Italy and Africa/ A unique hotel concept in Italy called Albergo Diffuso has been giving travellers from all over the world not just the chance to visit a beautiful location, but also to merge themselves into the soul of a place. It all started in the late nineties, when the first abandoned village had been done up, and now the Sextantio project includes locations in the South of Italy as well as Rwanda, Africa.
The opportunity to stay among a village's dwellings rather than in a hotel was part of a dream that started in the late nineties when Swedish-Italian Daniele Kihlgren had his first encounter (on a motorbike, the international media story goes) with the ghostly, abandoned village called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. And so there, somewhere in the mountains of Abruzzo at 1250 meters above sea level, his idea was born.
By working with local people as well as the local council, Kilghren had set out to not only save the village from going under, but also for it to be revived in a respectful way. Basically, out of harm's way of any developers who might otherwise endanger its original character, or: "architectural abuse," as he prefers to call it. By making it their mission to respect the integrity of the village's buildings as well as its local life, it was given a second chance.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio in l'Aquila was one of the many empty medieval, mountainous villages that Italy has – according to his website, today there are about 2000 semi-abandoned historic mountain towns and 15000 abandoned – and today, it is featured in many travel brochures and websites. “The tiny fortified medieval village Santo Stefano di Sessanio has been abandoned with many of its ancient buildings in ruins and only 70 inhabitants until recent years,” writes Italy Magazine for example, further describing: “Now, many of the village's buildings have been restored. Some comprise the Sextantio Albergo Diffuso, or extended hotel.”
Today, Santo Stefano visitors can not only come to what's been voted as 'one the most beautiful villages of Italy,' but, following Kihlgren's intention to protect, as he puts it, all possible "traces of bygone countryside and peasant life," they can also find an authentic place to stay and review their idea about what it means to travel. "The village symbols of hardship which evoke the spirit of ancient rural life were to be preserved in the walls and fabric of the buildings," he explained to Breaking Perspectives.
Keeping the past alive
Sextantio's visitors can literally taste such bygone life in its restaurant, where menus are inspired by local traditional cooking methods based on interviews with locals who remember it. The rooms – think medieval stone, natural light from big old stone windows mixed with soft ambient lighting, pristine white washbasins, and bed linen woven by local artisans – come with a story. One of them, for example, was once the very place where local women and children would huddle together in the winter to tell stories and stay warm with the cattle that had returned from the mountains.
Santo Stefano was to become the prototype for further projects in Italy and Africa. The umbrella-name for all his destinations is Sextantio, which Kihlgren describes as: "A widespread receptive project aiming to protect the identity of marginal places and to return them to residential use." And so, the Albergo Diffuso concept, with a selection of rooms to stay in as well as other dwellings to spend time in, scattered among the village, has since gained worldwide attention. Today's visitors can get a taste of how local life was then, and how it's alive today. They can join locals on a chair on the cobbled streets and experience a true sense of what some might call slow travel.
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Sextantio: A few examples
Rwanda, Nkombo Island
One of Daniele Kihlgren’s latest Sextantio projects is in Africa's Rwanda: Nkombo Island. The Capanne (huts) Project, of Sextantio Rwanda, which has been open since 2022, is in a remote area and Kihlgren said: "The identity of a place, and keeping it that way, that made the projects in the villages of Santo Stefano di Sessanio and in the Sassi of Matera in Italy come to life, wants to be revived with a similar philosophy in another place of marginality: Nkombo Island, Lake Kivu, Rwanda.”
To help communicate the project's message, the team in Capanne have, among other things, interviewed local elders who "were all part of a population with a certain religious syncretism (or amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought) and some pagan rites," said Kihlgren. The project includes elements from Rwandan and Congolese culture, as well as local plants, birds, anthropology, and he added: “the local anthropological element has become the element around which the whole experience revolves.
“The local anthropological element has become the element around which the whole experience revolves"
The Sexantio Le Grotte della Civita in the historic Apennine village of Matera, in the south of Italy, has been open since 2009. It is situated in a location where, explains Kihlgren's website, the earliest inhabitants date back to the stone and bronze age, and where several monastic communities lived around the Middle Ages. Apart from the 18 rooms that Le Grotte della Civita comprises, there is an ancient church, the Cripta della Civita, which is now used as a common area. In line with his approach, all parts of the project have been renovated to retain their original features.
Palazzo della Civita
The Palazzo della Civita, an edition to the Matera site that has been open since july 2023, includes a palace dating from the seventeenth century. A deconsecrated (changed from sacred to secular use) church has been constructed out of rock, which is also known as a Rupestrian church. It also has a cellar going into the belly of Matera. The location's caves will house a workshop of local domestic crafts, and there will be a contemporary art installation inspired by local traditions.