Friday, February 14, 2014

Death and Resurrection, Part 2

Heading south, and winding high up into the hills, through ridiculously beautiful scenery, we arrived at the Abruzzo town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio.  Here was a town which had truly lost virtually all of its population over the past half century.  But it has been "saved" by being acquired -- yes, bought -- by the Sextantio corporation, led by a Swedish/Italian billionaire who appears deeply committed to saving the hill towns of the Abruzzo region, of which he now owns nine.  The town's buildings have been converted into homes for sale or as an albergo diffuso -- a hotel with rooms distributed across a number of buildings.  The town has been largely repaired from the earthquake damage (save for the signature Medici Tower, which toppled) and now accommodates wealth weekenders from Rome and beyond.

There is so much to like about this project.  A ghost town falling into ruin has been rescued.  The buildings have been sensitively repaired.  In the rooms and the stores, there are thoughtful interpretive handouts, describing the buildings and the economy.  There are efforts to recover some of the traditional handicrafts, such as the particular hand-looms of this region.

The only frustration is when you look at the price tag -- $250 to $400 or $500 a night.  Given that this is a national park area, and given that the state has provided this billionaire a fair amount of money to do his good deeds, perhaps there is a way to make more of these spaces available for regular people.  Set aside a certain number of the homes for rental, like we do with cabins in state parks.  Or set aside a number for visiting artists, who, in return for free or reduced housing, have an exhibit or open studio days.  The scene is spectacular.  The restoration is laudable.  But perhaps San Stefano can be "saved" for more people.

After walking and thinking, I have a new ending to this post:

We are thrilled that the billionaire has taken over San Stefano because we have no realistic belief that the Italian government could, at this moment, afford to restore the town, nor do the Italian people have faith that they would do so in a timely and corruption-free fashion.  That is simply a commentary on the imposition of austerity policies across Europe, despite repeated evidence that this was a destructive "reform."  And it is a commentary on the self-imposed government (or series of governments) that have produced this lack of faith in the possibilities of democratic governance.

But in a better world, this town, which sits in a national park, would, because of the steady flight of its citizenry, revert to the state and become a national treasure, accessible to all.

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