Staying a night or two (or longer) in an ancient, largely depopulated but glorious Italian hill town is not for everyone, but for those who like the idea of passing a couple of quiet days walking, reading, eating (really well) and drinking in the sublime surroundings, it can be bliss. If you can forgo a minibar, room service, a gym and much in the way of entertainment, read on for two excellent places to visit.
Civita di Bagnoregio
In Civita di Bagnoregio, one is essentially an overnight prisoner in an exquisite tiny town, because once you’ve walked up the long and steep footbridge to enter (no cars allowed), you’re unlikely to trek back down until you’re ready to leave. Fortunately, there are accommodations worthy of being trapped inside. The Italian psychiatrist, author and television personality Paolo Crepet runs a small hotel called Corte della Maesta in the old bishop’s house and former seminary, the rooms of which provide places for his prolific antique collections. (He fell in love with the town about 25 years ago, when a depressed patient showed him the place that cheered her up.) His wife Cristiana is a charming, elfin woman who gives the inn its warmth, and its delicious pastries and tarts, which are served outdoors in their Edenic garden. They have a cozy sitting room in a cave and a pet hedgehog; in other words, this is a very personal place.
For dinner, the food at Alma Civita, run by locals who have moved back to the town, is as good and seasonal a meal as one could hope to eat anywhere. For lunch, L’Arco del Gusto makes pizza in one of the town’s medieval communal ovens that the townspeople used to share.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio
Full of magic and pathos, Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a place of heartbreaking beauty both within the town and across its rich and varied natural surroundings. The buildings in this hamlet feel as organic as they do handmade, with few straight lines or right angles, as if they evolved over centuries like some kind of architectural fossil washed by the vicissitudes of time and the elements. Today, the devastating effects of the earthquake of 2009 are still visible, with makeshift wood scaffolding propping up arches and a metal skeleton where the old church tower stood before it crumbled — and yet the place’s mystery and allure is still deeply powerful.
A scattered hotel, or albergo diffuso, called Sextantio, created by the visionary philanthropist Daniele Kihlgren, with rooms in historic buildings dotted throughout the town, is designed in a style perhaps best described as “poor luxury.” With great regard for the historical integrity of the buildings’ original materials and construction techniques, age and patina are not hidden or renovated, but drawn out, and the simplicity of the way the rooms were used is highlighted. Windows are small, but afford magnificent views of farmland and mountains all the more cherishable for being like tiny kaleidoscopic jewels amid expanses of otherwise unadorned plaster walls.
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