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OPINION & ANALYSIS

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages
Greccio, a "perfectly renovated ghost town". Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

MAP: The ‘best’ Italian villages to visit this year

I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

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

But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

READ ALSO: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.

Member comments

  1. Honestly this strikes me as a good thing. It will keep some of the tourists- those who don’t actually care about the true Italian culture- out of the true borghi, making them less tourist cluttered than they might otherwise be! Let them have their Tuscan Disneyland 🙂 and leave the authentic experience for the rest of us 🙂

  2. I am a resident in the Borgo of Castelfalfi, named by Silvia Marchetti as a “fake village” devoid of people and where she states the renovations have “killed the original spirit of the place”. I am not one of her “wealthy foreigners looking solely to bask under the Tuscan sun” , though I enjoy the sunshine, I however love Castelfalfi and the depiction of the place in Ms Marchetti’s article is inaccurate and misleading . The village of Castelfalfi was dead, Italians had fled many years ago leaving a handful of people with little infrastructure and decaying buildings and agriculture. It was almost totally deserted and had been left to decline and waste away, even the attempt to revive it in the 1900s, by introducing the tobacco industry had failed. The only spirit in Castelfalfi were dead ones.

    TUI purchased Castelfalfi from a wealthy Milanese businessman in 2007 when the village had just 5 residents, and it spent millions carefully renovating the old buildings; uncovering old frescoes in the 16th century church and revealing them for the first time in centuries and reopening it to the public and local residents, and revitalising the agriculture. Planning permissions took years to agree with the local authorities. The castle was lovingly restored to its prior grandeur from a blackened state of disrepair and neglect. New jobs were created and holiday apartments were indeed made from the neglected outbuildings of the castle. Casale, which were abandoned and in total ruin, have indeed been made into beautiful homes, which it is true only a few Italians have purchased, but some have.

    While this development may well not be the perfect solution to the revival of abandoned villages it has nevertheless completely revived the place, which is now a thriving hub of activity with shops, tourists, restaurants and business. The winery and olive oil has also been developed and even new bees introduced. All creating wealth for the area of Montaione and much needed jobs. All the work required careful planning permission and the co-operation of the Mayor of Montaione. In winter the village is quiet, just as in summer the cities of Italy are largely devoid of locals who have fled to the country or the seaside.

    It is therefore sad to read the Silvia Marchetti inaccurate and one sided article which criticises the revival of such villages, would she really prefer to see them rot and decay entirely? The golf club has actually been situated in Castelfalfi for many years prior to the development, contrary to her statement that the glorious estate of wealthy Italians has been recently transformed by a huge golf course.

    We can all fall prey to looking at the past with rose coloured glasses, sadly instead of embracing sensible and refined change some prefer to believe, as expressed in this article , that a decaying abandoned village with little or no population is somehow better than allowing for new business and foreign tourists. I hope people will come and see Castelfalfi for themselves, and that most sensible Italians welcome foreign investment.

  3. My village, not far from Civita Bagnoregio, has made a conscious decision to invite only specific types of tourism. We get art groups who stay and paint for a couple of weeks, archeology students who dig and discover for a couple of weeks, visiting wine enthusiasts, and others. But, you won’t see huge tourist buses and no one has opened a shop where they could sell “Made in China” Italianesque tchotchkes. Italian is spoken everywhere, so I’ve been taking lessons, and expats (Brit, Euro, and American) are few and far between. All generations are amply represented in our 1500 person population, and I cheer every time I see a pregnant mom-to-be, knowing the village will live on.

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TOURISM

US tourist fined €500 for driving on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio bridge

Italian police fined a Californian man after he drove a rented Fiat Panda across Florence’s iconic - and pedestrianised - Ponte Vecchio on Thursday.

US tourist fined €500 for driving on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio bridge

The 34-year-old man drove onto the bridge in the early afternoon of Thursday, January 26th, but was quickly stopped by police.

He reportedly told officers that he was looking for parking and wasn’t aware he was on the Ponte Vecchio, one of Florence’s most recognisable landmarks.

Completed in 1345, the bridge today is famously a narrow, cobbled walkway lined with small shops selling jewellery and souvenirs.

READ ALSO: US tourist charged with public indecency after posing naked at Amalfi Cathedral

The visitor, from California, had been planning on touring Florence by car (a rented Fiat Panda, to be exact). 

But whether he was trying to put one over local police or he just wasn’t aware of local traffic rules, his early-afternoon ride cost him dearly as he later received a total 500-euro fine for entering a pedestrian-only area and driving without an international driving permit. 

READ ALSO: ‘Americans can pay’: Italian minister says famous sites should hike entry fees

Florence recently announced a restoration project worth €2 million for the bridge – which was the only one in the city left standing after World War II.

Thursday’s incident was not the first time a tourist was caught driving across the Ponte Vecchio. 

In 2019, a 79-year-old German tourist drove onto the bridge in a rented Lamborghini sports car. After being stopped by local police, the man reportedly told officers he was “lost”.

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