When the Irish summer bares its teeth and starts to snarl, it’s time to dream about escaping to Italy.
Once upon a time a farmhouse in Tuscany, a few acres of vines and lots of sunflowers would have fulfilled anyone’s Italian fantasy. But the dream just got bigger. Why not buy a whole village in the heart-stoppingly lovely Italian countryside?
According to one estimate Italy has nearly 20,000 “ghost towns”, many of them in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and over the past few years a number of them have been put on the market in their entirety.
In 2012 a medieval Tuscan hamlet called Pratariccia - situated just 40 kilometres from Florence - was advertised on eBay at €2.5 million. In 2014 the Alpine village of Calsazio, within a stones’ throw of Turin, was also for sale on Ebay with a starting price of just over €245,000. Two years ago houses in the town of Lecce nei Marsi, in the National Park of Abruzzo, were on offer for €1 a pop, inviting investors to buy them by the fistful.
There are some current bargains in Abruzzo, often referred to as “Europe’s last wilderness” for its unspoiled mountain landscapes. Frattura Vecchia di Scanno, which boasts 70 buildings overlooking a heart-shaped lake, could be yours for €1.5 million, while a house in Rocca Calascio will set you back just €20,000.
Too good to be true? Well, as is so often the case with property, “picturesque” can turn out to be a synonym for “punter, beware”. Given its stunning location the clifftop town of Civita di Bagnoregio, built by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago, would be at the top of anybody’s Italian wishlist.
What you can’t tell from the photographs, however, is that due to soil erosion, its buildings and infrastructure have been steadily crumbling ever since. A violent earthquake in the 14th century didn’t help, and when the town’s only bridge was bombed during the second World War it was virtually stranded: these days it’s connected to the main road by a single metal walkway.
It would probably take a miracle to restore Bagnoregio’s fortunes. As to the results of those Ebay auctions - or whether they even took place - that seems to be a secret which would put The Da Vinci code to shame.
Some of these Italian hilltop stories, however, do have happy endings. In the 1990s a Swedish-Italian millionaire by the name of Daniele Kihlgren was touring the Gran Sasso National Park on his motorbike when he fell in love with Santo Stefano di Sessanio, another glorious hilltop village which had been abandoned following the decline of the area’s once-lucrative wool trade.
Kihlgren bought one house, then 10, then 30. Having done a deal with the local council in which he promised not to rebuild on a large scale, he invested some €4.5 million and turned the properties into what he calls an “albergo diffuso”, or “spread-out hotel”, with rooms placed throughout the village.
The beautifully renovated, cave-like accommodation - complete with wifi, underfloor heating and a first-rate restaurant - now attracts trendy weekenders from Rome and beyond, as well as couples in search of a fairytale wedding location.
You can check out the results on Air BnB; it’s also laid out in loving detail on the website sextantio.it, whose real estate division is offering the above-mentioned house in Rocca Calascio and the hamlet of Frattura Vecchia di Scanno. Other websites which have property for sale in the area are gate-away.com and abruzzoreality.com.
Tourism and external investment may well represent the future for Apennine mountain villages. The locals certainly seem to think so, which is why they’re putting all those family homes up for sale so cheaply.
But unemployment and severe winters aren’t the only reason why the houses were abandoned in the first place. In 2009, an earthquake destroyed 45 towns and villages in the Abruzzo region and killed more than 300 people. In January of this year, 29 people died when an avalanche engulfed a ski hotel.
Add to that the lack of basic services - some Apennine hill towns have no electricity, running water, even access roads - the infamously labyrinthine Italian planning regulations, the wolves which roam the Gran Sasso National Park, and … well. Your drenched and squelching Irish back garden may be looking more dreamy by the minute.