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With more and more dwindling Italian towns offering up neglected homes at bargain prices, snapping up an abandoned house in the country has become increasingly popular in recent years.
The Sicilian town of Sambuca di Sicilia has apparently become something of an Italian “Little America” after attracting headlines when it began selling off dwellings for little over a dollar back in 2019.
However, a group of Italians originally from the forsaken village of San Severino di Centola, located in the Province of Salerno, Campania, decided to go one step further by buying an entire hamlet.
Back in 2008, Silverio D’Angelo joined forces with eight others, who live across Italy, to purchase all of the neglected homes in the medieval district of the village, which has been pretty much abandoned since the last residents left in the 1970’s.
The retired banker says that he and the others began knocking at the doors of the heirs of past owners to convince them to sell after becoming concerned that the ghost village would fall prey to unscrupulous investors who may have wanted to radically change its structure.
“We were driven by a visceral love for this place, by passion for our roots and ancestors,” says D’Angelo, a native born in the newer section of the village, connected to the old hamlet, which was built further downhill when locals started fleeing the old hamlet in the 1800’s due to harsh winters, difficult roads and tough life conditions.
“We have a strong attachment to this land, our hearts belong here. But it was quite a reckless move. You need a lot of patience, and money, to bring a whole place like this back to life.”
Around 350 or so people live in the newer section of San Severino di Centola, which is about a 15 minute walk away from the abandoned area..
D’Angelo explains that he and the others acquired around 60 old stone dwellings 15 years ago and “each have a property stake.”
They have no grand plans to turn the hamlet, which is surrounded by pristine ragged hills, forests and streams, into a lavish resort or holiday retreat spot with residences, but simply want to help preserve the village’s original beauty by breathing new life into its decaying houses and monuments.
“It breaks my heart to see the ghost hamlet fall to pieces and into oblivion, and that just a tiny part of it has been restyled,” D’Angelo tells CNN. “We want to make it entirely accessible and safe for visitors.”
While he’d rather not disclose how much the group paid for the ghost hamlet, D’Angelo describes it as an “ambitious rescue mission.”
“We did not want the old village to fall into the wrong hands, which would have destroyed its very nature,” he adds. “So even if crumbly, we decided it was better we bought it to take off the market, without necessarily doing anything with it.”
San Severino di Centola is one of roughly 6,000 abandoned ghost hamlets or villages dotted around Italy that have been left deserted due to natural disasters or migration.
Often set in breathtakingly beautiful spots, Italians call them “sleeping beauties,” as many feel that they are simply waiting to be “awoken,” or revived by determined rescuers, be they investors, or in the case of San Severino di Centola, locals with a nostalgic family connection.
PR consultant Monica Gillocchi, the daughter of a San Severino di Centola resident, and another of the ghost village’s “rescuers,” says it’s been a crazy adventure.
Gillocchi, who works in Rome, frequently returns to the village, and says she never gets tired of the feeling of walking up to San Severino, describing it as a “place of the heart and mind.”
“There are many people from the town or children of local natives who, like me, are born or live elsewhere but who every year return to San Severino and go up ngoppa u’ paese viecchio (‘on the back of the ancient village’) to find their origins and imagine what the life of their parents, uncles or grandparents could be like in the past,” Gillocchi tells CNN.
“The attachment to the place is so strong for all the inhabitants (living in the new town) and those who have moved to other places for work, but whose heart belongs here.”
“The old village looks like an old sage that protects the new one below and begs for a new life. It’s like traveling back in time to the rediscovery of one’s roots.”
So far, the only parts of San Severino di Centola that have been restyled, with public funds, are the imposing castle, the path leading up to it, and the little piazza, where painting exhibitions, poetry labs, concerts and real-life nativity scenes are staged at Christmas.
According to D’Angelo, he and the others have been sitting on their investment for years, mainly due to a lack of resources and bureaucracy issues.
Day trip destination
“We haven’t really done much,” he admits. “We keep hoping the local town hall steps in to complete the renovation.
“For now, we’re happy to own and protect the ghost place as it is but wouldn’t mind finding eco-conscious investors willing to carry out an environmentally friendly restyle.”
Situated south of Naples in the pristine Cilento National Park, San Severino di Centola straddles two reddish rocky spurs suspended above a deep chasm.
Perched above the Mingardo river and the so-called “devil’s throat” canyon, a single unpaved path leads from the new town to the old abandoned district, once inhabited by farmer and shepherd families.
The old houses based on the rocky crest were difficult to access, so the remaining inhabitants of the village began to move further downhill as the others left.
Wild goats are frequently spotted among the ruins, along with parts of an abandoned old railway covered in moss.
The medieval village is made of different historical layers of collapsing pieces of architecture dating back to the Longobards, believed to be among the first settlers, and the Normans.
Once a defensive settlement built to control the entire coast, it’s now an ideal day trip destination for holiday makers staying on Cilento’s buzzing coast, and comes alive on weekends and during summer time.
Preserving the past
“The ghost hamlet, even though it is mostly private, is open year round with free entry and each year draws some 50,000 tourists, mostly in summer when they come seeking coolness to escape the hot beaches,” says D’Angelo.
The popular coastal towns of Marina di Camerota and Palinuro are located nearby, as is the wine-growing region of Basilicata.
During the festive season, a nativity scene featuring actors and animals stretches across the tiny alleys, along with food stalls serving homemade breads, local goat cheeses and wines.
Local guides offer tours of the area that include visits to the ruins of a cathedral, a chapel, a lookout tower built against enemy raids, an imposing aristocratic palazzo once belonging to the local lords.
There’s also a migrant’s museum showcasing some of the belongings of the families who started abandoning the village in the 1800’s in search of a brighter future abroad, including the US.
According to D’Angelo, a group of American descendants of former residents currently living in Pennsylvania regularly come back to visit their ancestors’ native town.
“Most people who visit come back, this is a ‘place of memory’ and our goal is to valorize it in the best possible way,” he adds.
Connected by a series of steps, most of the empty stone dwellings have collapsed roofs, holes where windows used to be and unhinged doors, while trees and grass creep out through huge wall cracks.
Once the necessary funding, from either private individuals or any willing local public, is in place D’Angelo hopes to be able to give the village a small-scale sustainable makeover that will bring out its uniqueness.
“The two-floor crumbled homes could host artisan boutiques or art labs, or turn into tiny scattered rooms for a few guests that blend in with the surroundings, respecting the layout, peace and silence of the hamlet,” says D’Angelo.
While purchasing the village was a huge decision and the process of revitalizing it has been far from simple, he and the others have no regrets, and feel that it’s the responsibility of people like them to preserve Italy’s dying towns.
“Saving places like this from abandonment is a duty of all of us,” says Gillocchi. “Because these old villages are the backbone of our wonderful country.”