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The towns that time (almost) forgot: Efforts underway to revive some of Italy’s borghi abbandonati


Traveling along major highways through Italy you will often see ruins of castles and old villages. In fact, there are thousands of these towns across the country, many in the interior regions, which are completely depopulated or have very few residents. These “ghost villages” have met this fate due to natural disasters, emigration and also because of population shifts for economic reasons. According to Istat, the Italian National Institute of Statistic, these numbers may be as high as 6,000 abandoned towns if you consider concentrated areas of housing which were actually separate towns. 

The ruins of a 10th-century fortress on a mountain peak overlooks the village of Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo. | ADOBE STOCK

These deserted villages (borghi) are situated throughout each region of Italy. Calabria has the highest number of abandoned sites with 21 towns, and Liguria has 11. Val d’Aosta in the north has two villages noted as abandoned. Not all of the villages listed as such are completely empty. An Italian government report in 2016 stated that there were approximately 2,500 rural villages that were considered critically depopulated or semi-abandoned. 

Civita di Bagnoregio in the province of Viterbo in central Italy is one of the better-known villages that have lost all or almost all of their populations. It was prosperous from Roman times through the late Middle Ages. Most residents fled after a devastating earthquake in 1695. After World War II almost all the population left to work in other cities or to move abroad. In the last 50 years the population has averaged around 10 full-time residents. While these residents cling to life on this plateau, scientists predict the entire village will eventually fall into the valley below due to continued erosion of the consolidated rock created by volcanic ash which is susceptible to erosion by both wind and rain.

Another well-known borgo abbandonato is Bussana Vecchia in Liguria, which was deserted after a terrible earthquake but was later reimagined and became a village for artists. The village is now home to about 30 inhabitants, mostly artists, who all know each other and are connected by their goal of revitalizing the town.

The Tibetan Bridge connecting Sellano and Montesanto in Umbria was built to connect the two towns and draws more visitors to the area | ADOBE STOCK

In Lombardia, the town of Cononno was purchased in order to create an amusement park. Italian developer Mario Bagno built the themed Città dei Balocchi (“City of Toys”) resort in the 1960s and ’70s but it was later destroyed by landslides. Many ghost villages also met the fate of becoming submerged underwater in order to create water reservoirs for agricultural or other purposes.

In Basilicata, Roscigno Vecchia in Campania has become famous as an eco-museum. The village, located on Monte Pruno in the midst of the Cilento Valley, was left behind due to landslides and then malaria. By the 1970s the majority of residents had relocated to Roscigno Nuovo. The last official resident passed away in 2000. Journalists and word of mouth brought tourists to the site of Roscigno Vecchia when the local “tourist office” was created. The “pro loco” promoted the town itself as a Museum of Agricultural Civilization. It was the first of its kind in Campania and is one of the most interesting in southern Italy.

Giuseppe Spagnuolo was the last inhabitant of Roscigno Vecchia. He moved there in 1997 after his father-in-law moved into his home in Roscigno Nuovo. He wanted to live alone so he moved into a house with no electricity or running water in the old town and lived there by himself for 22 years until his death in January 2024. He became an unofficial tour guide of the town for visitors who came to this small “walking village” and gained notoriety for his refusal to leave.

The village of Roscigno Vecchia is one of the best known open-air museums in Calabria. | ADOBE STOCK

Other better known abandoned towns in Italy include Pentedattili in Calabria, Gerace in Campania, Poggioreale in Sicily, and Valle Piola in Abruzzo.

Over the past several decades there have been private investors who have found numerous ways to reimagine and repurpose some of the vacated towns. In 2017, the European Commission promoted an Action Plan for Smart Villages that would increase connectivity across rural areas and help to promote economic recovery.

Now the Italian government and the EU are moving forward with a plan to save at least 250 villages in danger of becoming ghost towns. Each region has chosen one village at risk of abandonment and submitted plans to the National Recovery and Resilience plan (NRRP).

A group of artists has brought life back to Bussana Vecchia in Liguria. | ADOBE STOCK

NRRP has provided a total budget of 1 billion euro for the project with 420 million euro allocated to the 21 selected villages to promote quality economic growth and repopulations efforts. The additional funding
will go to another 229 villages notified through a public notice which will implement local cultural regeneration projects. 

Two towns that were chosen to receive funds under the plan are Rocca Calascio and Craco. Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo is located in the province of Aquila. The village is dominated by a stunning 10th century fortress on a mountain peak which offers a breathtaking view of the Gran Sasso National Park. It is also well known as a film location for movies such as “Ladyhawke” (1985), “The Name of the Rose” (1986), and “The American” (2010).

More than 100,000 visitors come to see the remains of the fortress as well as other nearby sites and hiking areas. Only about 125 residents live in the village of Calascio below the fortress and they make their living through agriculture and tourism. 

Some of the proposed investments for the area include a hotel, a camping area, and an area for horseback riders to rest along riding trails in the area. This will add more accessibility with hopes for an increase in tourists. The area already draws many visitors each year but the completion of these plans will certainly be a boost for local businesses and for investments in new businesses.

The deserted town of Craco can be found in the region of Basilicata about 25 miles inland from the Gulf of Taranta. It is close to the city of Matera which has become famous for its cliffside dwellings. From 1892 to 1922, more than 1,300 Crachesi migrated to North America mostly because of poor agricultural conditions. Then around 1963 the city began experiencing landslides created by infrastructural defects. The remaining population was evacuated to Craco Peschiera in the valley below. 

The abandoned town has become quite a tourist attraction and is also the location used for many historical movies such as “La Lupa” (1953), “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (1979), “King David” (1985), “Saving Grace” (1986), and “The Sun Also Shines at Night” (1990). The Craco of today has seen a revival drawing in many visitors and new business opportunities including a media center and guides who lead visitors through the old section of town.

Another town that has benefitted from these funds is Sellano in Umbria. One of Italy’s most beautiful medieval villages will entice scores of additional visitors with the completion of the highest suspension bridge in Europe. It was funded by the PNNR (part of Italy’s National Recovery Act) to connect the town with the village of Montesanto across the Vigi River. 

The bridge is 175 meters (574 feet) in height and is referred to as the Tibetan Bridge of Sellano. The only one of its kind in Umbria, it has gaps between each thread and requires those who plan to cross to be physically and mentally able as well as being at least four feet tall. Those who are bold enough to cross must also be attached to a harness.

All of the local villages which will receive funding must have plans approved and oversight from the Italian government, and follow other regulations set by the EU. Many will look to restore historic sites, offer training sites, set up centers for artisans, invite remote workers to move for a better work/life balance and a host of other improvements to bring life back to their towns.

Each village in Italy, whether completely abandoned or with very few residents has a history to be told. While many of them will fade into obscurity, except in the memories of those who lived there, others are now getting a second chance at life.

The 21 villages selected for a revival: Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo; Monticchio Bagni in Basilicata; Gerace in Calabria; Sanza in Campania; Campolo in Emilia Romagna; Borgo Castello in Friuli Venezia Giulia; Treviniano in Lazio; Borgo Castello in Liguria; Livemmo in Lombardia; Montalto delle Marche in Marche; Pietrabbondante in Molise; Elva in Piemonte; Accadia in Puglia; Ulassai in Sardegna; Borgo a Cunziria in Sicilia; Borgo di Castelnuovo in Avane in Toscana; Cesi in Umbria; Fontainemore in Valle d’Aosta; Recoaro Terme in Veneto; Palù del Fersina (Provincia in Trento); and Stelvio (Provincia autonoma di Bolzano).

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