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PROPERTY

How bargain homes made one Italian town €100 million in two years

After Sambuca di Sicilia became the poster child for Italy's one-euro homes project, local authorities say the town's fortunes have turned around as the area is now enjoying a 'Renaissance'.

How bargain homes made one Italian town €100 million in two years
Exotic architecture and courtyards filled with orange trees are part of the draw in Sambuca, Sicily - along with properties with a starting price of €2. Photo courtesy of Comune di Sambuca

In recent years dozens of depopulating Italian villages have put up cheap homes up for sale in an effort to revitalize local communities, but one in particular stands out from the rest. 

Sambuca Di Sicilia, in deepest Sicily, has been the most successful of the ‘one euro home’ villages

Since 2019, when it first began to auction off crumbling buildings for a starting price of one euro, the village has enjoyed a Renaissance.

According to local authorities a total of roughly €100 million has flowed in due to the initiative, positively impacting the rural area’s local economy in spite of the pandemic slowdown. 

“Twenty new B&Bs have opened in town, while before there was just one,” says deputy mayor Giuseppe Cacioppo. “The cheap home sales have generated some €3 million, while overall renovations are worth over €20 million.”

Mayor Leo Ciaccio adds that Sambuca’s time in the global spotlight has spurred public investments, with roughly €40-€50 million earmarked for improving roads and reviving old underground cellars, while the remote village recently got its first helicopter pad for emergencies.

Photo courtesy of Comune di Sambuca

The influx of foreigners seeking to grab a place in the sun by purchasing a cheap home, and who then end up staying in the village for at least one week a year, has already led to a 200 percent increase in tourism, according to Cacioppo, generating an estimated €8-€10 million in revenue.

Following the initial 2019 scheme Sambuca launched another auction of old dwellings last summer with a starting symbolic price of €2. 

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

All cheap homes in both auctions were eventually sold, with some going for up to €25.000 – with many going to foreign buyers who decided to purchase slightly more expensive homes in need of little work, breathing new life into the real estate market. 

A total of 135 empty homes in the area have been sold in just two years, which also means the local population benefited from the housing scheme. 

Many families were finally able to sell off empty houses which had been lying vacant for decades, and a positive chain reaction ensued.

“Other than B&Bs, new taverns, wine bars, artisanal shops also opened up, while local craftspeople, builders, carpenters, cleaning services, architects and engineers are now busy working on the sold homes. Some 50 houses have already been redone”, says Cacioppo.

So what is the secret of the success in Sambuca compared to other villages that have launched similar housing schemes? 

Firstly, the mayor says, it was the only town to offer old homes for sale which were already in the possession of local authorities. 

READ ALSO: The hidden costs of buying a home in Italy

“Due to the earthquake that rocked the area in 1968 many buildings in the historical center were abandoned, and in time the town hall took them over to secure the area and launch a revival project,” explains Cacioppo.

“Unlike other towns, we are the direct owners so there is no need to liaise between local families and new buyers.”

“The fact that the town hall is the one involved party is a guarantee,” he says, adding that the process was not slowed by having to track down the legal owners of abandoned properties, many of whom emigrated long ago.

Photo courtesy of Comune di Sambuca

Another plus point is the exotic feel of the village. The ancient old town features typical Arab-style dwellings with internal courtyards filled with orange trees, which hail back to Sicily’s spellbinding past.

The residents I spoke to were all ecstatic about the revamp of the village. Francesco Sciamé recently opened a B&B, called Donna Baldi Centellis, in a historical building complete with original majolica tiles. 

He says it was never the right time to open such a business, mainly because he’d have had zero customers. Now the B&B is constantly fully booked.

“I’ve always wanted to run a B&B and the success of the housing scheme offered me the opportunity,” he says. “Sambuca became known worldwide and foreign buyers started flocking here, so I offered them a place they could stay while house hunting. There was no reason to open it before, the village was unknown”. 

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

Riccardo Mulé has opened a wine bar, L’Enoteca del Re, on Sambuca’s main street where he makes cocktails with wild herbs that grow in the nearby fields. 

He didn’t quite start from scratch, given he already owned nearby Re Umberto Caffé, where locals meet for morning espresso, but he says the cheap homes frenzy pushed him to expand his business.

“I realized tourists were savvy clients, they wanted to taste traditional drinks with plates of local hams and cheeses. They did not want the usual Martini, but niche Sicilian liqueurs,” says Mulé.

Where will the town go from here? The local officials and residents I spoke to believe that Sambuca will become a crossroads for different cultures, as people from all over the world join the effort to revive the local economy.

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TRANSPORT

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Sicily may be just a stone’s throw from mainland Italy but getting there and back is not always simple or fast, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Transport connections between Italy’s largest island region and the main Italian cities are expected to improve in the long run, with the government hoping to use European pandemic recovery funds. But infrastructure investments take years to bear fruit. 

Taking a flight is of course the easiest and quickest way to reach Sicily, where there are three main airports – Palermo, Catania, Trapani – plus two minor ones on the southernmost Pantelleria and Lampedusa islands. But there are mounting ticket costs. 

The recent investigation launched by Italian authorities into alleged price-fixing on flights to and from Sicily during Christmas holidays by many low-cost airlines shows how fliers might have been left with little choice. Unless one is a Sicilian resident with access to privileged fares, the round trip is often costly.

I recently did an online search and found flights to Sicily are still quite expensive, costing roughly 300 euros for a return trip from Rome, even if booked well in advance. And not all Italian airports serve the destination. 

READ ALSO: Trains and planes: Italy’s new international travel routes in 2023

Paradoxically, it is often easier to reach Sicily from a European city such as London or Brussels than from an Italian one, and I often envy foreign friends who quickly find a much cheaper flight than I can from Rome. Others hop on ferry boats in southern France to land in Sicily. 

For those already in Italy, other options are traveling by train or car, which can still be hellish. Even though the A1 autostrada del Sole, the country’s backbone, has been completed, driving down the length of the country takes 12 hours – inclusive of meal and toilet stops – roughly 1,500 kilometers. I did it once, and it is crazy, but it depends on how much one loves driving.

All train connections end in Reggio Calabria or other southern regions, even the high-speed Italo takes 10 hours from Milan to the tip of the boot. The journey by train is less stressful than by car or plane, and costs roughly 280 euros for a round trip from Milan.

Travel to and from Sicily can often turn into a nightmarish odyssey. I’ve spoken to lots of Sicilians and foreigners who often embark on a 24-hour trip to get to Sicily from Rome and Milan. 

I remember once going to Linosa island for the summer holidays and having to take the plane to Palermo, then a long bus ride to Porto Empedocle to catch the midnight ferry, sleeping on a bench and waking up the next morning to stunning volcanic black scenery. I could have taken the plane to sister-isle Lampedusa and then a quick ferry boat, but the air fare was way over my budget. That trip lasted 28 hours, exactly the same amount of time as my past flights to Jakarta from Rome – but with added stress.

The ferry connecting Messina, Sicily with Villa San Giovanni, Calabria. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The government aims to revive the Messina bridge plan, an idea which has been floating in the air since 1866. I doubt things would change much. Many people would still drive their cars along the bridge rather than take the ecological high speed railway expected to be built on it.

To improve connections, transport must shift from the road to the railway tracks by increasing high-speed train services, as well as ferries, thus curbing CO2 emissions. High-speed sea connections to and from Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno and other key mainland ports should also be increased.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

The Messina bridge, which I seriously doubt will be built during this government’s five-year legislature, would just end up increasing road traffic. Locals and tourists in Calabria will be tempted to drive their car or motorino just three kilometers to grab a cassata cake in Messina. 

However, the real issue is not getting to and from Sicily, but getting around Sicily once you land there.

I had the chance to meet several Sicilian commuters who travel almost daily from a rural village to Rome, Naples or Milan for meetings. They wake up at three in the morning and return home at 11pm, up to four times a week. 

Island train and bus connections are rather poor so the car is their best option to get to the airport. However, bar the main highways, most Sicilian roads are a work-in-progress or in bad condition.

You never know where a Sicilian road trip might take you. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I happened to experience an ‘adventurous’ road trip once from Catania airport to a tiny village in the province of Caltanissetta. According to the satellite map it was meant to take roughly two hours, but it turned out to be five, and I literally found myself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by sheep and ravines. Not quite the idyll I had dreamt.

Some highways were shut due to maintenance so I had to cut across unpaved rural roads without street lights, or deviate elsewhere which lengthened my trip (ravenous, I took five minutes to stop for a quick cannolo on the way).

It all depends on what degree of adventure travelers are seeking. Distances seem shorter for some foreigners than they do to Italians. Americans in particular and others from non-European Union countries are excited to drive from Milan to Sicily, for they can catch a glimpse of Italy in its entirety, or tour Sicily’s main archaeological sites in eight hours.

But many others I know, because of the poor state of Sicilian roads and regional connections, prefer to fly in and rent cars with drivers to take them to their destinations. 

The future of Sicily’s transport connections must be affordable and more frequent flights, high-speed railways and eco-friendly boats. Not new bridges and even more cars on the road.

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