Two or three times a month I create a romantic meal for Mrs Smith – a few candles, a more-than-decent bottle of wine, and the best I can muster in the kitchen. It’s a way of shrugging off our day-to-day familiarity – but it has never worked this well before. As I arrange the culatello di Zibello on a platter, Mrs Smith stands close, clutching her glass with a mischievous grin. ‘Now, tell me,’ she says, once we’re seated and clinking glasses to our impending trip. ‘What’s this Tantric sex hotel you’re taking me to?’
‘Oh, it’s a surprise darling,’ I mutter. Taking a long sip of wine, I begin rummaging through my mind – in much the same way one tears up a hotel room when a passport goes missing – trying to work out where she might have got this idea. Ah, it’s the name: Sextantio Albergo Diffuso. The hotel is in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a 16th-century village some 4,000 feet up in the mountains of Abruzzo. (Sextantio is in fact the Latin name for Sessanio.) This eyrie is only 65 miles or so from Rome, but having departed the city late in the afternoon – just in time to get caught up in rush hour – we arrive well after 10pm, and we despair of finding a bite to eat. The only sign of life in the village – a tight cluster of mediaeval houses crowned with a chess-rook tower – is a candlelit window. Peering in, we find ourselves greeted by a waiter, the very charismatic Massimo, who has stayed up to welcome us with open arms.
Using my feeble Italian, I order a snack. Next thing, a seemingly never-ending procession of dishes is coming our way from the kitchen – seven courses in all. We weren’t that hungry, but how can I tactfully stem this flood of food? Remember the Monty Python sketch where John Cleese is a chef so offended he whips out a machete while the maître d’ impales himself on the client’s fork? Clearly the smartest thing to do is to keep on eating: why ruin dinner?
As for Mrs Smith, so far, so good. She is transported by the mediaeval dining room, which has stout timbers crisscrossing the ceiling, thick, half-wagon-wheel arches, and a fireplace a man could stand in. (These, I think, are the missing ingredients back home.) The wine is from a vineyard dating back to Roman times, and the food is so fresh it is practically still growing on our plates. The repast induces a glow that is further fanned by our bedroom, a 12th-century stone grotto with a few mod cons, among them heated floorboards and a luxurious Philippe Starck bath. ‘And there’s not even a TV to break the spell,’ says Mrs Smith.
In Italian, albergo diffuso means a hotel that is scattered among a number of buildings. In Sextantio’s case, the hotel rooms are individual houses, but there’s more to it than that: the owner of the hotel, the Sextantio Company, has more or less adopted Santo Stefano di Sessanio as an archaeological project.
At one time, Santo Stefano was so prosperous from the wool trade that it provided a quarter of the revenue of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But when entrepreneur turned hotelier Daniele Kihlgren first came here, the village’s population was down to 70, its infrastructure crumbling fast. Kihlgren’s motto is ‘development without construction’, which means turning traditional houses into accommodation without tarting them up, but also avoiding the sort of reverence for the past that would turn them into period sets. No luxury hotel guest really wants to go back to the 16th century, hence the Starck tub – an inspired touch. Kihlgren has also restored some of the public buildings and furnished them in period style, and has concluded an agreement with the local council to preserve the surrounding countryside against villa construction – which he calls an Italian first.
Breakfast is served in the erstwhile house of the shepherd master, where we find a table laid as though for a royal banquet: fresh ricotta and pecorino cheese, prosciutto, chorizo, homebaked cakes and frittata, with a roaring fireplace the perfect backdrop. Our days are happily spent getting lost in the village’s maze of alleys and walking through the Campo Imperatore (alpine meadows), where the only thing that breaks the silence is a cowbell or two. There are a few small shops that sell local products: mountain cheese, massive loaves, salami, little jars of wild saffron, jam, honey and local liqueurs of plums and berries. At the tisaneria we sample infusions of blueberry and saffron and nibble on lacy biscuits made in a waffle iron.
Dinner the second evening is at the inexpensive, family-run Tra le Braccia di Morfeo, where you can’t go wrong. The bruschetta in particular is in a league of its own. Ever tried mincing garlic and celery with olive oil, then spreading it on toast? I hate celery but this dish changed my mind – a definite contender for the menu back at Casa Smith. Mrs Smith is so enchanted with the atmosphere that she forgets about the Tantra. Instead, she adopts a new mantra: ‘When are we going back?’