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LIVING IN ITALY

Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Most towns in Italy have a pretty 'centro storico', or old town centre, full of charm and history. But there are plenty of reasons why Italians don't want to live there, says Silvia Marchetti

Charming or boring - What do Italians think of life in the old town?
A cheap home in the charming surroundings of an Italian centro storico would tempt many foreigners - but few Italians. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

Italy’s rural villages lure foreigners with their fascinating historic centres and bucolic vibe, but they’re not always as idyllic as they may seem at first glance.

Living in such villages, many of which are depopulated and in isolated places, built around a more or less intact ancient district, has pros and cons. They come with caveats.

The plus points are of course the old architecture and picturesque buildings full of history, surroundings with great countryside or mountain views, fewer crowds, authentic food and traditions, and welcoming neighbors. There is that ‘microcosm’ ambiance that makes you feel at home in a small place.

But one must go beyond the romantic, aesthetic appeal of old districts and look at how practical it is to actually live there.

Last weekend I visited a small village in the province of Rieti called Percile and nearly broke my leg climbing up and down the layers of huge stone steps, which were the actual alleys, wondering how residents could do it every single time they left their homes. It’s like a killer open-air gym.

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

While some foreigners might view such daily feats as part of their sogno all’italiana (‘Italian dream’), Italians are not as keen on reliving the bygone days.

Historic centres are all structured in the same way: a bunch of houses cropped at the feet of a castle, church or fortress, with narrow, winding cobbled alleys where ankles get easily sprained, and ragged stone steps connecting the various levels. 

The semi-deserted old town centre of Rignano Flaminio. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cars are banned, finding a parking place nearby is hell especially in summer, and the pavements get slippery when it rains. And in small villages where most locals have long left, or return just for weekends, shops, bars, restaurants and pharmacies tend to be located in newer areas or in nearby towns.

In the past locals fled from these places due to harsh living conditions, searching for a brighter future elsewhere. They left behind empty houses, so today many historic centres are partly abandoned and inhabited by immigrants or adventurous foreigners looking for a quiet retreat. 

Italians tend not to buy houses in old neighborhoods unless they have nostalgia for their roots and want to reconnect with their ancestors, or eye an investment like a B&B. They’d rather buy country houses with a garden, plot of land, and if affordable, a small pool.

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

My Italian friends have never even considered buying an old dwelling in the historic centre of a rural village; they find it uncomfortable. And so do I, unless I’m sure to have everything I need at hand and at a short walking distance.

“I’m Sicilian, but I’d never purchase a cheap or one euro home in Sicily’s ancient neighborhoods, no matter how fascinating these are. I would not know where to park the car and just the thought of carrying heavy grocery bags and bottled water up staircases scares me, old homes don’t come with elevators”, says Rosi Gangiulo, a pensioner from Palermo.

Crumbling houses in Percile. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

There are also a few prejudices involved too. Unless it’s a unique, stunning town like Civita di Bagnoreggio in Lazio suspended above a deep chasm, or Renaissance-era jewel Pienza in Tuscany, living in the old part is seen as (and often is) the place for poorer or migrant families, while owning an attic in the newer area where all the pubs and shops are is ‘cool’.

In the medieval historic centre of Rignano Flaminio north of Rome, few locals remain, hens run freely amid grass-covered ruins, and entire families of immigrants live cramped in tiny one-room apartments. 

Former Italian residents have moved to the countryside or to the modern outskirts, certainly less charming but easier to live in.

Some seemingly picture-perfect historical centres are best admired at a distance, rather than experienced from the inside. Last time I visited Torrita Tiberina in the Tiber Valley it struck me how most homes in the medieval district were shut, abandoned or decaying, with nobody around. 

I happened to bump into a young Neapolitan man who asked me whether I knew what time the bus to Rome was. He told me he had been living there for four months, focusing on writing a book.

“The silence is great but it’s just too quiet. I don’t have a car and each time I had to buy something I needed to get out of the historic centre. It also became unbearable having no next-door neighbor to chat with.

To be sure old villages are the right fit, one has to look beyond the charm and really evaluate whether they’re livable as well as beautiful.

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LIVING IN ITALY

The Italian holiday calendar for 2023

Italy gets a good number of public holidays, but they sometimes fall on a weekend. Here are the dates to plan for next year.

The Italian holiday calendar for 2023

Italy has long been known for being fairly generous with its public holidays, with Austria being the only EU country with more holidays (13). 

In total, Italian residents enjoy 11 national public holidays plus a local holiday for the patron saint of their cities (for instance St Ambrose in Milan, St Mark in Venice, St John in Florence, etc.).

READ ALSO: Why do Milan residents get a day off on December 7th?

But, as some Italian speakers might say, ‘non è tutto oro quel che luccica’ (all that glitters is not gold). In fact, all national holidays in Italy are taken on the day they fall on that year rather than being moved to the nearest Monday as is the case in other countries, including the UK.

This means that if a certain holiday is on a Saturday or a Sunday, there is no extra day off for residents.

It also means that there are ‘good’ holiday years and ‘bad’ ones, and, while 2022 wasn’t a particularly good one – as many as four public holidays fell on a weekend day – 2023 only has one such holiday: New Year’s Day, which will fall on Sunday, January 1st.

Deck chair on Italian seaside

Italian residents will get five three-day weekends in 2023 thanks to public national holidays. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

2023 holiday calendar

  • January 1, 2023 (New Year’s Day): Sunday
  • January 6, 2023 (Epiphany): Friday
  • April 10, 2023 (Easter Monday): Monday
  • April 25, 2023 (Liberation Day): Tuesday
  • May 1, 2023 (Labour Day): Monday
  • June 2, 2023 (Italian Republic Day): Friday
  • August 15, 2023 (Ferragosto): Tuesday
  • November 1, 2023 (All Saints’ Day): Wednesday
  • December 8, 2023 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception): Friday
  • December 25, 2023 (Christmas Day): Monday
  • December 26, 2023 (St Stephen’s Day): Tuesday

As shown by the above list, Christmas Eve (December 24th) and New Year’s Eve (December 31st) are not official public holidays in Italy, but many local companies do give their staff both days off as a gesture of goodwill. 

That said, in 2023 Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve will both fall on a Sunday, so residents will already be home from work. 

Like both ‘Eves’, Easter Sunday is also not considered a public holiday, but, once again, residents are already home from work on the day given that it falls on a Sunday every year.  

2023 ‘bridges’ and long weekends

Whether or not a certain year is a good one for holidays also depends on the number of ‘bridges’ available.

For the uninitiated, ‘fare il ponte (‘to do the bridge’) is the noble art of taking an extra day off when a public holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday – the most audacious might do this with a Wednesday holiday too.

Sadly, 2023 doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities to do this. There are only two possible bridges: one for Liberation Day, falling on Tuesday, April 25th and one for Ferragosto, on Tuesday, August 15th.

But, on a more positive note, six of next year’s public holidays will fall either on a Monday or a Friday, giving residents five three-day weekends and a four-day one – Christmas Day (falling on Monday) is immediately followed by St Stephen’s Day on Tuesday.

Italian non-holiday holidays

There are seven dates in Italy’s calendar that are considered official but not public holidays, meaning you don’t get a day off. 

These are known as ‘solennità civili’ (civil feasts) and include National Unity Day on the first Sunday of November, the day of Italy’s patron saints Francesco and Caterina on October 4th, and the anniversary of the unification of Italy on March 17th.

Display from Italian Air Force for Italy's Unity Day

National Unity Day, which is celebrated every year on the first Sunday of November, is one of Italy’s ‘civil feasts’. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

That’s in addition to nearly 30 national and international days of commemoration or celebration that Italy recognises, including Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27th), Europe Day (May 9th) and Christopher Columbus Day (October 12th). 

Much like the previously mentioned solennità civili, none of the above will get you a day off.

Other holidays

If you’re an employee in Italy, you’re entitled to paid holiday time, and the very minimum allowance is four weeks (or 20 days) a year – that’s 18 days less than in Austria, which leads the EU pack in minimum paid leave.

That said, many Italian contracts, particularly those for state employees, allow for five weeks (or 25 days) of paid leave per year. 

It’s also worth noting that, by law, employees must take at least two weeks of paid leave consecutively (i.e. two in a row) and all paid leave accumulated over the course of a year must be taken within 18 months from the end of that year.

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