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How one dying Italian village plans to spend €20m in EU recovery funds

The depopulated hamlet of Calascio in Abruzzo, with just 130 residents and an earthquake-damaged castle, is preparing for a multimillion-euro revival based on tourism, sheep farming, and an unusual local cheese.

How one dying Italian village plans to spend €20m in EU recovery funds
Mayor of Calascio and Rocca Calascio, Paolo Baldi, poses by the castle on March 29, 2022. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

The streets are silent and cats hunt in abandoned houses, but the view from the battlements of Calascio’s castle is spectacular – good enough perhaps to save this dying Italian hamlet.

Local officials have put restoring the ruins and attracting tourists at the heart of their bid to revive the village, which has won 20 million euros ($22 million) in EU post-pandemic funds.

Surrounded by Abruzzo’s snowcapped peaks, Calascio is one of 21 dying or deserted villages recently awarded an equal share of a 420-million-euro fund from the Italian government.

Critics question how equipped the tiny councils are to spend such vast sums of money – which translates to almost 154,000 euros per person in underpopulated Calascio.

The nationwide project has soured relations in several regions between winning villages and those that have lost out, and prompted warnings over potential fraud and waste.

The castle of Calascio on March 29, 2022. Photo by GIOVANNI GREZZI / AFP

But Calascio’s mayor Paolo Baldi, a former mountain guide originally from Rome, is undaunted.

“We want to bring the hamlet back to life,” said Baldi, who did up one of its ruined houses in 1993 and moved in with his young family.

READ ALSO: The Italian towns launching alternatives to one-euro homes

Once a bustling and wealthy wool-producing town, Calascio shrunk from over 2,000 residents at the start of the 1900s to just 130 now, almost all of them elderly. In the winter months, only 70 or so people remain.

Just three children have been born here in 12 years. The hamlet has no grocer’s shops, school or doctor’s surgery.

What the hamlet does have is Rocca Calascio, an ancient castle which draws 100,000 tourists a year.

Baldi plans to spend a big chunk of the funds – just over 4.6 million euros – on restoring part of the ruins, which were damaged in a deadly earthquake in 2009.

A family sits at a table by the entrance to their house in Calascio. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

It is hoped archaeological digs will determine when the castle was built, and reveal more about a neighbouring church and graveyard, where bones come to the surface after storms.

Some funds will also go to creating jobs and attracting tourists, with just under 7.5 million euros earmarked for participation in the alberghi diffuci project – creating a “scattered” hotel, with accommodation in the village’s empty houses – and nearly one million euros for a museum.

Locals say they hope young families will move in to the area and perhaps open their own businesses.

“Do you know what the biggest event was in Calascio this year? It was the birth of a baby,” tobacconist Walter Zara told AFP.

People walk in the village of Rocca Calascio. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s 800-billion-euro plan to boost the bloc after the pandemic, allocated almost 200 billion euros in grants and loans.

The funds for Calascio are part of a programme to increase tourism in undervalued areas, notably in the poorer south, and ease pressure on hotspots like Venice.

Villages across Italy competed, with winners including Pietrabbondante in Molise, which boasts a sixth-century amphitheatre.

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“Italy’s real wealth today lies precisely in these small centres,” Mayor Baldi says, adding that countless hilltop hamlets across the country are in a state of serious decline but could be “a driving force for the economy”

Here, that driving force includes a sheep farming school. The plan is to teach youngsters the ancient art of pastoralism, where shepherds and their flocks spend the warmer months on the move.

Funds will also go to increasing cheese production. The region’s pride is Marcetto, a traditional sheep’s cheese made using live maggots, which soften it with their digestive acids.

The village of Calascio (R) and Rocca Calascio (Top L) with its castle on March 29, 2022. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

It was staple for herders who used to gather with their flocks outside the 16th-century Santa Maria della Pieta church, perched just along the ridge from the castle.

Bleating livestock permitting, mass at the so-called “Shepherds’ Church” was followed through a little side window.

Fermented cheese and religion may not be enough. Domenico Ciccone, 78, who began shepherding at just 10 years old, said he was not convinced it was a job that would attract many youngsters.

Ciccone’s son and wife pitch in with the milking, but without a new generation of pastoralists to help over the coming summer, he has been forced to sell much of his flock

“It’s a tough job, you’ve got to like it. There’s no taking time off for a party, or a Sunday, (or) if it’s stormy”.

He also questions whether training new shepherds will help reverse the population decline, quipping that “a 20-year-old who looks after sheep all day long isn’t going to have any luck with women!”

By AFP’s Ella Ide

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MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Here are the remote Italian villages worth seeking out in 2022, according to a list compiled by one of the country's leading tourism associations.

MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

A total of 270 villages across Italy have been recognised as being especially tourist-friendly this year by the Italian Touring Club (Touring Club Italiano), one of the country’s largest non-profit associations dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism throughout the territory.

‘Orange Flag’ status is awarded if a village is judged to have significant historic, cultural and environmental value, as well as for being welcoming to visitors and outsiders, according to the initiative’s website.

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

Villages can apply for the status if they are located inland with no coastal stretches; have fewer than 15,000 inhabitants; have a well-preserved historic centre and a strong sense of cultural identity; demonstrate sensitivity to issues of sustainability; have a well-organised tourist reception system; and show an intention to continue to make improvements to the town.

The list is updated annually, and in 2022 three new villages gained orange flag status for the first time: Dozza in Emilia Romagna, Manciano in Tuscany, and Sasso di Castalda in Basilicata.

See below for the map and a list of the Orange Flag villages according to region:

Montepulciano in Tuscany has 'orange flag' status.

Montepulciano in Tuscany has ‘orange flag’ status. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Abruzzo – 7 villages

Civitella Alfadena, Fara San Martino, Lama dei Peligni, Opi, Palena, Roccascalegna, Scanno.

Basilicata – 6 villages

Aliano, Castelmezzano, Perticara Guard, San Severino Lucano, Sasso di Castalda, Valsinni.

Calabria – 6 villages

Bova, Civita, Gerace, Morano Calabro, Oriolo, Tavern.

Campania – 5 villages

Cerreto Sannita, Letino, Morigerati, Sant’Agata de’ Goti, Zungoli.

READ MORE: Six Italian walking holiday destinations that are perfect for spring

Emilia Romagna – 23 villages

Bagno di Romagna, Bobbio, Brisighella, Busseto, Castell’Arquato, Castelvetro di Modena, Castrocaro Terme and Terra del Sole, Dozza, Fanano, Fiumalbo, Fontanellato, Longiano, Montefiore Conca, Monteleone, Pennabilli, Pieve di Cento, Portico and San Benedetto, Premilcuore, San Leo, Sarsina, Sestola, Verucchio, Vigoleno.

Friuli Venezia Giulia – 7 villages

Andreis, Barcis, Cividale del Friuli, Frisanco, Maniago, San Vito al Tagliamento, Sappada.

Lazio – 20 villages

Arpino, Bassiano, Bolsena, Bomarzo, Calcata, Campodimele, Caprarola, Casperia, Collepardo, Fossanova, Labro, Leonessa, Nemi, San Donato Val di Comino, Sermoneta, Subiaco, Sutri, Trevignano Romano, Tuscania, Vitorchiano.

Liguria – 17 villages

Airole, Apricale, Balducco, Brugnato, Castelnuovo Magra, Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena, Dolceacqua, Perinaldo, Pigna, Pinion, Santo Stefano d’Aveto, Sassello, Seborga, Toirano, Triora, Vallebona, Varese Ligure.

Lombardy – 16 villages

Almenno San Bartolomeo, Bellano, Bienno, Castellaro Lagusello, Chiavenna, Clusone, Gardone Riviera, Gromo, Menaggio, Pizzighettone, Ponti sul Mincio, Sabbioneta, Sarnico, Solferino, Tignale, Torno.

Marche – 24 villages

Acquaviva Picena, Amandola, Camerino, Cantiano, Cingoli, Corinaldo, Frontino, Genga, Gradara, Mercatello sul Metauro, Mondavio, Montecassiano, Montelupone, Monterubbiano, Offagna, Ostra , Ripatransone, San Ginesio, Sarnano, Serra San Quirico, Staffolo, Urbisaglia, Valfornace, Visso.

Molise – 5 villages

Agnone, Ferrazzano, Frosolone, Roccamandolfi, Scapoli.

READ MORE: These are the 20 prettiest villages across Italy

San Gimignano has long been an orange flag destination.

San Gimignano has long been an orange flag destination. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Piedmont – 40 villages 

Agliè, Alagna Valsesia, Arona, Avigliana, Barolo, Bene Vagienna, Bergolo, Candelo, Canelli, Cannero Riviera, Cannobio, Castagnole delle Lanze, Cherasco, Chiusa di Pesio, Cocconato, Entracque, Fenestrelle, Fobello, Gavi, Grinzane Cavour, Guarene, La Morra, Limone Piemonte, Macugnaga, Malesco, Mergozzo, Moncalvo, Monforte d’Alba, Neive, Orta San Giulio, Ozzano Monferrato, Revello, Rosignano Monferrato, Santa Maria Maggiore, Susa, Trisobbio, Usseaux, Usseglio, Varallo, Vogogna.

Puglia – 13 villages

Alberona, Biccari, Bovino, Cisternino, Corigliano d’Otranto, Locorotondo, Oria, Orsara di Puglia, Pietramontecorvino, Rocchetta Sant’Antonio, Sant’Agata di Puglia, Specchia, Troia.

Sardinia – 7 villages

Aggius, Galtellì, Gavoi, Laconi, Oliena, Sardara, Tempio Pausania.

Sicily – 1 village

Petralia Sottana

Tuscany – 40 villages

Abetone Cutigliano, Anghiari, Barberino Tavarnelle, Barga, Casale Marittimo, Casciana Terme Lari, Casale d’Elsa, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Castelnuovo di Val di Cecina, Castiglion Fiorentino, Certaldo, Cetona, Chiusi, Collodi, Fosdinovo, Lucignano, Manciano, Massa Marittima, Montalcino, Montecarlo, Montefollonico, Montepulciano, Monteriggioni, Murlo, Peccioli, Pienza, Pitigliano, Pomarance, Radda in Chianti, Radicofani, San Casciano dei Bagni, San Gimignano, Santa Fiora, Sarteano, Sorano, Suvereto, Trequanda, Vicopisano, Vinci, Volterra. 

Trentino Alto Adige – 8 villages

Ala, Caderzone Terme, Campo Tures/Sand in Taufers, Ledro, Levico Terme, Molveno, Tenno, Vipiteno/Sterzing.

Umbria – 10 villages

Bevagna, Città della Pieve, Montefalco, Montone, Nocera Umbra, Norcia, Panicale, Spello, Trevi, Vallo di Nera.

Val d’Aosta – 3 villages

Etroubles, Gressoney-Saint-Jean, Introd.

Veneto – 12 villages

Arquà Petrarca, Asolo, Borgo Valbelluna, Cison di Valmarino, Follina, Malcesine, Marostica, Montagnana, Portobuffolè, Rocca Pietore, Soave, Valeggio sul Mincio.

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