I stayed in one of Italy’s ghost towns that’s selling off homes for $1, and I was treated like royalty

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A closed cafe in Sambuca, Sicily, and the author. Tom Murray / Business Insider

Italy’s rural towns just don’t have enough people in them.

That’s why so many of them have launched last-ditch schemes in a bid to resuscitate their economies.

Most recently, the entire region of Molise offered visitors €25,000 ($US27,500) to move there, provided they set up a business in one of the towns with less than 2,000 residents.

The most common tactic, though, has been offering abandoned homes for as little as one euro ($US1.11).


Read more:
Meet the Americans, Brits, and Europeans flocking to Italy’s rural ghost towns to buy abandoned, dilapidated homes for $US1

There’s always a catch, of course – the homes have often been left untouched for years and are in a dilapidated state, and you must commit to spending a certain amount on renovations.

In June, I travelled to Sicily to visit some of the towns that had employed these schemes to see what they were really like.

In particular, I stayed in Sambuca, a charming town that has received the most widespread media coverage after CNN Travel happened upon it in January.

While the town was even quieter than I anticipated, I was bowled over by the hospitality of its inhabitants who treated me like royalty.


This is Sambuca di Sicilia, a small, historic town located in southeastern Sicily. It really is as picturesque as it looks in this photo.

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Sambuca di Sicilia. Shutterstock.com

It’s about an hour’s drive from the capital of Palermo, and just 20 minutes from the beaches on the south coast.

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I was staying in a beautiful B&B in the town’s historic Arab quarter.

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Each day, the charming owner Nino would drop off fresh pastries from a local bakery and some fruit for my breakfast.

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Despite the luxuries, Casa Vacanze Al Zabut cost just $US64 a night. Let’s just say staying in Sambuca won’t break your budget.

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On my first night in Sambuca, I wandered up the street to the Terrazzo Belvedere — an observation deck with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. With the sun setting over the Sicilian hills, I was astonished to have the terrace entirely to myself.

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The views were breathtaking.

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I then headed for dinner at one of the town’s few local restaurants, just a short stroll from my B&B. It, too, boasted beautiful sunset views, and was practically deserted.

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The only other customers stared at me inquisitively as I took my place.

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The prices at the restaurant were jaw-droppingly low. A litre of wine cost €5 ($US5.45).

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I ordered a steak for €8.50 ($US9).

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The following morning I set off around the town to explore in glorious sunshine. The temperature was around 90 degrees throughout my stay in Sicily.

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In Sambuca, the footpaths are lined with vibrant orange trees.

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Despite the lack of residents, Sambuca boasts three beautiful churches, the largest of which is the Chiesa del Carmine, built in 1530.

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There’s also the entrance to another historic church that was regrettably demolished in 1958. The recovered stone dating back to 1565 was turned into a monument to commemorate the church.

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As I worked my way through Sambuca’s picturesque, winding streets, one thing became blindingly obvious …

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… There was no one here.

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Walking up the main street, the town’s economic woes were revealed to me. Despite it being Monday, everything was closed, from this café …

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… To the bank …

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… To the theatre …

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… To this quaint ceramics shop.

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When I did see signs of life, the people in Sambuca definitely fitted into the senior citizen category. They were often seen sitting on chairs in the street, whiling away the hours.

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This gentleman had quite the view from his porch.

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What Sambuca lacks in numbers, it makes up for in hospitality. The town’s museum of archaeology was opened up especially for me to take a look around (it was, of course, closed at the time).

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It was filled with treasures dug up in and around Sambuca.

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I was shown around the entire town, taken from restaurant to restaurant, and even invited into someone’s home for coffee.

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A resident’s living room in Sambuca. Tom Murray / Business Insider

Giuseppe Cacioppo, the mastermind behind Sambuca’s $US1 housing scheme, was my guide during my stay. ‘The houses for one euro is really a revolution for us,’ he told me.

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Giuseppe Cacioppo in one of Sambuca’s derelict homes. Tom Murray / Business Insider

In May, Sambuca succeeded in selling off 16 historical but derelict homes to foreign buyers at auctions that started at just $US1. More than 50 other homes were also sold by private owners. Gary and Tamara Holm (below) purchased a home for €19,000 ($US20,880) while I was there.

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Gary and Tamara Holm in Sambuca. Tom Murray / Business Insider

‘Our hope is that it becomes a vacation destination for people around the world,’ Tamara said of her new town.

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Tamara Holm in her new home in Sambuca. Tom Murray / Business Insider

The terms of the $US1 auctions stipulate that the buyers must spend at least €15,000 ($US16,700) on renovations — evidence of which could be seen all over Sambuca.

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While the town has been turned into something of a building site, it’s promising evidence of the facelift that’s currently underway.

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Gary Holm on the roof of his new house in Sambuca. Tom Murray / Business Insider

‘I was born here. I studied here. I want to die here.’

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Sambuca may be down, but it’s not out yet.

Its remaining residents are fiercely loyal to their hometown – “I was born here. I studied here. I want to die here,” Cacioppo told me.

After stopping for an espresso in the shade of the orange trees on the Strada Provinciale in the middle of town, it was easy for me to see why Cacioppo feels so strongly about his town.

I’d been in Sambuca for just a few days, but I already felt welcomed into the fabric of local life by the inhabitants. It wasn’t exactly the kind of reception you get on a city break.

There’s a tranquility to Sambuca that’s almost unearthly. The pace of life here is not just slower – it’s practically stationary.

I’ll be back.