The region of Abruzzo is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. The Medieval hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the L’Aquila province, sits on the edge of the Campo Imperatore plain in the Apennine Mountains, within the breathtakingly beautiful Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park.
S. Stefano di Sessanio has ancient origins (paleolithic!) and a Medieval imprint, but it flourished under the Medicis in the late 1500s with agriculture contributing to the area’s economy mostly thanks to transhumance. This is the ages-old moving of herds of sheep from the valleys to high altitude mountain pastures in summer. Unfortunately in the mid-19th century the area suffered from extreme poverty leading to mass emigration. S. Stefano di Sessanio fell into abandonment.
The conservation efforts introduced here since 2004 spearheaded by Italo-Swede philanthropist Daniele Kihlgren to preserve the area’s cultural heritage, restored dignity to the pastoral culture that once inhabited these remote rural areas. Kihlgren purchased a portion of the village and maintained the smoke-blackened walls and original buildings intact. With a team of enlightened historians, architects and anthropologists, he re-purposed native materials and reconditioned ancient arte povera furnishings for his unique project: Kihlgern urged local authorities to leave Santo Stefano in its original condition.
In 2007 his supported “embargo” on building new houses turned into a legislative ban on the use of concrete. This has led to a complete turnaround: with a permanent population in the very low hundreds, today S. Stefano di Sessanio is a delightful vacation getaway for lovers of nature, fine dining and R&R. By encouraging investment in the traditional trades and crafts of the region, the village now boasts many shops that sell locally produced handicrafts like lace, woven fabrics, beeswax candles and artisanal soap. Others sell honey and jam, cured meats, olive oil, grains and cereals, local cheese, as well as the region’s famous lentils.
Welcome back to our “Weekend escape to…” series showcasing our favorite weekend getaways. Ready to travel back in time?
4:00 p.m. – Time warp back to the 16th century
Best to leave Rome after lunch and arrive in the afternoon. Park in the large public lot, or get off the bus on the main Strada Statale 17 and ask your hotel or guesthouse manager to come meet you at the village entrance under the stone archway on Via Benedetta. Check in, shower and take a nap. Slow down, drop your shoulders and breathe in the crisp mountain air.
As far as lodging choices, I’m loyal to Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. This is a unique and amazing “diffused hotel” meaning that its suites, restaurants, tea room and reception are scattered throughout the village – some with bathtubs, fireplaces and kindling provided by the management, heated stone floors, mountain views and wooden beamed ceilings. But the town boasts a number of charming guesthouses, B&Bs and holiday rentals.
6:30 p.m. – Explore the village
Rested (and by now, also hungry) you can head out for a pre-dinner stroll, checking out the hamlet’s small botteghe (shops), art galleries and cafes tucked into ancient stone structures.
Get lost in the maze of cobblestone alleys that creep around the hilltop village, catch a glimpse of mountains and belltowers around every corner, duck under dozens of centuries-old archways. Orange light filters from the windows and smoke puffs out of all the chimneys. As you walk along the quiet streets, deeply inhale the crisp air and actually hear your stomach grumble.
Stroll under the Medici Tower which partially collapsed in the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake (restoration is slow due to shortage in funds) and head straight to Il Cantinone. Here Serena and Franco will make you feel at home pouring robust local wine and replenishing your empty cheese and charcuterie boards, soup bowls and oven-baked bread basket. There are board games and coffee table books to leaf through while sipping and chewing.
9:00 a.m. Buongiorno!
Energize with potent coffee and cappuccino, homemade pastries and cakes, ricotta, jam and honey – most likely every place you decide to stay at will have a nonna making homemade food for breakfast and spoiling you. Now you’re ready to set off to explore the surroundings. Even in the warmer months, remember Santo Stefano di Sessanio is at 1,250 meter (4,100 ft) elevation above sea level, so bring a wind-breaker and a scarf. Don’t forget your camera!
10:30 a.m. Hike to Rocca Calascio
Take a bus or drive only 5 Km (3 mi) to the neighboring town of Calascio, located south-east of Santo Stefano di Sessanio. I’ve walked there and back on more than one occasion, it’s absolutely doable. Towering above the charming village of Calascio, an ancient Normann settlement, is Rocca Calascio.
The mountaintop fortress is the highest in the Apennines. Intended as a military watchtower, the 10th century structure became the set for many scenes of the film Ladyhawke with Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer and Matthew Broderick. A nearby favourite spot is Santa Maria della Pietà, an octagonal church built in the 17th century. It is located near the fortress, at a slightly lower elevation. Stunning views here.
1:00 p.m. A tavola!
You can stop for a bite at Il Nido del Falco in Calascio, or head back to S. Stefano di Sessanio.
Just downhill from S. Stefano di Sessanio is a small pond from which horse trails and excursion paths depart. La Locanda sul Lago, a small inn that rents out clean and simply furnished rooms, has a cozy family-run restaurant. Fire grilled arrosticini and sausages, soup and loads of homegrown vegetables. Book a table with Francesca or Simone.
4:00 p.m. Merenda
After a restorative snooze, go for merenda (afternoon snack) at Tisaneria e Botteghe, a “tea room” that serves teas and herbal brews, hot chocolate, cakes and pizzelle slathered with jam and honey – all homemade. While you switch off your phone and detox with a herbal mix designed just for your health needs, the kids can take a quick weaving lesson on Giovanna’s loom. Here you can purchase a wide variety of hand woven fabics, artisanal soap, candles and other hand made local products of Abruzzo.
6:00 p.m. Take a class
After a hot bubble bath (or another nap by the fireplace) you may want to take a yoga class or follow a lesson in local edible plant foraging. Mirella organizes them regularly. Call her mobile +39 347 7242841
8:00 p.m. Is it dinnertime yet?
It seems all there is to do here is eat and relax. But once you get into S. Stefano di Sessanio-mode it’s pretty much all you’ll want to do. Follow the candle-lit path to La Locanda Sotto gli Archi, a gorgeous restaurant belonging to the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso.
Sit by the crackling fireplace and enjoy the rustic yet elegant atmosphere. The menu changes daily and features what would have been available and eaten in the 16th century using native, locally grown crops and game to recreate original Medicean recipes.
10:00 a.m. Check-out
After breakfast and picking up delicious souvenirs and depending on the season, you can go on a horseback trail ride in the meadows, a guided snowshoe excursion, or a cheese-making lesson with Mimì, a local shepherd.
For the journey back to modern times, have Claudio and Laura at Ovino make you a delicious sandwich with ventricina and pecorino. They are located in the main square, Piazza Medicea. Pack a couple of craft beers and you’re good to go.Arrivederci!
S. Stefano di Sessanio is only 150 Km (96 miles) east of Rome, a two-hour drive along the A24 highway. You can either take the Assergi exit down the side of the National Park (scenic and beautiful, but longer and often closed for snow in winter), or the L’Aquila Est exit towards Pescara. After 20 Km along the S.S.17 turn left up towards Barisciano. Drive 10 curvy Km (6 mi) to S. Stefano di Sessanio.
An even better idea is taking the bus from the Tiburtina bus depot TIBUS. Tickets can be purchased before climbing on. Take this bus from Rome to L’Aquila (make sure you get off at the Autostazione L’Aquila Collemaggio station in order to make your connection) and then take this other bus to S. Stefano in Sessanio. Leave the bulky luggage behind and travel light.
The Best Time to Visit
I love visiting S. Stefano di Sessanio at any time of the year. I often go for my birthday, which happens at the beginning of May and following an Italian national holiday. If the holiday falls on a Thursday or Tuesday, Italians take advantage of the holiday to “fare ponte” – ‘bridge’ the weekend by taking the middle day off. Another great time to go is late September/early October. Fireplaces crackle, the air is crisp and tables are laden with autumnal goodies, like soup, chestnuts, mushrooms, lentils, pumpkin… Remember that the low season is best for travel deals including lower prices for lodging, airfare and car rental too. Restaurants and shops are also less crowded. In case of extreme weather, some venues in S. Stefano di Sessanio may close in early January (to re-open in late March) due to snow blocking all access roads.
Where to Stay
Sextantio Albergo Diffuso – Diffused hotel
Residenza La Torre – Holiday rental
La Bifora Le Lune – B&B
La Casa Sù – Le Dimore del Borgo – Self-catered holiday flats
Le Case della Posta – fully equipped holiday rental
Where to Eat
Food & Wine Shopping
Apiario Collevernesco – honey producer
Ovino – charcuterie, cheese, craft beer, natural wine
Az. Agricola Ciarrocca Rosa – farmstead selling lentils, beans, farro, olive oil
I Sapori del Borgo – homemade biscotti and cakes
Alimentaria Enotica Montana – deli that sells cured meats, cheese, natural wines. A handful of tables in the apple and almond tree grove…
Ladyhawke – portions of the 1985 film were shot on location in Rocca Calascio and Campo Imperatore
The Name of the Rose – a number of sequences of the 1986 film starring Sean Connery were filmed in Rocca Calascio
The American – the 2010 drama starring George Clooney was entirely filmed in Castel del Monte, Calascio, Santo Stefano di Sessanio and Campo Imperatore
Images © Eleonora Baldwin – David de Vleeschauwer – Sextantio.it
Santo Stefano di Sessanio was my pick for the American Express Essentials website’s roundup of hottest travel destinations for 2017.