Saving Italy's Mountain Villages
IF DANIELE KIHLGREN had his way, the Italy you experience as a visitor would not be manicured Tuscany or spit-shined Amalfi Coast but the stone-cool inside of a medieval room in a village called Santo Stefano di Sessanio, its mattresses thick with local wool, its fabrics spun by artisans living nearby. Cobblestones and floorboards would be scalloped by a million heels, and windows would open onto landscapes marked by farms from the Middle Ages.
Preserving the features that make a place unique is the mission of Kihlgren’s pair of boutique lodgings (one here and one in Matera), both called Sextantio, the early Roman name for the village where he developed his first hotel. The Swedish-Italian entrepreneur is using tourism to save Southern Italy’s hilltop towns, which are facing extinction after years of emigration.
“Today, we are living in worlds that are losing their identities,” Kihlgren says. “One of the big losses in Italy after the post–World War II economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s is that too many historical places have been replaced by ugly cement housing.” In an ironic twist, Kihlgren’s family fortune came from the same cement industry that built these boxy, anonymous postwar suburbs. “People,” he says, “are nostalgic for the old Italy.”
KIHLGREN FIRST SAW the pretty crenelated tower in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, an Apennine town in the province of L’Aquila, in 1999, while motorcycling through the humpback mountains of Gran Sasso National Park. He bought up as many properties in the nearly abandoned village as he could and, in 2005, opened Sextantio Albergo Diffuso—or “scattered hotel,” a reference to the way rooms are peppered throughout the village.
Guests enter a lobby in the town’s former stables at the top of the hill and are escorted through narrow lanes to their dwellings. Kihlgren installed modern technology and earthquake stabilization but preserved original walls and floorboards; chairs might have belonged to work-worn shepherds or members of the famed Medici clan, who once ruled this region. The hotelier even tapped an anthropologist to recreate old formulas for soaps, shampoos, and candles, using such ingredients as lupine seed and flax. In an on-site artisan workshop, guests can learn how to craft straw chairs and tables, make natural oil soaps, or weave scarves, hats, and wraps.
“When people make a new hotel, they renovate away the cultural identity,” he says. “In a way, they obscure the emotion of such places. Sometimes people don’t understand that old places have an emotional impact. In a place like this, you change your pace, you become more calm, less neurotic, less obsessive. You are in tune with what you have around you.”
In 2009, he opened a sister property in the UNESCO-designated district of Sassi di Matera, in the Basilicata region (roughly the “instep” of the Italian boot), where people have lived in caves for some 9,000 years—making it among the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. Rooms at the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita are illuminated with beeswax candles and beams of sunlight entering through slots carved by prehistoric troglodytes. Sinks are built into mangers once used by donkeys, but there are still a few nods to modern luxury, including bathtubs by Philippe Starck.
MATERA WILL BE CELEBRATED as a European Capital of Culture in 2019, and in preparation Kihlgren is transforming 14 more abandoned caves at Le Grotte della Civita into hotel rooms, a restaurant, and a new spa. Kihlgren says the spa’s approach will be “linked to Matera’s system of cisterns and underground water collection,” while treatments will incorporate herbs foraged from nearby Murgia National Park.
Perhaps no amenity at the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso better expresses Kihlgren’s philosophy than the carafe of homemade genziana—a liquor infused with the roots of yellow flowering gentians—that he leaves out for guests in the hallways. One sip communicates everything he wants you to know: With no sugar added to soften the shock, the true-to-life spirit splashes the tongue with gusto.
“It is bitter,” Kihlgren says. “It’s expressive. I like that.”