How Brexit has unsettled Brits in the remote Sicilian town they helped to revive

The small town of Cianciana in Sicily has experienced an upturn in fortunes in the last few decades, thanks partly to an influx of foreigners and their capital. But Brexit is now pushing some Brits to leave.

How Brexit has unsettled Brits in the remote Sicilian town they helped to revive
Cianciana in Sicily. Photo: Villa Platani.

The quaint town of Cianciana, nestled amidst the Monti Sicani hills roughly 130 kilometres south-east of Palermo in Sicily, has undergone something of a renaissance. 

In the 1960s, Cianciana, like other Sicilian villages, was a point of departure as locals emigrated to all parts of the world leaving the villages depopulated.

In the last decade the town has been revived by an influx of foreign pensioners, digital nomads and people looking for an affordable second home and the quality of life the Mediterranean island has to offer. The arrivals have offered a lifeline to the villages.

Since the late 2000s, hundreds of foreign nationals, including many Brits, have settled in Cianciana or bought a second home there.

One of those is Teresa La Corte, who owns the Villa Platani B&B (see photo below) in Cianciana (the B&B is named after the river that flows beside Cianciana).

Villa Platani

She was born in north London but her family moved to the UK from Cianciana in the 1960s. 

But La Corte and her husband Clive have decided to sell their B&B and move back to the UK – partly due to Clive’s health complications, but also in part due to the future uncertainty about his access to healthcare, pensions and residency post-Brexit.

“We have felt that it is very unsettling time in the last couple of years since the Brexit vote. Nobody seems to have any clear idea of what will happen to us,” La Corte told The Local. “The assurances we all need is where will we stand at the end of March?”

The Italian government has pledged to secure some of the existing rights of Brits who are living in Italy and registered as residents before March 29th in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Should the Withdrawal Agreement be approved by the UK parliament, the package of rights in that agreement would ensure Brits currently living in Italy would be able to continue to live and work in Italy. 

A view of Cianciana. Photo: Mees van Deth. 

One of the main reasons Teresa La Corte is leaving is that Brexit has hit her business. “We have experienced a downward incline in guest numbers in the last two years,” she says, adding that most customers are British.

And Brexit has hit British pensioners hard in the pocket meaning life in Sicily is not as cheap as it used to be.

La Corte cites at least four couples of British retirees who moved to Cianciana in the last few years, only to see their pensions devalued 30 percent by the drop in sterling since the Brexit referendum.

“If they knew then what they know now, they might not have bought here purely because of the upset caused by Brexit,” she says.

Leaving Ciancina will not be easy for La Corte.

She spent her summers there growing up and the dual British-Italian national remembers how the town of her ancestors changed as remittances from Sicilian migrants who had left after the war began pouring in during the 1960s and 1970s.

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“It was the migrants who left in the 1950s but spent money on their homes in the 1960s and 1970s that revived the island with their capital,” La Corte told The Local. When the émigrés returned for holidays, they brought their British, or other, in-laws with them, building links between the Sicilian countryside and diaspora Sicilian communities in the UK.

“Since we moved here in 2008 we’ve known a growing influx of British couples buying second homes in Cianciana,” says La Corte.

While some couples bought a house and worked remotely, La Corte says “others retired here because they could stretch a pension that little bit further. Many brought second homes.”

La Corte says despite the influx of foreign residents the town has retained its charm. 

“Cianciana says we welcome you, whoever you are, but don’t try to change the traditions,” she said. “We don’t want a pub or a fish and chips shop.”

READ MORE: 'Things have slowed dramatically': Brits in southwest France fear impact of Brexit

Cianciana has a fixed residential population of just over 3,000 and more than 300 are foreigners – though between March and October the population quadruples as second-homers return. Besides Brits, Americans, Canadians, Russians, Norwegians, Poles and Finns also live or own a home in Cianciana, according to one local resident.

Real Estate firm My House told The Local it has sold 79 homes to Brits since the firm was set up by two Brits in 2005.

The local mayor Francesco Martorano says foreigners now make up 10 percent of the town's population and Brits represent a sizeable portion of the local community.

“They came, they liked the place and they brought a home,” Mayor Martorana told The Local.

The economic impact has been positive, he adds.

“They pay taxes, they shop, they buy houses,” he said.

By 2013, more than 100 formerly dilapidated houses in Cianciana had been sold to foreign nationals, according to a report in Italian news site Meridio News. The same source claimed British actor Ray Winstone had purchased a holiday home in Cianciana, following in the footsteps of “other VIPs”.

Derek Lainson, 74, and his wife Diane moved to Cianciana in 2005, 14 years ago. “We were the first married British couple to settle in Cianciana,” Derek told The Local.

“We were on holiday in Sicily and somebody suggested there was a nice town called Cianciana. So we got in the car, liked the place, saw some houses and then thought ‘I’ll buy one’,” says Lainson. He says the cheaper prices and lifestyle in Cianciana allowed him to retire five years earlier. 

Another attraction for Lainson was that a lot of the people he met in Cianciana spoke good English – because many local families now have links to the UK. Many of the Brits who settled in Cianciana are descendants of migrants who originally left the town.

But Brexit holds little concern for Lainson and he has no plans to leave.

“I'm not sure it is going to affect us. I'm not even sure it will happen,” he told The Local.
“Whatever happens, I can't see the Italians asking us to leave,” he said.
The 74-year-old is not planning on leaving his paradise yet and the local mayor for one will be grateful.






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Elections: Italy’s Lampedusa residents ‘left behind’ by migration focus

Italy's politicians are visiting Lampedusa to promise an end to migrant arrivals, but many living on the island say their other concerns go unheard.

Elections: Italy's Lampedusa residents 'left behind' by migration focus

“It’s just words, words,” complains Pino D’Aietti, who like many residents of the tiny island of Lampedusa feels abandoned by Italy’s politicians – except when a surge in migrant arrivals makes the headlines.

The 78-year-old retired plumber is sitting outside a restaurant on the island, where anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini has spent the past two days as part of his campaign for upcoming elections on September 25th.

Located between Sicily and Tunisia, Lampedusa is known for its beaches and turquoise waters, but also as the landing point for thousands of migrants on boats from north Africa.

On Thursday, Salvini visited the island’s migrant reception centre where as many as 1,500 mostly young men were packed in a facility meant for 350.

But while the League leader makes immigration the cornerstone of his election campaign, there is a sense of disillusionment here; an island of just 6,000 residents out in the middle of the Mediterranean.

READ ALSO: Italy to choose ‘Europe or nationalism’ at election, says PD leader

“We have the most expensive fuel, the (water) purifier hasn’t worked for a long time, there is no hospital,” railed D’Aietti, as tourists in swimsuits browsed shops nearby.

“We are spare parts. When the tourists go, the rubbish we eat! It’s disgusting. And who defends us?”

League Leader Matteo Salvini enjoys a boat ride while visiting the southern Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa for his election campaign on August 5th, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

The lack of healthcare is a recurrent theme.

“We have specialists and that’s it. For anything else we have to go onto the mainland,” said 58-year-old Maria Garito.

Mayor Filippo Mannino admits healthcare is a problem, but tells AFP: “The municipality has limited means, it is up to the state to take charge.”

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He has also called for more help from Rome – and the European Union – to help manage the number of migrants, which often becomes unmanageable in the summer months when calmer seas cause a surge in new arrivals.

Not far from the town hall, at the end of an isolated road, is the so-called hotspot, the immigration reception centre.

It is protected by steel gates, but those inside can be seen whiling away the hours in a few shady spots.

The government last week agreed to lay on a special ferry to transfer migrants three times a week to Sicily, and AFP reporters this week saw hundreds boarding a boat.

People at a migrant processing centre on the island of Lampedusa on August 4th, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Few get to sample the delights of Lampedusa – unlike Salvini, who was pictured in his swimsuit in a pleasure boat off the island on Friday.

Although the locals prefer not to talk about migrants, prejudice is an issue here.

Ibrahima Mbaye, a 43-year-old Senegalese man who arrived here on a French visa three years ago, said “there are good people but half the people are racist, you feel it”.

He has been working as a fisherman, but says it has not been easy – and nor is it for those who arrive illegally.

“They think that Italy is their future, but when they arrive they’re disappointed. They understand that it’s not easy to earn money,” he told AFP.

As for the tourists on holiday on Lampedusa, many are either unaware or willing to turn a blind eye.

“We read about it in the newspapers but we really don’t feel it,” said fifty-something Dino, who has been coming here every summer for ten years.

The two faces of Lampedusa “are two separate things”, he adds.

By AFP’s Clément Melki