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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.