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Rural life in the mountains – with no fuss

By Gery de Pierpont

Experiencing a "diffused hotel" in Italy

You don’t come to discover a famous person, an artistic style or even a specific era when you come to Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a little village 1250 metres up in the Italian Abruzzi. It is more a question of tuning in and experiencing deep feelings – a whole slice of human destiny: the unassuming rural living patterns of the former inhabitants of a medieval mountain village, once a fief of the Medici. We shall actually be staying as guests on their property while under their roof.

(c) Sextantio Albergo diffuso

(c) Sextantio Albergo diffuso

You don’t have to be born in Italy to feel concerned by rural life: the blood of various craftsmen, shepherds or farmers, our ancestors, flows through the veins of us all. And yet what memories remain of their simple, harsh lives, when they had to contend with the vagaries of Mother Nature and the whims of the powerful? What do we know about these men and women, who survived from season to season by dint of hard work, ingenuity, prayer and (often) sacrifice? What customs and traditions did they hand down from generation to generation? At Santo Stefano di Sessanio it is still possible to sleep in their rooms, feel their woollen bed coverlets, see flames dance in their kitchen hearth and all but enjoy a pan of beans and ham, washed down with some local red wine, almost in their company

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo Stefano

An exceptional step back in time, all-embracing, moving, even a touch anthropological – although this word is far too scientific for an experience enjoyed primarily with your senses and heart. There are so many stories to be told, each conveying a fragment of existence. As for the layout of the houses, they form organic groups, around (and sometimes above) the labyrinthine little streets.

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo StefanoWhat about the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of rooms, stables, cellars, living spaces and other tiny rooms, hidden away behind enormous walls and vaulted ceilings? What of the patina of the furniture, the worn stone and the hundreds of years of wear and tear, reflecting time-honoured gestures repeated since time immemorial? Even the dim light permeating the houses was all they had in the past to illuminate the working areas. This is where sheep’s cheese was aged, blankets were woven, herbal liqueurs were prepared and soap made from sheep fat. There are few windows, all small, to protect them from the cold in winter and the torrid heat of summer. The wall plaster is uneven due to the application of countless layers of smoke-blackened lime wash, the door locks, the alcoves where tallow lamps were placed … all is still there.

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo StefanoThe Sextantio “Albergo diffuso” (diffused hotel) is a bit like a myth for an archaeologist such as myself. Not for the “little discoveries” that could be made, the “treasures” that could be dug out of the ground, but because it is almost like living cheek by jowl with the former owners as they go about their daily tasks. It is their rural life we try to piece together in our imagination during excavations – every time a bit of wall, ancient pavement or old fireplace is brought to the surface. Danile Kihlgren, who bought most of the ruined houses on the site, with the architects and countless local craftsmen who have helped breathe new life into these authentic remains, have done a magnificent job. It is emblematic of a new concept in the preservation of our rural heritage (“minor” does not enter into it…).

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo StefanoThe “diffused hotel” offered by Daniele Kihlgren and his “Sextantio” project aim to bring back life to abandoned rural habitats by transforming them into “hotel-villages”. Each house has been restored in a minimalist style, retaining its original arrangement, timeless atmosphere, construction materials and traces of former activities. Where the wooden frames or furniture have disappeared, original doors and furniture from other old houses in the Abruzzi have replaced them. Most of the large rooms have been converted into canteens or herbal tea corner and small boutiques stocked with local products while the family homes, no two the same, have come into their own once more and welcome passing guests. As for the reception area, it is housed at the entrance to a cave, once used as a pig barn …

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo StefanoNot to worry, the Sextantio hostels do not oblige their guests to wash themselves as in medieval times (with a bucket of cold water and an old linen cloth). The rooms are all fitted with the latest amenities, in a style so pure that it blends surprisingly well into the environment. The water pipes, electric wire and heating system have all been cleverly camouflaged in the thick floors and walls. However, you will not necessarily find a chair, table or wardrobe … (chests were generally used in the past). It should be specified that if there is no telephone, television or mini-bar in the rooms, there is wifi access.

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo StefanoYou cannot mention the village of Santo Stefano without evoking its wonderfully friendly atmosphere. Everyone meets everyone with sparkling eyes in the little village streets. At meal times people congregate in the common rooms by the fireside and listen to Italian folk music. The wine followed by the mountain herb “liqueur” just flows. Conversations with fellow diners sparkle round the large tables. Everyone enjoys the same wonderful fresh air and the fragrance of the same handmade soap. The talk is all of walks, what can be seen locally, profound disconnection with busy every day life … and what about the regional cuisine offered by the canteen with its mountain dishes: smoked cheeses and air-dried sausage, polenta, home made bread, lentil soup, nettle liqueur, multi-coloured beans, crab-apples, pear juice and biscuits …

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Santo Stefano

Certainly Santo Stefano will linger in my memory a long time. It is as if this stay has awoken very, very old souvenirs buried deep within me for generations …

Don’t you feel that we are all linked together by a thread to the deepest roots of humanity?

More info about the Sextantio Albergo diffuso of Santo Stefano di Sessanio

 

Comments

André Dupont

04-07-2017

Nous sommes rentrés d'Italie, après deux jours passés à Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
J'ai vraiment été épaté de voir comment se village revivait – malgré le tremblement de terre – alors que nous l'avions découvert en 2000 quasiment complètement abandonné. Ce village est vraiment exceptionnel et les alentours – Rocca Calascio, notamment – ne le sont pas moins . A l'intérieur, nous n'avons eu accès qu'aux deux salles (en plus de notre chambre) – le restaurant et le bar - dépendant de l'hôtel, mais elles sont toutes deux fabuleuses.
Concernant l'hébergement, c'est évidemment une expérience tout à fait particulière et nous pensons avoir bien compris la philosophie qui sous tend ce projet. Si j'avais une critique à émettre, c'est que la recherche de l'authenticité nuit un peu à l'authenticité. Pourquoi par exemple, pour le mobilier ne pas avoir fait la même démarche que pour le sanitaire en optant pour quelque chose de plus contemporain, ce qui eut, selon moi , davantage mis en valeur la qualité des espaces intérieurs, en leur gardant bien entendu les décors sans rien y modifier, comme c'est le cas.
Mais bon, ceci n'est pas très important et l'expérience laissera un très bon souvenir. Merci encore de nous y avoir entraîné.

Merci Emilie pour ton beau commentaire. Je suis heureux de voir que tu as capté sous ma plume l'émotion qui m'a saisi lors de mon séjour à Santo Stefano di Sessanio!
Je ne connaissais pas le projet de Courbefy (dont on ne sais pas très bien vers quoi il évolue...), par contre le village de Castelnau des Fieumarcon (http://www.gascony.org/) se rapproche pas mal du concept des "auberges diffuses" italiennes.
Je vais bien vite en contacter les promoteurs pour me faire une idée par moi-même de l'authenticité du projet ! Géry

Emilie Mayeur

30-08-2015

Très bel article, bravo et merci. Il me fait penser que dans notre société, nous avons trop de choses et ne pouvons apprécier ce que nous possédons. Nous vivons a 100 à l'heure et à peine possédons-nous quelque-chose qu'il est dépassé. Que faisaient nos ancêtres? Ils se transmettaient des biens et les objets avaient une histoire. Nombreux sont ceux qui désirent revenir à l'essentiel et vivre plus sainement. Cet endroit doit être bien agréable et ressourçant, c'est un bel hommage aux hommes qui l'ont bâti que de l'avoir préservé. En France, je ne connais pas de concept identique, certains villages sont réhabilités mais pas de cette manière, c'est dommage. Il y a bien le hameau de Courbefy en perdition qui a fait couler beaucoup d'encre. Il a été racheté pour en faire un lieu artistique et culturel, la mise de départ était de seulement 220.000€ me semble-t-il pour 17 bâtiments. Espérons qu'il sera transformé en havre de paix comme ce joli village de Santo Stefano...

Merci pour cette suggestion inspirante !
Je trouve aussi qu'il y a des leçons à tirer de cette belle initiative italienne. C'est une vraie réussite, notamment du point de vue économique (important à notre époque d'austérité budgétaire), mais aussi pour l'extraordinaire pouvoir d'interpellation de ces villages de montagne, véritables condensés de sagesse humaine, humbles et admirables.
Je ne suis pas très introduit auprès des autorités régionales françaises, mais on peut déjà faire circuler l'information !

Varven Fel

06-10-2014

Dans l'arrière-pays niçois, des villages entiers se sont vidés après la saignée de la première guerre mondiale... J'ai eu la chance d'être invitée par une amie à dormir dans la maison de ses ancêtres quasiment restée en l'état ( avec eau courante et électricité quand même) c'est très émouvant.
On devrait s'inspirer de cette initiative italienne, pour redonner vie à nos villages de montagnes, hors domaine skiable.

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