IT SEEMED like a pretty good deal,” says Rafael Solorzano, leaning against an ancient whitewashed wall.
The 28-year-old American from Miami is referring to the house we’re standing in – all four floors of it, including a yawning basement – and the fact that this habitable, historic home in a comely old Sicilian hill town was his for €1 (about R17,50). That’s basically the same as what you’d pay in Italy for a slice of pizza.
It’s now 14 years since former MP and cultural commentator Vittorio Sgarbi suggested a radical solution to Italy’s ratcheting rural decline which over the past two decades has seen a million Italians abandoning their small-town homes and going in search of opportunities in cities.
To reverse this flow, Sgarbi proposed that the nation’s dwindling settlements offer their many vacant houses to newcomers for a pittance. It took a while to convince mayors and absentee owners, but 34 remote towns and villages are currently running €1 house schemes, scattered along the country’s full length.
For some, these initiatives are just part of the desperate solution to an existential crisis. Pledge to settle in Molise, a struggling region in the southern Apennines, and open up a business to boost the local economy and you’ll receive a grant of €800 (R14 000) a month for three years to help get you on your feet. For South Africans to do this, they’d need to apply for an Italian self-employment visa.
Further south, Calabria offers smalltown newcomers who promise to establish a business or enroll their children in school a golden hello worth up to €33 000 (R557 000).
But more than half of the €1 house towns are in Sicily, where the socioeconomic pressures that drive rural de-population are redoubled: this is one of Italy’s poorest regions, where youth unemployment runs at 48%.
Most of the struggling settlements on the mainland are hoping to attract young Italians, but the mayors of the 20 little Sicilian towns currently hawking €1 houses can’t afford to be fussy. They don’t care how old you are, or how foreign.
Having shed a third of its population, in 2019 the village of Sambuca di Sicilia put 16 old houses up for auction, each at a starting price of €1, via a press release that instantly went viral across the world.
“The headline kind of wrote itself,” says Tom Murray, an editor at Business Insider, one of the countless media outlets to have published breathless stories about the houses. “I mean, it’s a beautiful home in rural Italy for a dollar. Who isn’t going to click on that?”
Within 48 hours the mayor of Sambuca’s office had received 38 000 enquiries. More than 100 000 emails had overwhelmed the municipal inbox by the time the houses found new owners from all over the world – the UK, the US, Norway, Dubai, Jordan.
Around half sold for €1, while the rest went for a few thousand. Afterwards, almost 100 foreigners who missed out on the auction snapped up another 90 local homes for under €10 000 each (R175 000).
Inspired by this success, hill towns across the island got in on the act, none with more gusto than Mussomeli – a settlement of 11 000 right in the middle of Sicily that has to date sold a table-topping 50 €1 houses to foreigners, with a further 100 currently on its books.
Browsing the English-language website this municipality has set up in collaboration with a local estate agent (case1euro.it), I am dangerously tantalised by the listed properties.
Beneath the dust and rust, beyond the full spectrum of structural decay, I spy marble staircases, encaustic tiles, panoramic terraces: Mediterranean dream-home potential in its very headiest form.
“Is it true or is it a joke?” reads the most arresting entry in the website’s FAQ section. There is of course only one way to find out . . .
THE drive to Mussomeli lays bare the challenges and rewards of life in central Sicily. After the autostrada turn-off, I spend a long hour weaving about tentatively on ravaged asphalt, harried at close quarters by a succession of impatient farmers in rickety Fiat Pandas, meaty brown forearms dangling from their windows.
But the desolate majesty of the landscape is utterly captivating, ranks of suede hills pierced here and there by terrific rocky outcrops, most topped with a precarious monastery or castle.
At the end of another fierce summer, the last crop of fat red grapes hangs heavy under dusty white tarpaulins that ripple in a warm breeze.
Mussomeli, derived from a Latin mashup meaning “hill of honey”, is guarded by the most splendid of those lofty castles, a full-on Game of Thrones number nicknamed the Enchanted Fortress.
But the streets beyond share nothing with my expectations: they are lined with nondescript mid-rise apartments, and dense with gregarious Mussomelians of all ages.
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