A Window Into The Past
We recently spent three days in a hidden corner in the south of Italy at the foot of Gran Sasso Mountain. This is an area that hasn’t really been touched by development or the modern world. It’s never been in the tourist spotlight and because of this, it remains untouched, unspoiled, with a sense of authenticity as few areas in Italy maintain today. Here people have found their livelihood from pastoralism, wool and cheese production. We used to study the Appennino abruzzese in school to understand the approach of “transumanza” or transhumance. This involves the grazing of sheep herds in the mountains during the summer time and a migration to the valleys below during the winter season. This form of pastoralism is typical of this area as far back as history can recall; obliging the shepherds to spend the summer months in the high grazing grounds, sleeping in temporary shelters called stazi, located near the wired-fence livestock enclosures known as procoi. These are still visible and in use to this day.
This mountain area has always been secluded, but over the past century, it has suffered a massive exodus of the population, resulting in entire towns being entirely abandoned. Due to this and other unique conditions of the region, the high level of preservation is impressive, even after you account for what has been destroyed by earthquakes or worn away by time. Coming here is like stepping back in time to experience a way of life that is becoming more and more difficult to find on our side of the planet.
Where else can you find stray dogs roaming the streets being freely looked after by local residents along with the help and supervision of the local government? Where else can you observe packs of wild, local Maremma or Pastore Maremmano, roaming free in the highlands; the same way their ancestors roved the plains hundreds of years ago? (Maremma are a breed of sheepdog that Italian shepherds have used for centuries to protect their livestock from wolves). I had never seen anything like it, and I have to say, it was one of the most impressive moments of my stay; similar to seeing wild horses in north America or in some areas of Scotland. Such a liberating and beautiful site. Here, old ladies and men are still content to sit near the road, outside their doors chatting and the children still playing in the streets. Cars are few here as nature triumphs.
One of The Most Beautiful Towns in Italy
For our home base we chose Santo Stefano di Sessanio; a town that is a member of the “Club dei borghi più belli d’Italia“ (“Club of The Most Beautiful Towns in Italy”). It’s based on the south entrance of the Gran Sasso National Park at an altitude of 1200 m above sea level. This was the perfect place to have a full and authentic experience of local life in this region, all while enjoying the comforts of quality, native, accommodations provided by Sextantio Albergo Diffuso.
A Redeeming Concept
As a matter of fact, Santo Stefano is a unique place with an even more unique story. As a tiny mountain village, a century ago, it was home to 3000 people, but only about 100 villagers had remained in recent times. With its abandoned and dilapidated houses crumbling under the merciless hand of time and the harsh winter weather; the town had nearly disappeared entirely. Its saving grace was an innovative concept of restoration and hospitality. A concept that is based on the principle of stopping new building construction in areas where the existing houses are empty and in need of a renovation and, instead, rehabilitating the insolvent structures. Sextantio Albergo Diffuso has acquired and restored many of the village houses and implemented the albergo diffuso or “scattered hotel” concept; named as such, because the hotel is not a single structure, but rather, is composed of a series of reclaimed and renovated structures located throughout the village
The concept is simple, but brilliant. In this case, one property has become the reception, two others have been turned into restaurants, another still, is a café while many more have been converted into accommodations for guests. They are all spread throughout the tiny village, all walking distance from each other. Each property has undergone a thorough renovation, guaranteeing guests maximum comfort and a certain dose of luxury, as would be desired by a modern traveller who is hoping to experience and appreciate the original structures and feel of the place. It’s clear that authenticity and respect for the local artisanal tradition is the heart and soul of the project.
The rooms and other common areas are beautiful and very inspiring. The hospitality is as simple and genuine as the locals who are taking care of you. The atmosphere is very unique, nothing like a hotel stay. It’s as though the entire town becomes the stage of a historic play set in a time long past, and you’re right in the middle of it all. You bathe with handmade, olive oil soap, eat and drink from traditional clay pots, enjoy delicious, traditional foods and rustic candlelit dinners made aglow by local, handmade candles that burn for hours; and it’s the slow burn of these candles that becomes a sort of primitive clock for you to mark the passing of time as the sticks unhurriedly melt away through the evening.
The project has brought so much life back into the village. Small shops and cafés are coming back, the youth from the area are finding jobs allowing them to use their new skills acquired in school, included technology and modern languages. Traditions are honoured and preserved, local products and the ancient ways to produce them are maintained and treasured, becoming new sources of income for the local community. The Sexantatio Hotel organises short cooking courses to teach people how to make bread along with other local oven specialities. They even offer instruction on how to make homemade pasta and how to work with local products, such as truffles, in the kitchen. (Did you know you can also go truffle searching in the woods accompanied by local truffle hunters and their lovely dogs!?). This once, almost abandoned, village is now experiencing new life and sets an example that should be followed in many other depressed regions of Italy along with other neighboring countries.
Journey To Little Tibet
From the village you can easily enjoy excursions to Grotte di Stiffe, Aquila, the beautiful county centre and Assergi.
We drove along the road that takes you to Campo Imperatore (oftentimes referred to as Little Tibet), passing by the fortress known as Rocca as well as Castel del Monte, Mucciante and Rifugio Fonte Vetica. Fonte Vetica is a lodging camp and the best place to taste some local street food. It’s here that you’ll find the famous arrosticini abruzzesi; sheep meat skewers cooked over a barbecue.
The Gran Sasso is the tallest mountain of the Appennini mountain range which runs down the Italian peninsula, resembling a backbone. After the Italian Alps, this range is home to the highest mountain peaks in the country. Campo Imperatore is a plateau, 1800 m above sea level located at the base of Gran Sasso. It is characterized by a flat wide valley, perfect for livestock grazing. It is here that the Alpine Botanical Garden and Astronomical Observatory of Campo Imperatore are located along with the Gran Sasso – Campo Imperatore Ski resort.
From Campo Imperatore you have the most beautiful view of the two peaks of the Gran Sasso; The Small and Big Horn, Corno Grande (2903 m) and Corno Piccolo (2655 m). In between the two mountain peaks lies the Calderone Glacier, the second largest southern glacier in Europe. The mountain landscape is very distinct. It boasts wide flat valleys upon which livestock graze peacefully, a pack of local, wild dogs, dot the green valley with their white fluffy coats, shepherds trail behind their goats and sheep and all of this transpires surrounded by the crisp and silent air.