The first time Heather and Steve Giammichele from Southern California decided to take a road trip through Steve’s ancestral homeland of Italy, their car broke down about three hours from Pisa. At least 30 city dwellers pulled over to make sure the couple were okay, and one ended up canceling plans for the day to drive them to Pisa Airport to make sure they had a new location.
The Giammicheles, from Orange County, were so struck by the hospitality that almost as soon as their 2019 trip ended, Heather began researching how they might one day move to Italy. A few months later, they enlist an Italian to help them begin to seriously consider purchasing one of the country’s low-cost homes, some of which are on the market for the symbolic price of one euro, or around $ 1.16.
“We watched a bit of everything,” recalls Heather Giammichele, 31, a state employee of California.
At the end of last year, the couple moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the historic village of Palmoli, opposite a castle and near a beautiful park with hiking trails through picturesque hills. The price to pay: 10,000 euros, or less than $ 12,000.
The Giammicheles aren’t the only ones looking for a cheap home in the bel paese – or “beautiful country”, as Italy is called – and Palmoli is not the only one to boast of properties to fill it. More and more Italian towns and villages eager to attract new residents are listing houses for as little as a euro (it’s illegal to give away goods for free), a trend that was once limited to impoverished mountain towns. and depopulated from the south, but which has spread since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to wealthier regions in the north such as Liguria and Lombardy.
Officials clung to the idea as a way to breathe new life into dying rural areas. With the pandemic showing many workers that they can do their jobs remotely – and that there is life outside the urban jungle – the hope is that a good chunk of potential buyers will be young people ready to go. move with their energy, dynamism and paychecks.
“We do not only want these places to make beautiful postcards but, thanks to technological development, to be places of life – places that attract residents and digital nomads,” said Lucia Borgonzoni, Italian undersecretary for heritage. cultural, activity and tourism.
The Italian government is also betting on small towns to help revive the country’s economy after its coronavirus-induced slowdown. Italy has about 5,800 cities with less than 5,000 inhabitants; about 2,300 of these towns have been partially or totally abandoned. When COVID-19 hit Italy at the start of the pandemic – the virus killed more than 131,000 people, the highest number of any country in mainland Europe except Russia – residents of rural areas generally fared better than their urban counterparts.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan earmarked $ 2.3 billion for the revitalization of historic centers in small Italian towns, rural villages, small cultural heritage sites and historic parks and gardens.
The response to the supply of low-cost housing has been overwhelming in some places, such as the town of Biccari, nestled in the forests of northern Puglia. (Puglia is the heel of the Italian “boot”).
Biccari, 2,700 residents, announced in February that it was selling one-euro houses that needed a bit of renovation. Other ultra-affordable homes on the market, priced between about $ 8,000 and $ 11,500, were already habitable.
“We received 20,000 offers from all over the world,” said Mayor Gianfilippo Mignogna.
Thanks to the pandemic, aspects of small town life previously considered undesirable, including the more leisurely pace, have suddenly become attractive, Mignogna said. With the trends in remote working accelerated by the pandemic, people can achieve a healthy work-life balance in quieter places.
“It’s more important than ever to be outside in places with lots of green space, to walk and to hike,” he said. “It’s more important than ever to have good relationships with others.
It was this realignment of values brought on by the pandemic – and news of successes from other cities – that persuaded Biccari to launch the one-euro housing program, Mignogna said.
Soon after, the Alpine village of Oyace (200 inhabitants) followed suit and received more than 1,000 offers for four homes, said Mayor Stefania Clos. Many of them were from Italians abroad who wanted to return to Italy because of the pandemic.
It is difficult to determine how many euro home buyers are foreigners and how many are locals, but most cities seem to attract a combination of the two. Non-Europeans can only stay in Italy for about six months a year, which means American buyers are typically looking for vacation homes, rental income, and possibly a part-time retreat.
The Giammicheles, who live in Orange, bought their budget home in Palmoli, Abruzzo, around a 30-minute drive from the Adriatic Sea, hoping to settle in the country full-time. They are studying Italian and looking for paths to citizenship based on Steve’s Italian ancestry.
Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, they have not yet been able to visit their new home in person, but once they do, they will start planning for its renovation, Heather Giammichele said. She and Steve, 32, plan to visit and integrate as much as possible into the community, chatting with neighbors and sipping espresso.
The couple later plan to buy farmland and install solar panels.
“There are so many amazing properties in these small towns,” said Heather Giammichele. “They just need a little help, a little money from the younger generations to revitalize the city.”
But repopulating small Italian towns cannot simply be an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to recreate an Arcadian idyll cut off from modern amenities and infrastructure, famed architect Stefano Boeri said.
Boeri – the designer of Milan’s famous “Vertical Forest” residential towers, which are covered with trees – said the goal of rejuvenating outlying areas should be to create a more symbiotic relationship between urban centers and small towns and villages on their outskirts. Italy’s 14 metropolitan areas can provide economic clout, innovation and services, while surrounding cities can provide resources such as clean water, healthy food and space for companies’ satellite offices. and universities.
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Under Boeri’s supervision, students at the Polytechnic University of Milan designed case studies and began working with small towns to realize his vision.
“I don’t see it as a competition” between towns and villages, said Boeri. “I see it as an interesting alliance.”
Ignazio Tuzzolino, a retired banker from Palermo, was looking for a weekend getaway near the Sicilian capital when he and his wife decided to buy a four-story house in the village of Gangi. Built in traditional white stone, with stunning views over the green valleys, the house – which took about a year to renovate – is about an hour’s drive from the town.
Gangi has been completely transformed since he launched the one-euro housing craze in Italy in 2011, Mayor Francesco Paolo Migliazzo said. A medieval hamlet with frescoed churches and narrow, steep stone paths, it was declared the most beautiful small town in Italy in 2014. Today, tour guides shuttle groups of visitors along historical and artistic hiking trails.
Many Italian villages are home to important works of art and other cultural heritages that local administrators hope to make known through their one-euro door-to-door campaigns.
Living in such places can have drawbacks, including a lack of specialist medical care, fewer academic opportunities, and more difficulty in traveling. But Tuzzolino, 61, enjoys a break from urban stress.
“When we are in Gangi, what we love the most, besides relaxing, is walking around the city,” said Tuzzolino, 61. “It’s that life of walking around, meeting people you know, stopping for a chat, having coffee or having breakfast together. It’s a very simple life, and certainly a lot less hectic than that. the one we live in in big cities.
Brancolini is special envoy.