Turning Back Time. Staying in a Medieval Mountain Village in Abruzzo
It’s snowing. Not the kind of little feathery flakes that kiss your face, or tickle the palm of an outstretched hand, but icy crystals that flatten into ninja stars as they hit the windscreen.
The sat nav, it seems has interpreted my love of getting off the beaten track into a death wish.
I'd convinced my rule-following husband to get off the autostrada and take the more picturesque ‘stradale provinciale’ route and just over an hour ago, we’d been congratulating ourselves on that decision, as we drank handfuls of cold, fresh mountain water from a spout at a roadside spring called the ‘fonte d’amore.’ We'd kissed, laughed and got back in the car admiring the crisp, sunny winter’s day, the vast blue sky, the ruggedly beautiful countryside.
Then, the inexplicably Irish voice of the sat nav directs us to turn off up an even smaller road. We’re doubtful, but obey. It’s fine to start with, then we begin to climb and the jaunty Italian pop song on the radio dies to a crackle. We manoeuvre the navy Fiat around hairpin bends and switchbacks, higher and higher into the remote Gran Sasso mountains (one of the only places in Italy still inhabited by wolves as my husband reminds me) into a malevolent mist that reduces visibility to the front of the car hood. The road, such as it is, is wide enough for a single car, with a sheer, unprotected drop on my side. The wind picks up and snow increases in intensity, now coming down sideways. I clutch my handbag on my lap like a nervous nonna and suggest abandoning the car and walking the rest of the way, but my husband scoffs.
“It’s fine, we’re nearly there and no-one’s going to come down this road anyway,” he says blithely. I white-knuckle it and eventually the mist clears a little, the wind blows itself out and, ringrazie a dio! we seem to have arrived at the top.
Our formerly chatty sat nav lady remains defiantly silent on where our accommodation might be, however. Eventually I direct my husband to stop at an alpine hostel and go in to find someone to discuss our possible whereabouts, hoping to polish my rusty Italian a little.
Me: "Good day."
Disinterested receptionist: "day"
Me: "Not is possible to find the my accommodation. Possible can you help me?"
Him: (Yawning) "Where you stay?"
Me: "Hotel diffused Sextantio."
Him: (Pointing) "Down there."
Me: "The stair down?"
Me: "I must abandon car and go by foot with baggages?"
So we pull into a parking lot outside a restaurant that seems to be closed for the winter and grab our bags from the boot. My husband protestingly puts on the snow chains in preparation for tomorrow and we slip and crunch our way under the watchful eye of two large dogs with elbow-deep coats lounging on their bellies in the snow and down a wooden staircase into the village of Santa Stefano di Sessanio.
“Dov’e?” (where?) my Italian cousin had asked when I told her where we were going.
Santo Stefano is in Abruzzo, a region largely ignored by both foreign and domestic tourists, except perhaps for sun-starved northern Europeans who come for the unremarkable beaches and conga lines of striped umbrella lines on the Adriatic coast. But this Abruzzo, while just two hours from Rome, is green and untamed, mystical, magical and mountainous, rich in legends of dastardly brigands, witches, and enchantresses; home to villages where time has frozen.
One of Italy’s ‘borghi piu belli’ ( ‘most beautiful villages’) Santo Stefano di Sessanio (known as ‘Sextantia’ by the ancient Romans) was close to total abandonment with just 70 inhabitants still living within its walls when Milanese entrepreneur Daniele Kihlgren rode in in 1999 - a white knight on a motorcycle. He fell in love with its unmodernised medieval beauty and determined to do what he could to save it. To this end, he bought 20 or so properties, many from owners who had emigrated abroad and set about restoring them using traditional methods. Today, those properties operate as Sextantio ‘albergo diffuso’ – a ‘hotel’ with a main reception area but accommodation in the houses scattered around the village.
It feels, as we collect our huge iron key and walk down the cobblestoned laneway to our room, that apart from the receptionist, we are the only people in the village. It’s as quiet as a morgue, the mist swirling around the age-polished limestone buildings, the top of a crenellated tower just visible. Our key opens a dark wooden door and we step through to a large open space with flagstone floors – a former barn. A narrow stone staircase, each stair smoothed by generations of feet leads us up to the living area where a fire crackles and spits. There’s a small balcony overlooking the narrow laneway and across the tiled tops of the neighbouring roofs. On the other side of the room a deep-silled window frames a panorama of snow-dusted pine trees and further into the distance, the 'V' of a deep green valley. The room's furniture is dark and rustic – rescued, restored or recreated as it would have been in medieval times; the ceiling is crossed with heavy beams and the bedspread has apparently been hand-loomed by someone in the village. You can, we read, have weaving lessons with her. Or learn how to bake bread or make soap with other skilled local craftspeople.
By the time we're ready to go out, the temperature has dropped to minus 4. We brace ourselves for the short walk to the cantinone, our breath suspended in the air as we step over the ledge and through the big wooden door into the warmth.
Santo Stefano in its current form dates from the 12th century and like its neighbours was once owned by the powerful Florentine Medici family whose coat of arms, the Signoria of Florence hangs above one of the gateways. During their era, the tunnels that connect the laneways were excavated to protect the noble family from the vagaries of the weather, the tower (still being restored after the 2009 earthquake) constructed and local craftsmen engaged to make deep stone windows frames, mullioned windows and fine balconies. In those days, there was wealth here - Santo Stefano and the surrounding villages made up an important centre for wool production. Unfortunately, the region's fortunes declined with the collapse of the wool industry after the introduction of synthetics and gradually many of the village's inhabitants left, looking for a better life.
The cantinone is a wine cellar/bar that, with its rough stone floors, low ceilings, and rough wooden tables and chairs wouldn’t look out of place in a ‘Game of Thrones’ episode. Here, at last are people - bonhomie, a roaring fire and, most importantly, wine. Abruzzo may not be as famous a wine region as Tuscany or Piedmont, but it’s home to a very drinkable Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and we taste our way through a couple of glasses in the name of research; from soft and savoury to big and brooding.
After drinks, we slip and slide in our poorly-chosen footwear to dinner at Sextantio’s own restaurant, “Locanda Sotto gli Archi.” (Inn Under the Arches.) It’s romantically rustic, with wooden furniture, limed walls, candlelight and classical music. All of the plates and cups are handmade to fit the age and ambience of the Locanda and the village. The hyper-local menu attempts to recreate (with a little more finesse I’m guessing) authentic ancient regional dishes. We eat a soup made from a rare strain of lentils - venerated for their unique flavour and grown only on the slopes of the Gran Sasso in plots so narrow they have to be hand-harvested; ‘roasted’ polenta with lamb and pork sausage ragu, lamb and vegetables scented with rosemary and wild boar in red wine; all hearty, delicious and warming. Our waiter brings us a little cup of a tisane of bitter gentian root each, good he tells us for digestion (at least I think that’s what he says.)
It’s stopped snowing by the time we’re done and the village is hushed and a little spooky, the mist swirling around the golden glow of the antique street lamps. We hurry as best we can back to our room and the comfort of the fire and lie in bed beneath hand-painted wooden roof tiles whose story we are too soporific - bellies filled with wine and good food, to decode.
The following morning we see the village properly for the first time – it’s as spectacular as the hints revealed through the mist had suggested. Unfortunately, we have somewhere else to be. At the top of the staircase, the two dogs still lie in the snow, as if they have been there all night. They get up and amble after an old man with a deeply lined face and woollen hat pulled over his ears as he walks towards us. I see, too late that his intent is not to greet to us, but to pass us, on the way to somewhere over my shoulder but I have already smiled and stopped. The dogs also come to a stop but the man says nothing and doesn’t return my smile. To break the awkward moment, I stroke the deep, soft fur of the one that looks like a giant depressed golden retriever.
Me: "They are belong to you, this dogs?"
Me: "Then to who. Who are the dogs belonging?"
Him. "No one. They are village dogs."
Me. "Ah. Very good. So the road is clear to go down the mountain?"
Me: "Yesterday was not good. Very bad the road. Slippery and small." (I point down the road for emphasis).
Him: "What? Why did you go that way. That is not the right way. Go straight. That way. It is easy." He waves his arms in the opposite direction and walks off.
“Thank you. Good day sir,” I call after him.
The dogs resettle on their patch of snow.
My husband grumbles as he disassembles the webbing of snow chains that he thought were ridiculous in the first place. He wants to turn around and go back the way we came, but even though there’s no snow or mist, I just can’t face it. So we follow the old man’s vague instructions. And it is a road, a real proper road, not a goat track. It’s smooth and wide and easy and we are down before I know it, back to the 21st century.
As we rejoin the autostrada, even the Irish sat nav lady seems to have a new, optimistic lilt to her voice.
I make a promise then and there to my husband that from now on we’ll stick to the road more travelled, but in truth, neither of us believe me.