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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

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

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.

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