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OPINION: Why Italy must put its forgotten ‘ghost towns’ up for sale – or risk losing them forever

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One of my hobbies is exploring creepy ghost towns where silence rules and cats are the sole inhabitants.

These spots are secret, hidden, with a particular quirky allure that transcends the grandeur of the big cities. They’re a forgotten, fascinating part of Italy and have been fittingly dubbed ‘the sleeping beauties’ – waiting for a knight-investor to wake them up. 

That’s why authorities should place them up for sale.

Italy is dotted with more than 6,000 abandoned hamlets and villages, while another 15,000 have lost more than 95 percent of their residents.

Depopulation has left deep scars and turned towns into heaps of stone ruins, crumbling roofs and former dwellings covered in lush vegetation.

READ ALSO: Could Italy’s abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus crisis?

Over the centuries, locals fled due to various events: pirate raids, earthquakes, floods and other natural calamities, war bombings; or they simply went looking for a brighter future elsewhere, emigrating abroad or to other areas of Italy. Winters were harsh, peasant families were poor and tiny villages in the past were totally isolated, with no roads. Donkeys were the sole means of transport up until the 1950s.

Dating back to pre-Roman times or to the middle ages, these ghost villages today are rotting and falling apart. They’ve turned into ‘memory monuments’ of the lost rural times. It’s a pity.

The ‘ghost town’ of Craco, in Basilicata, was evacuated due to a landslide in 1963. By the 1980s it was completely abandoned. Photo: Giuseppe CACACE/AFP

The first time I visited Poggioreale in Sicily, which was destroyed by a terrible quake in 1968, I was shocked to see that just a few buildings and one fountain had been restored. Torn embroidered curtains still hung on window frames, desiccated flower pots dangled from balconies and cats slept on forgotten chairs. I even spotted a toilet seat sticking out from a dilapidated third floor.

It was fascinating and sad at the same time because beneath all the dust and decay I could still feel the glory of Poggioreale’s bygone days, when rich merchants rubbed shoulders with landlords at the theatre and along the main avenue. 

It’s all a matter of spending the money needed to recover and bring these lost places back to life. But as with many things in Italy, what with a lack of resources and excessive bureaucracy, this is easier said than done. 

And yet these towns could be a powerful asset which the state should exploit by placing them on the block tout court: as heaps of ruins.

In ghost villages the old owners have long disappeared, their heirs now live in other countries and nobody seems to care about the future of these places. Only day trippers occasionally visit for an adventurous hike or picnic.

Poggioreale in Sicily. Photo: Marcello PATERNOSTRO/AFP

Selling to investors or wealthy families could be a good way to breathe new life into these villages – be it as hotels or private residences.  

If local authorities don’t have the funds to restore them to their original beauty by turning them into artistic, tourist or cultural venues then perhaps philanthropists and history amateurs could step in. Or anybody with enough money and a passion for authentic Italian experiences.  

After all, even though bringing them back from the grave would require massive investments, most ghost villages are set in spectacular locations far from the madding crowd.

READ ALSO: Bargain homes and fewer crowds – but Italy’s deep south is not for everyone.

Speaking to realtors I found out that an Italian businessman purchased a bunch of ghost villages in central Italy and then recently re-sold one of these for about 4 million euros to a wealthy family from the Middle East, who were eager to repurpose it into their own sunny, lavish summer retreat. 

If foreigners are willing to pay so much for bunches of destroyed houses, why can’t the state act as an entrepreneur and put these up directly for sale to the highest bidder?

So far, a few successful revivals of ghost towns have been exclusively funded by private individuals and stand out as exceptions.

In the wild Abruzzo region, the abandoned village of Borgo Rocchetta was recovered by a local businessman who restyled the old stone dwellings and sold them to holidaymakers looking for a quiet, offbeat place amid snowy peaks and donkey trails. 

Castello di Postignano, a medieval hamlet in Umbria, has been turned into a luxury resort with pool and spa by a team of Italian architects who rent and sell the apartments to Americans and Brits.

And Borgo di Carpiano is an abandoned parish village with a tiny church, was transformed into an exclusive boutique hotel by an Italian couple who discovered the place purely by chance and fell in love with it.. 

READ ALSO: Community cooperatives: the small Italian towns taking charge of their own future

There’s a tiny ghost hamlet near my house in the Roman countryside which has been entirely swallowed by a thick forest. You can hardly make out the old stones covered in moss and the castle buried beneath your feet. It was once a thriving medieval fortress, home to a powerful lord who protected his tenants, but now it doesn’t even have a name anymore. People who live nearby refer to it as the ‘ruins behind the graveyard’.

Each year the vegetation grows thicker, causing the castle to sink deeper into the ground. That ghost spot is lost forever. But it has an enormous potential: it’s just 20 minutes from Rome and is surrounded by clear streams and hills where porcini mushrooms grow. 

I’m afraid it’s too late to save it. It’s now a jewel sacrificed to time – and to human neglect.

Photo: Giuseppe CACACE/AFP



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Q&A: What is the British government doing to help Brits in Italy overcome post-Brexit hurdles?

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On Wednesday the British embassy in Rome organised a town hall-style question and answer session to allow British residents in Italy to raise concerns and put their questions to Minister Wendy Morton and British Ambassador to Italy Jill Morris.

After the session, The Local was granted a brief interview with the minister to discuss some of the major issues for UK nationals in Italy that we’ve been reporting on this past year.

From residency rights to driving licences, here are the minister’s answers to our questions about the post-Brexit rights of British citizens in Italy.

How is the UK government assisting British nationals struggling to access the new carta di soggiorno elettronica?

UK citizens living in Italy have been encouraged by the British government to apply for a carta di soggiorno elettronica, a new biometric card that proves their right to live in Italy under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

While the card is not required by the Italian government, it’s strongly recommended as the simplest way for Brits who have been resident in Italy since before January 1, 2021 to demonstrate their rights of residency and ensure they can continue to access essential services.

Some UK citizens, though, have had trouble accessing the card due to processing delays or the fact that their local police station, or questura, hasn’t yet got set up to issue the document – and have run into problems obtaining work contracts and applying for driving licenses as a result.

Anti-Brexit protesters on September 22, 2017 in Florence, Italy. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

The minister said that the British embassy in Rome has been holding regular online meetings to listen to residents’ concerns about the card, and also provides updates via a newsletter.

“Our ambassador has a newsletter that is a way of communicating regularly to British citizens, so they can sign up to this, as well as signing up to the Foreign Office’s ‘Living In…’ guide, to get up to date information on an ongoing basis,” she said.

Ambassador Morris highlighted that the British embassy is collecting reports from British citizens who have experienced problems accessing the card (as well as any other issues) via a contact form on its website.

“We encourage British residents in Italy to report to us when they have any difficulties exercising their rights, whether that’s related to healthcare, whether that’s at the questura to get the carta di soggiorno elettronica, or any other issues people may have,” the ambassador said.

“We log the individual cases; we also look for trends, so when we see there’s a trend of a problem, for example stamping passports at a particular airport, then we target the authorities at that airport to give them information and make sure all the border guards have that information.”

The embassy sends a monthly update to the Italian authorities to alert them to ongoing issues, she added.

You can find the embassy’s contact form here.

The ambassador also noted that the British embassy has worked with Italy’s national association of mayors, Anci, to distribute a booklet to comuni across the country laying out the post-Brexit rights of British citizens.

Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement on reciprocal driving licenses before the grace period expires at the end of this year?

After Britain left the EU at the end of last year, British residents who hadn’t yet got around to converting their UK license to an Italian one were granted a 12-month grace period in which they could continue to use their British license in Italy.

Many hoped that Italy and the UK would later come to an agreement which would allow drivers to continue using their British license beyond that point.

But with less than four months to go before the grace period expires, Brits are now wondering whether to gamble on the two countries reaching an accord by the end of this year – and risk being unable to drive come January 1st – or to undergo the time-consuming and expensive process of retaking their driving test in Italy.

When we raised this issue with Ms. Morton, she said: “We absolutely are continuing to negotiate with the Italian government on the right to exchange a UK license for an Italian one without the need to retake a driving test, and I can assure you it’s our absolute priority to reach an agreement before the end of the grace period which is at the end of this year.”

REAL ALSO: Reader question: Will my UK driving licence still be valid in Italy after 2021?

Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP

What is government doing to help British-Italian families wanting to return to live in the UK?

UK nationals wanting to return to live in Britain with their EU partners have until the end of March 2022 before the bar for being granted a spousal visa will be significantly raised. That deadline is fixed and will not be extended, the minister confirmed on Wednesday.

“If they want to apply, it’s important that they apply before the deadline,” she told The Local.

“Close family members of UK nationals who return from living in the EU by the 29th of March next year can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme as long as that relationship existed before exit day,” said the minister.

“It’s also worth remembering that family members of individuals from the EU, from Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, or Lichtenstein, as well as the families of British citizens may also be eligible to apply for a family permit under the EU Settlement Scheme, which will make it easier to travel with a family member to the UK.”

READ ALSO: Brits with EU partners warned over future problems returning to live in UK

Some EU-British couples, however, are already experiencing problems having their right to live together in the UK recognised, with reports coming out that the Home Office has denied some applications on seemingly flimsy or technical grounds.

“The fundamental thing here is that British citizens can return to the UK at any time. And it’s important that we remember that,” the minister said when asked about this issue.

In case you were wondering.

For British-Italian couples in Italy experiencing problem, “the first port of call should be our team here in the embassy; it may be that they then need to be signposted if it’s a Home Office issue,” said the minister.

“The Home Office has made a whole range of advice available online, and can also be contacted by telephone and by email.”

See The Local’s ‘Dealing with Brexit‘ section for the latest news and updates.



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DUP queries whether President is ‘snubbing’ North centenary events

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The DUP has questioned whether President Michael D Higgins is “snubbing” events marking Northern Ireland’s centenary after it emerged he declined an invitation to attend a commemorative church service with Queen Elizabeth.

DUP Assembly member Peter Weir also asked if Mr Higgins was joining Sinn Féin and the SDLP in “boycotting” such events, a move which he said “speaks volumes” about Ireland’s “commitment to reconciliation and progress”.

Mr Weir said on Wednesday he had written to Mr Higgins “asking if his office is officially snubbing all events marking this milestone in the decade of centenaries”. If this was the case, Mr Weir said, “I have urged him to think again”.

Ulster Unionist MLA and former party leader Mike Nesbitt also queried why Mr Higgins was unable to attend the service and said it was “surprising, uncharacteristic and regrettable”.

However, he said the reciprocal state visits of the queen to Ireland and Mr Higgins to Britain were “the high water mark in Anglo-Irish relations”. He said Mr Higgins has “shown a consistent willingness to outreach and a focus on reconciliation. So until we know the reason why he can’t attend we cannot be critical.”

Armagh service

The Service of Reflection and Hope, taking place in Armagh next month, will mark 100 years since the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland. It is organised by the leaders of the island’s main Christian churches, who had anticipated Mr Higgins would take part as head of State.

However it has emerged that Mr Higgins would not be present. Mr Higgins, who is on a four-day visit to Rome, has not yet commented on his decision.

The President attended a meeting of non-executive presidents from 14 EU States yesterday but made no public comment other than remarks on the meeting itself.

His spokesman had told The Irish Times on Tuesday that the President was “not in a position to attend” the service. He did not elaborate on Wednesday or say why the President could not attend. Asked about the DUP’s remarks, his spokesman said the President had nothing further to add.

The President does not need to request Government permission to travel to Northern Ireland so the decision was made by his office, without reference to the Department of the Taoiseach. Sources said a Government representative will attend the service but it had not yet received an invitation.

The Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Church of Ireland primate Archbishop John McDowell and other church leaders will be present at the service on October 21st.

It is being organised by the Church Leaders’ Group “as part of their wider programme of collective engagement around the 1921 centenaries, with an emphasis on their common Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation.”

A statement on Wednesday from the group – which is made up of the two Archbishops, the Presbyterian Moderator and the presidents of the Methodist church and the Irish Council of Churches – did not reference Mr Higgins but said the service was “offered as a contribution to the work of building community and deepening relationships”.

A spokesman for Dr Martin commented earlier that “the important thing is that this service is going ahead. It is an initiative of the main Christian denominations on this island and is underpinned by prayer, peace and reconciliation”.

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German election roundup: Immigration, pension reform and tough questions from children

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More immigration needed in Germany to prop up pension system

Immigration is a huge topic ahead of the September 26th election. And today the pro-business Free Democrats have been sharing their views on it, as well as the pension system. 

The FDP say many more workers from abroad – half a million per year – are needed to help keep the German pension system functioning.

“We need a fundamental rethink in migration policy,” parliamentary group vice chairman and financial politician Christian Dürr told DPA. 

“If we manage to make Germany an open, modern immigration country and at the same time stabilise the pension, we will gain more as a society than we can imagine today.”

READ ALSO: ‘Germany needs more immigrants to fill jobs’

Dürr accused the CDU/CSU and the SPD of putting the financing of pensions on the back burner which he said is a fatal mistake.

For the next federal government, he said, the ageing society will be a major challenge. He said more people were retiring but fewer contributors were entering the labor market.

“The state already has to subsidise pension insurance with large sums of money,” Dürr said. “In the long run, we can’t afford that.”

The FDP is proposing a reform of pension financing based on higher migration into the labour market and an equity pension, in which pension funds invest in stocks to generate higher returns.

“If we want to stabilise our public finances and reduce debt, our country needs at least 500,000 immigrants per year,” Dürr said.

The FDP advocates for a points-based system based on the Canadian model to increase immigration. 

People who want to come to Germany would be classified according to education, work experience, language skills and age. Meanwhile, Germany should make it easier to recognise professional qualifications gained abroad, according to the FDP.

READ ALSO: Where do Germany’s political parties stand on dual citizenship and nationalities 

In the debates for the leading candidates in the Bundestag elections, the financing of pensions has been controversial lately. Green Party candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock also spoke out in favour of more immigration of skilled workers. The Left Party leader Janine Wissler called for politicians and civil servants to pay into the statutory pension fund.

Chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz (SPD) and Armin Laschet (CDU/CSU) have been arguing about whether young people should be guaranteed that the retirement age and pension level remains stable. Scholz advocates for this guarantee, while Laschet said it doesn’t need to be considered at the moment.

The latest polls

Here’s a snapshot of some of the latest polls on Wednesday, with SPD still in the lead ahead of the CDU/CSU. 

Bavaria’s Söder sees signs of a turnaround for conservatives

Despite the polls, CSU leader Markus Söder remains confident that CDU/CSU can win the election race.

“We are already seeing the first signs of a turnaround,” Söder said on Wednesday. “I think anything is possible, we can still catch up with the SPD. It is much closer than most believe at the moment.”

Söder is confident that the CDU/CSU – also known as the Union – would become the strongest force in the federal election.

“We will be ahead on election night,” he said. Söder went on to compare politics to football, saying “you have to be an optimist, as a fan of FC Nuremberg anyway”.

We won’t pretend we know much about German football, but Nuremberg must not be at the top of the Bundesliga right now – I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if they make a comeback.

Laschet caught out by children 

There was another awkward moment for the CDU’s Armin Laschet, who’s bidding to become the next Angela Merkel. 

Laschet – and the SPD’s Olaf Scholz – faced a series of questions from young people, on a range of issues. 

One of the youngsters – Romeo – asked about Laschet’s position on marriage for all. Laschet denied he had been against same-sex marriage before Germany voted to legalise it in 2017.

In true professional style, Romeo referred to a previous interview in Spiegel where Laschet had said that as a member of the Bundestag he had voted against the motion on same-sex marriage by the SPD. Laschet tried to dodge the answer by saying: “You were already reading Spiegel so long ago? That’s great.”

To which Romeo replied, “Nah, I Googled it.”

Scholz also had to deal with hard questions. 

Romeo, for instance, asked Scholz why children have drowned in the sea because they want to get to Germany, and why a plane was not sent to them to pick them up.

Scholz replied that many people were looking for ways to come to Germany that were not safe. He said authorities had to try and save them, and make their homeland safer.

Hats off to the young people asking the tough questions. 

Scholz: No tax cuts for the rich 

In a Tuesday interview on ZDF talk show Klartext, SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Sholz declared that “there will be no leeway for tax cuts” for the rich after the election.

In order to ease the tax burden on lower and middle incomes – as he plans – “you have to make sure that those who have a lot contribute a little more,” he told the interviewers. 

READ ALSO: What the German parties tax pledges mean for you



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