OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale – or risk losing them forever

OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale - or risk losing them forever
Poggioreale in Sicily was abandoned following an earthquake in 1968. Photo: Marcello PATERNOSTRO/AFP
There are thousands of abandoned villages across Italy, and the number is only set to increase. The Italian government should sell off these 'ghost towns' and allow private buyers to give them a new lease of life, argues Silvia Marchetti.

One of my hobbies is exploring creepy ghost towns where silence rules and cats are the sole inhabitants.

These spots are secret, hidden, with a particular quirky allure that transcends the grandeur of the big cities. They’re a forgotten, fascinating part of Italy and have been fittingly dubbed ‘the sleeping beauties’ – waiting for a knight-investor to wake them up. 

That’s why authorities should place them up for sale.

Italy is dotted with more than 6,000 abandoned hamlets and villages, while another 15,000 have lost more than 95 percent of their residents.

Depopulation has left deep scars and turned towns into heaps of stone ruins, crumbling roofs and former dwellings covered in lush vegetation.

READ ALSO: Could Italy’s abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus crisis?

Over the centuries, locals fled due to various events: pirate raids, earthquakes, floods and other natural calamities, war bombings; or they simply went looking for a brighter future elsewhere, emigrating abroad or to other areas of Italy. Winters were harsh, peasant families were poor and tiny villages in the past were totally isolated, with no roads. Donkeys were the sole means of transport up until the 1950s.

Dating back to pre-Roman times or to the middle ages, these ghost villages today are rotting and falling apart. They’ve turned into ‘memory monuments’ of the lost rural times. It’s a pity.

The ‘ghost town’ of Craco, in Basilicata, was evacuated due to a landslide in 1963. By the 1980s it was completely abandoned. Photo: Giuseppe CACACE/AFP

The first time I visited Poggioreale in Sicily, which was destroyed by a terrible quake in 1968, I was shocked to see that just a few buildings and one fountain had been restored. Torn embroidered curtains still hung on window frames, desiccated flower pots dangled from balconies and cats slept on forgotten chairs. I even spotted a toilet seat sticking out from a dilapidated third floor.

It was fascinating and sad at the same time because beneath all the dust and decay I could still feel the glory of Poggioreale’s bygone days, when rich merchants rubbed shoulders with landlords at the theatre and along the main avenue. 

It’s all a matter of spending the money needed to recover and bring these lost places back to life. But as with many things in Italy, what with a lack of resources and excessive bureaucracy, this is easier said than done. 

And yet these towns could be a powerful asset which the state should exploit by placing them on the block tout court: as heaps of ruins.

In ghost villages the old owners have long disappeared, their heirs now live in other countries and nobody seems to care about the future of these places. Only day trippers occasionally visit for an adventurous hike or picnic.

Poggioreale in Sicily. Photo: Marcello PATERNOSTRO/AFP

Selling to investors or wealthy families could be a good way to breathe new life into these villages – be it as hotels or private residences.  

If local authorities don’t have the funds to restore them to their original beauty by turning them into artistic, tourist or cultural venues then perhaps philanthropists and history amateurs could step in. Or anybody with enough money and a passion for authentic Italian experiences.  

After all, even though bringing them back from the grave would require massive investments, most ghost villages are set in spectacular locations far from the madding crowd.

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

Speaking to realtors I found out that an Italian businessman purchased a bunch of ghost villages in central Italy and then recently re-sold one of these for about 4 million euros to a wealthy family from the Middle East, who were eager to repurpose it into their own sunny, lavish summer retreat. 

If foreigners are willing to pay so much for bunches of destroyed houses, why can’t the state act as an entrepreneur and put these up directly for sale to the highest bidder?

So far, a few successful revivals of ghost towns have been exclusively funded by private individuals and stand out as exceptions.

In the wild Abruzzo region, the abandoned village of Borgo Rocchetta was recovered by a local businessman who restyled the old stone dwellings and sold them to holidaymakers looking for a quiet, offbeat place amid snowy peaks and donkey trails. 

Castello di Postignano, a medieval hamlet in Umbria, has been turned into a luxury resort with pool and spa by a team of Italian architects who rent and sell the apartments to Americans and Brits.

And Borgo di Carpiano is an abandoned parish village with a tiny church, was transformed into an exclusive boutique hotel by an Italian couple who discovered the place purely by chance and fell in love with it.. 

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There’s a tiny ghost hamlet near my house in the Roman countryside which has been entirely swallowed by a thick forest. You can hardly make out the old stones covered in moss and the castle buried beneath your feet. It was once a thriving medieval fortress, home to a powerful lord who protected his tenants, but now it doesn’t even have a name anymore. People who live nearby refer to it as the ‘ruins behind the graveyard’.

Each year the vegetation grows thicker, causing the castle to sink deeper into the ground. That ghost spot is lost forever. But it has an enormous potential: it’s just 20 minutes from Rome and is surrounded by clear streams and hills where porcini mushrooms grow. 

I’m afraid it’s too late to save it. It’s now a jewel sacrificed to time – and to human neglect.

Photo: Giuseppe CACACE/AFP


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