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Abruzzo, Strong and Gentile

Anne Robichaud

I called my first article on Abruzzo on my website "Abruzzo, Forte e Gentile." This extraordinary mountainous region in the heart of Italy, recently flagellated by a devastating earthquake remains "strong and gentle." Over three thousand persons gathered around the 207 coffins yesterday at the outdoor funeral in L'Aquila, expressing their sorrow with dignity, silently. A people strong and gentle.

As tribute to them, I'll now finish the article I had sketched out last fall on our visit to Abruzzo.

The Rocca di Calascio fortress mentioned in the article still stands, a symbol of an Abruzzo that remains strong and stalwart.

2008

My husband, Pino, now and again asks, "When can we go back to Abruzzo?"

Our Roman friend, Silvana, has a tiny apartment in the medieval town of Tagliacozzo in the Abruzzo mountains. We've spent many a happy weekend there with Silvana and her husband Mauro and Silvana's invitation to meet them there last October brought an immediate "Si!" from Pino.

Tagliacozzo (population about 6,000) hangs on to the limestone cliffs, back-dropping it and the medieval houses climb the rocky face of the mountain. Pastel-colored Renaissance palaces and graceful loggias surround the main square, Piazza Obelisco, pulse of the town and one of Abruzzo's most elegant piazzas. The fountain in the center is the town gathering place where the older men sit, surveying those strolling the piazza and resolving the world's issues in their animated conversations. Some, Pino, for one, like to sit on the fountain border, reading the morning paper after an espresso at one of the cafès.

After a short morning stroll in Tagliacozzo, we set out to explore together Santo Stefano in Sessanzio, a medieval village once the home of shepherds, hanging on a rocky outcrop as do so many of the Abruzzo mountain towns and still characterized by the labyrinthine covered medieval alleyways. In the Middle Ages, overseeing positions on mountain peaks assured surveillance of the valleys below and narrow, curvy streets discouraged the easy passage of intruding enemies.

Covered medieval alleyways of Santo Stefano di Sessanzio

Covered medieval alleyways of Santo Stefano di Sessanzio

Before we wandered the winding covered alleyways of Santo Stefano, we stopped for lunch at the Osteria del Cavaliere near the entrance to the village and not far from the imposing fifteenth-century guard tower built by the Medici. We arrived there at noon, a bit earlier than the usual Italian lunchtime. Luca, son of Rosa, the cook, was putting the final touches on the tables and talking with a visitor who had just booked the last available table in this small, cozy restaurant. Silvana had read about this place in food reviews and when she told Luca, he moved out a table from a corner to make space for us. He advised us, though, to eat on the early side before the restaurant filled up (we were glad we did!).

Before we ate, Luca took me into the kitchen to meet his mother Rosa who was making a typical Abruzzo fried bread with another relative. They proudly showed me the freshly-made homemade ravioloni ("big ravioli") stuffed with fresh sheep's milk ricotta and finely chopped parsley. You never know what will be for lunch at the Osteria: the menu varies depending on the fresh foods available at the morning market and what their own garden and the surrounding fields offer.

Our inexpensive and buonissimo lunch started with an assorted antipasto platter of local sheep's milk cheeses, bruschetta drizzled with the family's olive oil, a selection of prosciutto and that spicy salami, typical of Abruzzo. An Abruzzese soup made with chestnuts and chickpeas accompanied. For our "first" course, Pino and Silvana ordered Rosa's lentil soup (starring the organic lentils from their own farm) and Mauro and I reveled in the ravioloni.

Abruzzese salami and pecorino cheeses entice Pino

Abruzzese salami and pecorino cheeses entice Pino

For the secondo piatto, a variety of roasted meats enticed but their specialty won us over: round discs of local sheep's milk cheese tossed lightly in bread crumbs, then fried.

Steamed greens from the garden tossed in garlic and olive oil followed. Rosa had prepared three or four tempting desserts but we renounced the temptation and finished up with cups of espresso. Luca was on the run to serve the full dining room, noisy with conversation and clanging forks, when we left to explore the town.

We had visited Santo Stefano di Sessanzio a couple of years ago and the crumbled medieval houses were then just starting to come back to life. The resurrection efforts are all thanks to Daniele Kihlgren, a young Italian-Swedish entrepreneur, living in Milan, who stopped here in 1990 while on a motorcycle trip. He walked the town and fell in love. Not with a woman but with the medieval ruins abandoned by those who had immigrated to America or northern Europe in search of a livelihood which a pastoral mountaintop town far from any industrial center could not offer.

As he explored, Daniele felt the pull of the pastoral traditions of this town. The rural history spoke to him in the crumbling sheep stalls, soot-covered fireplaces, old wine and olive oil cellars with dirt floors. He decided to preserve the impoverished rural structures of this mountainous area of central Italy - and he had the means to do it.

Daniele set out to save Santo Stefano di Sessanzio from "unsympathetic urbanization." He bought many of the crumbling abandoned houses, wine and olive oil cellars, and stalls and with careful restoration utilizing original architectural materials, created an "albergo diffuse," literally "diffused hotel." The hotel rooms are "diffused" throughout the village of Santo Stefano: some in former oxen stalls, some in old shepherd dwellings and other rooms are now in rejuvenated medieval wine and olive oil cellars, a restored medieval olive oil mill houses the hotel reception. He named his hotel "Sextantio," the Roman name of Santo Stefano.

Daniele and his partners talked to the older villagers, gleaning from them all the information they could on the appearance of the dwellings in the past - and thus basing restoration on oral history. They chose to use local handcrafts in bedspreads and curtains and fabrics, reviving artisan skills which would soon have floated away into the historical past.

Rural pastoral traditions are cherished and preserved in each room. For example, the rooms do not have closets but simply old wooden trunks at the foot of the beds as the pastoral residences would have had. Silvana and I visited one. Like all the Albergo Sextantio rooms, the interior has been restored but not at all changed. Rough-hewn beams, ancient uneven brick floors, very little furniture and small windows characterize the rooms. Windows were precious commodities and glass was not "wasted" on stalls. Harsh winters also meant thick walls and few spaces (i.e., windows) open to the elements.

From Santo Stefano, we followed a curvy mountain road which climbed to Rocca di Calascio, named for the massive 13th century medieval rocca ("fortress") towering over the tiny mountain village of Calascio as well as the valley stretching out below. In the fifteenth century, "fortress houses" of three or four floors were built into the peripheral walls of the fortress and remnants still cling to the Rocca, in ruins now but still imposing. Over the centuries, a small mountain village sprouted close to the fortress. Simple pastoral people took on the challenge of life in this rugged, impervious landscape. They grazed their sheep on the hillsides around and cultivated lentils in the valley below, climbing back up the rocky landscape in the evening to their homes in the village.

Here, too, a better life in far off lands beckoned to these shepherds and the village homes were abandoned bit-by-bit until, by 1957, the village was uninhabited. But the crumbling ruins enticed a couple from Rome who were hiking in the area in the 1990's. Like Daniele Kihlgren, Paolo and Susanna were both captivated by the abandoned village of stone houses with collapsed roofs, reduced to piles of stone. They decided to buy a house and restore it.

As she made us an espresso in the one small cafè of Rocca di Calascio, Susanna told us what had attracted them to the abandoned village: "The collapsed roofs, caved-in stone walls and the trees growing up in the middle of the roofless old houses."

They restored the ruined house they bought for themselves and later opened a restaurant on the lower floor which they ran for some years - and then a bookshop. They later bought other abandoned stone ruins and lovingly restored them, respecting the simple pastoral structures. They now have, like Sextantio, an albergo diffuso in Rocca di Calascio and Susanna took us to see one of the rooms, restored with all respect for the poor rural structure it had been. They have various rooms throughout the village and hope to restore even more of the ruined structures.

Susanna and Paolo have five children, all of them musically inclined and each plays an instrument: violin or piano or cello. The strains of classical music now drift over the ruined houses of this once-abandoned mountainside village as Paolo and Susanna have started a spring concert season at Rocca di Calascio.

April 11, 2009 (after the L'Aquila earthquake)

There will not be a concert season this spring at Rocca di Calascio: Paolo and Susanna and their five children had to leave the village after the earthquake, for fear that the aftershocks might disrupt the precarious equilibrium of the abandoned stone houses which surround their own.

Fifteenth-century Medici tower of Santo Stefano di Sessanzio (before total destruction in April 09 earthquake) Fifteenth-century Medici tower of Santo Stefano di Sessanzio (before total destruction in April 09 earthquake

In nearby Santo Stefano di Sessanzio, the fifteenth-century Medici fortress, once town landmark, is now a pile of stone rubble. The villagers (just over 100) are in tents surrounding the village until experts can assess the damage to most of the homes. Sextantio, Daniele's "albergo diffuso" has had no damage as all restoration was carefully done following Italy's strict anti-seismic regulations - but the hotel was closed until May 22nd 2009 in solidarity with all those in Abruzzo who are now homeless.

Paolo has left Rome and returned to the Rocca di Calascio. He put up a tent in front of their house. "I cannot stay away. We live here ... and I do not want this to become a ghost town again. Rocca Calascio will go on living."

As I look at the photos of our wanders in Abruzzo last October, I grieve for the medieval wonders of Santo Stefano di Sessanzio and wonder if the Osteria del Cavaliere is still open. I think of Paolo and Susanna, more determined than ever to resurrect the village of Rocca di Calascio. The Rocca above the village still standing reminds me of them and the Abruzzo people: stalwart. Forever, forte e gentile.

La Rocca di Calascio: earthquake survivor for centuries

La Rocca di Calascio: earthquake survivor for centuries


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2009. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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