight), Calascio is a charming, peaceful little place and plenty to explore, with some interesting shops and cafes.

The next stop along the way is another charming and beautifully maintained village called Castel del Monte.  From a distance the town has the form of a star, an illusion that is caused by the town’s expansion over the centuries to include the five rises that surrounded the original settlement.  Enclosed by high walls, the town is a labyrinth of narrow lanes, arches and tiny squares. 

Rione Ricetto is the quarter of the town at the foot of the castle.  It is the original nucleus of the town, within its own walls.  Founded in the 9th century, the church of St Mark the Evangelist is located here.  It has three naves and fourteen Renaissance and Baroque altars.  Until the late 19th he tall bell tower, still under repair from the 2009 earthquake, had the double function of ring bells and serving as a lookout town as the area was afflicted by gangs of marauding ‘briganti’ (bushrangers) until the late 1900s.

The main reason for visiting Castel del Monte is the Museo Etnografico, a ‘museo diffuso’ which is spread over five restored homes.  It celebrates the life and traditions of these mountain communities.  The first section looks at the history and economy of the sheep grazing.  The second section looks at the art of wool, weaving and textile production.  The third section is a reconstruction of traditional home life.  The fourth looks at the working life in the fields and the last is based around the ancient communal oven and looks at the bread-making history and traditions.

What to do: Sunday

Morning:  visit the Gran Sasso National Park

The Gran Sasso d’Italia (the Great Rock of Italy) is monolithic rock, 2912 mts high that is the highest point of the Apennine Mountains.  It is known as the Sentinel of Central Italy as well as the King of the Two Seas because on a clear day you can see either side of the Italian peninsula, the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east.  At its feet is the Camop Imperatore, a vast, bare plateau.  Twenty kilometres long, nine kilometres wide and surrounded by mountains, the Campo is also nicknamed the Tibet of Abruzzo.

The Campo Imperatore is only a short drive uphill from Santo Stefano (there is also an eight-kilometre hike following a well-marked trail from Santo Stefano, if you are willing).  The open pastures of the Campo were the fortune of Abruzzo for centuries.  They were the end of the Trattura Magno, a droving trail that started in Foggia, in the north of Puglia, two hundred and fifty kilometres south.  In the spring, enormous flocks of sheep were walked from the tablelands of northern Puglia to the Campo Imperatore, where they would graze on the luscious high-country grasses.  When autumn came, they would be walked back down south.  Historical documents suggest that there were over thirty thousand shepherds and over three million sheep involved each year!  As I mentioned above, unfortunately, the competition from modern producers in the New World in the late 1800s (sorry again) cruelled the pastoral industry in Abruzzo and led to collapse of the local economy and mass migration, mostly to the USA.  Fortunately, thsome flocks are still brought up here in the summer (now transported by trucks, ho hum) but if you come here in rmer months you will still see sheep (and horses and cattle) free-ranging the fields.

The Gran Sasso looms large at the northern end of the valley, where you come to the Albergo Campo Imperatore, a hotel built here in in 1934.  Although it has been closed for many years, and is almost a ruin, it has a fascinating story.  In August 1943, Benito Mussolini was captured by the Allies and held prisoner in the Albergo until 12 September, when he was rescued by some German commandos in a small plane and taken to Munich.  There is a cable car here that takes you up to the Rifugio Duca degli Abruzzi, which has breath-taking views of the plateau and mountains.  There are a number of fairly challenging marked walking trails that radiate from here.

You could lunch here, but for a marvellous truly ‘Abruzzese’ experience, I would suggest driving back down the Campo Imperatore to the locality of Fonte Vetica.  Here you will find two ‘historic’ butchers where you can have a do-it-yourself BBQ lunch.  The most famous butcher of the two is Ristoro Mucciante.

The Campo Imperatore has been used as a location for many films including, in 1977, a grizzly film staring Franco Nero called Autostop Rosso Sangue (Red Blood Hitch Hiking, known in English as Death Drive).  A mock Texaco petrol station was built for the film and abandoned after shooting.  The Mucciante family took it over and turned it into butchery/restaurant.  Inside is a long glass counter all types of meet but prevalently lamb.  Outside are long narrow grills full of hot coals where you barbeque your lunch.  There are trestle tables to sit.  It is a fantastic and slightly surreal experience – Paris Texas meets southern Italy.

Although there is a wide selection, the only thing to choose here are the arrosticini, a classic of the Abruzzo cuisine, which, legend has it, was invented in these parts.  They are long thing kebabs, made up of tiny cubes of mutton (not lamb!) dressed in oil and salt and cooked over the hot coals.  The legend goes that goes that in the 1930s, not wanting to waste anything, two shepherds cut up the meat of an old, no-longer productive ewe into tiny pieces and roasted them over the coals of the campfire….. Whatever the truth, they are finger-licking good and people consume them by the dozen.

Afternoon: visit L’Aquila

L’Aquila, or the Eagle, is an appropriate name for the magnificent mountain capital of the Abruzzi.  The city has a very long history.  It was fonuded by the Sabines and then conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC.  Given its strategic position in the centre of the peninsula and the rich agricultural lands in the valleys that surround it, L’Aquila was fought over for centuries and has a rich ecclesiastical and architectural heritage.

One of the fascinating stories around the city comes the Middle Ages, a profoundly religious era.  In 1252 the city was caught up in the wars between the Popes and the German Holy Roman Emperor and destroyed.  When planning the reconstruction some years later, in honour of its name, it was decided to give the new city the shape of an eagle with spread wings reaching over the two hills.  This then led to a comparison with the shape of Jerusalem, the most important city in the Chrisitan world, which was in Arab hands at the time.  Other geographic, numerological and spiritual comparisons were foun and L'Aquila was considered the western realisation of the Holy City .  The comparison was pushed to the limit when local hero Celestino V was crowned Pope in L’Aquila, he road into the city on a donkey, mimicking Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

In modern times, L’Aquila became a buzzy regional capital with a large student population attending its well-regarded university.  Unfortunately, it, and the surrounding districts, was hit by a devasting earthquake in 2009 which 9 on the Richter scale.  Much of the city was reduced to rubble and over three hundred people were killed.  Great strides have been made in the intervening thirteen years and the city is returning to normality.  Many of its important sites have been restored and, although there are cranes operating and work proceeding, the centre of the city has regained its vibe.

There are some lovely bars and restaurants in L’Aquila and much to see including:

• The Fountain of the 99 spouts (built in 1272)

• The extraordinary bi-coloured Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemagno, where Celestino V was crowned (consecrated in 1287)

• The National Museum of Abruzzo

• MAXXI Museo Nazionale, a museum of contemporary, which was opened in 2021 and is found in the centre of the city.

Finally, as a perfect way to finish your visit, an evening walk around the six-kilometre-long Medieval walls that ring the old city centre before having an aperitivo at Il Vermuttino, overlooking Piazza Regina Margherita or kicking back and making a night of it at the neighbouring Le Petite Clos, celebrated for its wine cellar and cocktails.

All text supplied by Simon Tancred - Hidden Italy Walking Tours. Images by James Ward and Simon Tancred

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