Is the fate of many unique, virtually abandoned villages in the unknown corner of Abruzzo sealed? Not if Swedish-Italian millionaire Daniele Kihlgren can help it. In 1999, a solitary motorbike trip proved to be a revelation for this modern-day idealist. By chance, he stumbled upon the almost-deserted hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park in the Apennines. He was struck speechless, not only by the outstanding beauty of the setting, but also because almost everything was untouched. “Time seemed to have stood perfectly still – no concrete buildings, no factories, no tourist infrastructure like the Swiss chalets you find in so many Abruzzese towns,” says Kihlgren. It wasn’t long before he returned to Santo Stefano – not only with his motorbike, but also with a plan to save this village from extinction. Kihlgren, in his mid-forties, has been described as a maverick, a millionaire with enormous willpower. And where there’s a will, there’s a way. Kihlgren bought a house in Santo Stefano and soon many more. Next step was signing a deal with the local authorities to leave Santo Stefano in its original condition – in other words, an embargo on building new houses and a ban on the use of concrete. In exchange, Kihlgren would spend a substantial sum, up to €4.5 million – a mix of his own and borrowed money – on breathing new life into the village and giving it a second chance. “This has nothing to do with renovation,” Kihlgren insists. “It’s about restoration – restoring honour. I had a unique opportunity to save one of the last authentic places in Italy from the grip of cement.” In 2004, five years after Kihlgren first wandered through Santo Stefano, the village was ready for its second life. Kihlgren received help from some big names, including the renowned British architect David Chipperfield, who also supports the concept of ‘conservative restoration’, or restoring while maintaining original features.The result of the first project here in Santo Stefano di Sessanio is Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. A fairly recent concept in the hotel business, an albergo diffuso is a ‘hotel’ scattered throughout a town in different houses. Guests are assimilated into the village and feel part of the community. Kihlgren’s Sextantio originally had 32 houses, but some have been sold to foreigners. Buying a completely restored house from Kihlgren costs about €1200 to €1500 (from $1470) per square metres. The rest serve as hotel rooms with a central reception area, hotel manager and staff.The rooms usually come with a kitchenette, a table and chairs, a fireplace – Spartan luxury. “We try to retain everything that refers back to village life,” says Kihlgren. “Only local materials are used, and old furniture and artefacts were sourced in the area. Modern technology, such as under-floor heating and light switches, is discreetly hidden. We also conducted research with the National Museum of Abruzzo and talked to the elderly residents of Santo Stefano to discover how people used to live and what materials they used. Even beter, after a couple of days staying here, you feel connected with the place. Probably just how Kihlgren felt the moment he decided to save a part of Italian heritage.
How to get there
Santo Stefano di Sessanio is 150 kilometres (a 1.5-hour drive) from Rome and 100 kilometres from the Adriatic coast and the city of Pescara. The best way to explore the region is by car. Sextantio Albergo Diffuso has 27 rooms dotted throughout several buildings, ranging from double rooms to suites, which are twice as large.
A Classic Room with breakfast for two starts at a bargain €160 ($196) per night in low season. While the setting is perfect, there’s definitely room for improvement on the hospitality side.