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OPINION: Bargain homes and fewer crowds – but Italy’s deep south is not for everyone

If you’re considering a move to rural southern Italy there are pros and cons to be aware of, writes Silvia Marchetti.

The Covid-19 pandemic stands as a growth opportunity for Italy’s poorer southern regions, eager to lure foreigners with fewer crowds, super cheap homes, great food, cozy beaches and pristine natural settings. 

READ ALSO: These are the Italian towns offering houses for one euro

Social distancing is particularly guaranteed in offbeat rural villages and towns where old traditions survive alongside an idyllic, pre-industrialization vibe and superb scenery. 

The south still offers a glimpse of genuine, authentic Italy which particularly appeals to tourists looking for under-the-radar destinations and to people willing to relocate in quiet, picturesque spots. 

In the past two years several villages have introduced incentives to attract foreigners longing for year-round sunshine. And it’s not just about offering homes for the cost of an espresso, even if the number of towns selling crumbling buildings for one euro has increased since the pandemic outbreak.

In Sicily the towns of Laurenzana, Troina and Castiglione di Sicilia recently joined the one-euro club, also offering low local taxes for buyers and renovation funds. 

Last year Cinquefrondi, in Calabria, promised one.euro homes in a ‘Covid-free’ safe haven with zero contagion cases.  

Photo: Alberto Bigoni/Unsplash

This year Taranto, one of Puglia’s main coastal cities, replicated the one-euro houses project following the success of the first operation launched in 2019. There are currently 50 empty buildings on sale in the picturesque old district, waiting for new owners. 

And the good news for non-Italian buyers is that you don’t need to take up residency in order to buy a one euro or cheap home. 

Other places have come up with different, perhaps more appealing offers in an attempt to invert the negative depopulation trend which plagues the south. 

Latronico in Basilicata and Biccari in Puglia have placed on the market cheap redone (turnkey) homes for as little as 10.000 euros, in no need of a restyle and often also refurbished. A few available properties are stone villas that come with orchards and olive groves. Rentals in Latronico are also very low, roughly 200 euros per month. 

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Life tends to be cheaper in villages far from the main cities of Palermo (Sicily), Bari (Puglia) and Reggio Calabria (Calabria). The food is locally grown, pasta is still handmade by grannies and you can spot grazing sheep from balconies. Such bucolic locations offer peacefulness and are ideal for detox, unplugged long stays. 

But there are also the cons of relocating to Italy’s deep south. The ‘Mezzogiorno’, as Italians call the southern end of their peninsula, has been lagging behind the richer north ever since before the birth of the Italian republic, when Italy was a patchwork of fragmented, bickering states.

The fact that in the past two centuries local families and youth have fled in search of a brighter future in the rest of Italy or abroad – and many still do – speaks for itself. Even though since the end of the second world war the economic outlook has improved, some vulnerabilities persist.

Photo: Gianluca Carenza/Unsplash

The average income in the southern regions is half that in the northern ones, and the development gap embraces all sectors, from infrastructure to health services and labor market opportunities. 

Hospitals in the south are generally far away from small towns, and are fewer than in northern areas. There are roughly 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people versus 3.5 beds in the north, compared to a European average of 5 beds 

READ ALSO: The ups and downs of buying a property for retirement in an Italian hilltop town

And in the south it takes you much more time to get from one place to another due to the smaller network of railway and highways, while many country roads are old and in need of upgrading.

What can be fascinating for an outsider – desolate roads with hairpin curves and unique panoramas – is also penalizing for the region.

Mobile coverage and high-speed internet connections are other major negatives in the south when compared to other parts of the country. In Molise, even though it’s one of Italy’s smallest regions, just 9 percent of the entire population has access to high-speed internet.

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The deeper and more off-the-grid you go, the weaker ICT development is. In many remote rural spots you’re lucky if your phone captures a GPRS signal and you are able to place an international call. 

But the pandemic is triggering a tiny revolution.

Many southern towns have grasped the potentials of remote working – re-branded ‘south working’ – to lure newcomers and teleworkers. Investments in broadband connection have been boosted while there are new digital labs equipped with everything a remote worker could need.

And there are more plus points. Castelbuono in Sicily for example offers remote workers long-stay accommodation discounts and restaurant vouchers alongside co-working spaces in beautiful old medieval lodgings.

Life in the sunny rural south might be great for retired people, maybe a bit less for younger couples or singles unless they’re looking to open an activity or a B&B. It depends on your expectations and dreams.

I have considered buying a cheap property in Sicily or somewhere close to the sea, to stay just a couple of months per year, mainly in spring and summer, surely not year-round. 

But I wouldn’t buy a one euro house – the only reason being I’m just too lazy to deal with the renovation. They are, however, a real bargain.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

A growing number of Italian destinations are bringing in rules aimed at controlling the summer crowds. Such measures often prove controversial - but they should go further, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

Each summer, as tourists flock to Italy, the question of limiting crowds and ensuring sustainable travel comes up. Especially so with Covid.

Placing a threshold on the number of visitors to some of Italy’s top spots has a two-fold goal: that of preserving the artistic and cultural value of the site, and of preventing out-of-control mass tourism from leading to accidents.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which parts of Italy will get the most tourism this summer?

Proposed crowd-control measures usually raise eyebrows, but they shouldn’t. They’re a good way to balance sustainability, and existing rules should be extended to more hotspots.

The Cinque Terre park, known for its stunning hiking trails connecting the area’s cliffhanging fishing villages, has introduced summer tourist limits to preserve its delicate ecosystem. A few parts of the trails, like the Lovers Path connecting Manarola to Riomaggiore, are closed due to soil erosion and landslides.

Groups of no more than 15 hikers are allowed inside the Cinque Terre park in rotation, and there’s a cap of 200 available boat tickets for those preferring to admire the views comfortably from sea while bathing.

Liguria remains a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy this summer.

The Cinque Terre remain a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy, attracting huge crowds. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

Many locations across Italy are reverting to, or are considering, some kind of restricted access to offset high demand with ‘green’, safe travel. 

The Amalfi coast has a summertime limit on driving along the route connecting Positano to Vietri sul Mare to ease congestion, while a few years ago the mayor even banned tourist selfies to stop massive crowds of people invading the whitewashed alleys and sitting on brick walls.

There are currently strict limits on the number of people allowed to visit the Tuscan archipelago national park each summer, mainly the protected islands of Montecristo (uninhabited other than a caretaker), and the two prison islands of Gorgona and Pianosa (boasting a hotel run by inmates on probation). A maximum of 150-200 tourists are admitted annually to each of these isles.

You also need to move fast if you want to spend a weekend in Sardinia, touring its tropical-like baby powder beaches and paradise isles. The number of restrictions in place is on the rise.

On Budelli island, the pearl of the La Maddalena archipelago, other than the pink coral beach, the Cavalieri beach is also now totally off limits, meaning landing on the entire island is forbidden.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

The beaches of Lu Impostu and Brandinchi along San Teodoro’s coast will allow just 1500 and 3300 sunbathers each, while Stintino’s popular La Pelosa beach allows 1500, making tourists pay €3.50 per day and wear a yellow bracelet for identification.

The paradise archipelago of La Maddalena is seeing more tourist restrictions imposed. Photo by Leon Rohrwild on Unsplash

The abandoned former prison island of Santo Stefano, off Rome’s coast, which is part of a protected marine park brimming with barracudas and groupers, is currently undergoing a transformation into an open-air museum with a tiny hostel. Project managers have already pledged daily tourism will be “contained”’ to preserve the unique habitat.

In the mountains too, authorities are eyeing tougher limits. At Lago di Braies in the Dolomites, 14 tourists recently fell into the freezing water trying to take awesome, but silly, selfies of their acrobatic skills despite warning signs.

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

In my view, all of Italy’s tourist hotspots should have some kind of regulation and police patrols, including top city highlights like the Trevi Fountain, Florence’s Duomo, and Venice, which in fact is expected to become Italy’s first city with a tourist limit from January 2023. People will have to book and buy a special pass to see the canals, bridges and piazzas.

If Venice succeeds in doing this, then it will show other cities that they too can control access to at least their biggest hotspots.

In Rome, the Pantheon has done a great job in introducing mandatory (but free) reservations on weekends, putting a stop to visitors just stepping inside to take a peek.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

The Fontana di Trevi, Piazza Navona and especially Piazza di Spagna should be more heavily patrolled, and Rome authorities should really consider a set tourist limit.

But just the idea is controversial, seen as a no-no depriving tourists of the thrill of throwing coins inside Rome’s iconic fountain to make a wish.

The Trevi fountain in Rome attracts a constant stream of tourists. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

There is a constant, sterile discussion within the city council and the national arts department on tougher regulations and limited entrances to Rome’s main sites.

Culture minister Dario Franceschini is pushing for a more sustainable ‘fountain experience’ that limits crowds and prevents heat-struck visitors from diving inside. He recently argued that allowing “1,000 or 100,000 visitors in front of the Trevi fountain” puts both them and the masterpiece at risk.

Ugly red tape, orange nets and rusty fences are occasionally placed around the Trevi Fountain without much of an outcome.

There are architectural barriers to stop people from sitting on the edges and dangling their feet inside the water at Fontana delle Tartarughe and Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, but it’s not enough. 

Setting a daily cap on visitors is the best solution; even better than introducing a ticketing system, because any tourist, once in the Eternal City, would pay to get in, and it would not be fair to discriminate based on money.

After all, if Italian universities can restrict enrollment for medical students, when new doctors are vital during Covid, I see no reason why tourist attractions can’t set limits when their own survival is at stake.

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