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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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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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