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

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.

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

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.. 

READ ALSO: Community cooperatives: the small Italian towns taking charge of their own future

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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PROPERTY

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

If you're renovating a home in Italy, will you need to pay a middleman to cut through the red tape and language barriers? Silvia Marchetti looks at the pros and cons.

PROPERTY: Should you hire a renovation agency for your Italian home?

The idea of snapping up a cheap, crumbling house in a picturesque Italian village may sound appealing – but doing so always comes with tedious paperwork and the hassle of renovation.

For this reason, a growing number of professional agencies have sprung up in Italy to cater to foreign buyers snapping up cheap homes amid the property frenzy.

In many of the Italian towns selling one-euro or cheap homes, there are now ‘restyle experts’ and agencies that offer renovation services handling everything that could become a nightmare: from dealing with the paperwork and fiscal issues to finding a notary for the deed, contracting an architect, surveyor, a building team and the right suppliers for the furniture.

They also handle the sometimes tricky task of reactivating utilities in properties that have been abandoned for decades.

I’ve travelled to many of these villages and looked at this side of the business, too. Hiring these ‘middle people’ comes with pros and cons, though the positive aspects can certainly outweigh the negatives – provided you’re careful to pick the right professionals. 

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

These intermediaries are usually locals who have expertise in real estate and a good list of suppliers’ contacts. This allows them to deliver turnkey homes that were once just heaps of decaying rubble, sparing buyers time and money – particularly those living abroad, who then aren’t forced to fly over to Italy countless times a year to follow the work in progress.

I’ve met several buyers from abroad who purchased cheap homes sight unseen after merely looking at photos posted online by local authorities, but then had to book many expensive long-haul flights to hire the architect, get the paperwork done, and select the construction team (a few even got stuck here during Covid).

Thanks to their contacts the local agents can ensure fast-track renovations are completed within 2-4 months, which could prove very useful as the ‘superbonus’ frenzy in Italy has caused a builder shortage meaning many people renovating property now face long delays

Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP

Their all-inclusive commission usually starts at 5 percent of the total cost of a renovation, or at 2.500 euros per house independently from its cost and dimension. The fee also depends on the type of work being carried out, how tailored it is and whether there are any specific requirements, like installing an indoor elevator or having furniture pieces shipped from the mainland if it happens to be a Sicilian or Sardinian village. 

However, buyers must always be careful. It is highly recommended to make sure the local authorities know who these agents are and how reliable they are in delivering results.

Town halls can often suggest which local companies to contact, and this gives the renovation legitimacy in my view. In a small village, where everyone knows each other, when the town hall recommends an agency there’s always a certain degree of trust involved and agents know that their credibility is at stake (and also future commissions by more clients). 

Word of mouth among foreign buyers is a powerful tool; it can be positive or detrimental for the agency if a restyle isn’t done the right way, or with too many problems.

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

So it’s best to avoid agencies from another village, even if nearby, who come to you offering fast and super-cheap services, or local agencies that are not suggested by the mayor’s office. 

Then of course there can be other downsides, which largely depend on how ‘controlling’ and demanding the client is. 

For those not based in Italy full-time, the most important consideration is: how much can you trust these professionals to deliver what you expect, exactly how you want it, without having to be constantly on the ground? 

Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP

Language can be a major obstacle. There are technical building terms that prove difficult to translate, and if the local agency doesn’t have English-speaking renovation professionals with a track record in following foreign clients it’s best to look for an intermediary with a greater language proficiency. 

I remember meeting an American couple once who got lost in translation with a village agent for days, and had to hire a translator just to hire the intermediary.

It’s always useful to ask for a ‘preventivo’ (quote) with VAT indication, considering roughly how much inflation could make the final cost go up. Buyers should also sign a contract with the exact timeframe of the works and delivery date of the new home, including penalties if there are delays on the part of the agency. 

READ ALSO:

But, even when there is complete trust, I think it is impossible to fully restyle an old home from a distance, contacting intermediaries by phone, emails, messages or video calls only. 

Details are key and there’s always something that could be misinterpreted. Buyers based overseas should still follow-up the renovation phases personally, perhaps with one or two flights per year to check all is going well and up to schedule.

Asking to see the costs so far undertaken midway through the restyle is useful to make sure there are no hidden costs or unexpected third parties involved – like buying the most expensive furniture or marble floor when not requested, or hiring a carpenter to build artisan beds.

While there is really no such thing as a hassle-free renovation, these agencies can ease the pressure and do most of the burdensome work – but buyers’ supervision will always be needed.

Read more in The Local’s Italian property section.

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