How Italy is bringing its rustic villages back to life | Travel

The world tends to think of Italy as the modern heir to ancient Rome, the national home of pizza, espresso and Leonardo da Vinci. But long before it was a unified nation, the boot-shaped peninsula was a loose collection of towns and villages, borghi in Italian, with extremely varied architecture, topography and cultural histories. In the picturesque northern towns, Italian is often the third language spoken after German and Ladin, a surviving Latin dialect that has its roots in the Roman conquest of the Alps. The central region of Abruzzo has a medieval village that made a fortune in the wool trade of the Medici family (they raised their sheep there) and another with a church built on the ruins of a Roman-era temple of Jupiter .

Until the 20th century, most Italians lived in such rural hamlets, often rich in history and natural beauty, but lacking in economic opportunities and social services. When industrialization led to mass migration to cities, thousands of borghi were left behind. Populations have plummeted. Entire towns have fallen into disrepair or worse, hit even harder by floods, earthquakes, landslides and forest fires. Today, more than 5,000 Borghi are considered at risk of depopulation, according to Anci, the National Association of Italian Municipalitiessome 2,000 of which are on the verge of total abandonment – of becoming ghost towns.

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Smithsonian magazine

Church of Santa Maria

The 16th century Church of Santa Maria della Pietà in the Apennine mountains.

Francesco Lastrucci

In recent years, however, artists, agrarian dreamers and entrepreneurs have begun to drive a return to Italy’s neglected rural villages. New ecotourism ventures are attracting visitors and new transplants to remote locations. Crowdfunded co-ops help newcomers open grocery stores, arts centers, coworking spaces, pizzeria. In 61 cities across the country, local governments will even sell you a house for €1. You don’t have to be Italian, but you often have to show that you intend to restore it.

This high-profile initiative has its charms, but the results so far have been surprisingly modest given the contemporary craze for remodeling. The town of Gangi, in Sicily, is considered an exemplary success, but only 13 houses of this type have been sold since the start of the program in 2009, i.e. only one per year.

Yet a recent opinion poll found the tide is turning: two-thirds of people under 39 living in Italy’s borghi say they hope to stay there, suggesting a reversal of a trend dating back around 70 years. Not so long ago, the Calabrian village of Pentedattilo, originally a Greek colony of the 7th century BC. saw the arrival of its first new resident in nearly 40 years: Makandjan Thunkara, a young refugee from Mali, who works alongside the town’s only other resident. , Rossella Aquilanti, former postwoman, to restore an abandoned farmhouse. They are rarely without the help of a rotating cast of young people who come to stay and work the land and tend the pigs and goats. “We make cheese and bread, we have a vegetable garden,” says Aquilanti. “The only thing we have to buy is wine.”


Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo

The fortified medieval village was once the base of the Medici family for raising sheep whose wool, sold in Florence, helped to enrich the family. The wool trade remains an important local industry, but the town is also famous for its lentils, which have been grown there since the year 1000 and are known for their intense flavor, attributed to the altitude. Yet Santo Stefano has lost much of its population and is now home to only 60 permanent residents. In Santo Stefano, the terrain is so steep that many streets and alleys are made up of long, maze-like staircases.

Santo Stefano main square

Here the road from Piazza Medicea, in the historic center of the city, descends towards Piazza Cristoforo Colombo.

Francesco Lastrucci

dyed wool

Yarn dyed in Valeria Gallese’s boutique, just off the town’s main square.

Francesco Lastrucci

Grand Corno

Corno Grande, at 9,554 feet, the highest peak in the Apennines.

Francesco Lastrucci


Gangi, Sicily

Built on the sloping ridge of Mount Marone, 80 km southeast of Palermo, the city was settled in Roman times, if not earlier. In 2014 he was one of the first in Italy to sell abandoned houses for €1, a program which, here at least, has been relatively successful.

Scenes from Gangi, Sicily

On the left, the view from a plaza near Corso Fedele Vitale, overlooking a neighborhood where most of the discount homes were. Top right, children play football on the terrace of the Duomo di San Nicola di Bari. Bottom right, 19th century frescoes inside the Church of San Cataldo.

Francesco Lastrucci


Ostana, Piedmont

Not far from the French border in the Western Alps, Ostana lost waves of residents to industrial jobs in nearby Turin in the 1950s and 1960s. Recently it has attracted new residents with a cooperative civic which has built a coworking space and a children’s library and organizes artist residencies.

Ostana

Top left, a townsman sips tea on the stone-clad rooftops of Ostana. The peaks of Monviso and Pian del Re, along the French border, are in the background. On the right, Roberto Miretto, a former trucker who arrived in Ostana by chance making a delivery. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “I knew I wanted to live here for the rest of my life.” Today he leads a agritourism, a restaurant, bed and breakfast and farm where he raises cashmere goats. Bottom left, cows graze in the mountain pastures of Pian del Re, near the source of the Po.

Francesco Lastrucci


Vaccarizzo di Montalto, Calabria

“Over the years we lost everything,” Roberta Caruso says of her long-impoverished hometown. “Even the post office has closed.” But in 2019, architects and contractors affiliated with MIT launched a program to revive the village, renovate buildings, lay out hiking trails and open an artisan grocery store.

Carpenter

A carpenter restores old cinema seats.

Francesco Lastrucci

Vacarizzo haircut, olives, church

On the left, a city dweller, at home for the weekend, is having his father’s hair cut. In the center, a detail of nearly ripe olives in a backyard in Vaccarizzo. On the right, the 13th century San Rocco church.

Francesco Lastrucci


Pentedattilo, Calabria

Founded by Greeks in the 7th century BC, the city is famous for a blood feud between aristocrats in the 17th century. In the 1960s, poverty and devastating floods led to abandonment, but the arrival of Rossella Aquilanti, a former postwoman, sparked a modest revival.

Pentedattilo - vacant house and almond harvest

On the left, a vacant house, with Etna in the background. On the right, volunteers harvest almonds at Aquilanti’s farm.

Francesco Lastrucci

Makandjan Thunkara

Makandjan Thunkara, one of the city’s only permanent residents.

Francesco Lastrucci

Prickly pear

Prickly pears ripening in October in the Calabrian countryside.

Francesco Lastrucci


Fontecchio, Abruzzo

After a major earthquake in 2009, half of the houses in the city have been condemned as unsafe. Today, however, Fontecchio is buzzing with construction and activity and has become a hub for international artists.

workers restore a palace

Workers restore a medieval palace.

Francesco Lastrucci

Fontecchio ceiling, fountain, fresco

At left, a cracked ceiling in the home of Valeria Pica, a Naples-born art historian who moved to restore her ancestral property. Center, a 14th-century fountain, long a place of social gathering, in Piazza del Popolo. To the right, a fresco adorns the exterior of a damaged house.

Francesco Lastrucci


Longiaru, Trentino Alto Adige

Nestled in the Dolemites, the village has retained a small but stable community of Ladin heritage. In the past, locals grew wheat and barley, but now rely on dairy farming and sustainable tourism, which is tightly regulated. “Tourism is good, says Christoph Alfreder, a mountain guide, but it can’t become a monoculture, otherwise it would kill the land we live on.” A young resident named Neomi Clara considered moving away – “a passing thought”, she says. now.

mountains and cow

To the left, huts dot the steep mountain pastures near Longiaru in the Dolomites. The road leads to the Sass de Putia peak, one of the highest peaks in the region. On the right, a highland cow on a farm near Longiaru. Originally from Scotland, the breed’s long coat protects it from the region’s cold winters.

Francesco Lastrucci

Longiaru Window

A small local museum celebrating regional Ladin culture offers awe-inspiring views of the Dolomites.

Francesco Lastrucci

garden woman

A resident takes care of her robust flower garden that adorns her front yard.

Francesco Lastrucci

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