Why you should care

Because soon you might be speaking Dutch instead of Italian in Sicily.

Exotic Arab-style courtyards, orange and lemon trees, Greek temples and prehistoric caves where you can sip a red wine strong enough to fell Bacchus. Those things compose a sort of dream recipe for Northern European seniors. When retirement age draws near and those aching bones hurt more each day, who wouldn’t love to grab an all-year-round sunshine spot in Italy’s southernmost region, especially if you happen to be a well-off Dutch couple living in Europe’s cold north?

Ever heard of Sambuca, Partanna, Giuliana, Caltabellotta, Siculiana? These tiny, exotic towns in deep, under-developed Sicily where criminality and the Mafia are at their highest have slowly been losing their populations. Now they are being revamped by foreign and Italian tour operators, who are buying swaths of real estate to turn them into holiday retreats for retirees.

“Northern Europeans are in love with our sunny land and great food, which are the greatest assets we have,” says Antonio Barone, head of a network called Circuito Terre Sicane sponsored by local authorities to promote old Sicilian villages on European markets and attract foreign investors. “They like living the real village life, blending in with surroundings during stays and mingling with locals,” says Barone. The network was launched a few months ago, so it’s still a work in progress. Talks are held on an ongoing basis with new foreign operators interested in moving south, says Barone, who tours the entire region regularly to do publicity.

We want to escape the cold and snow. Our creaky joints are killing us — who knows how much more time we’ve got left?

Jan De Joode

So far, seven towns have been placed on the block. The goal is to boost the appeal of alternative destinations — forget posh Taormina and Syracuse — in order to benefit suffering local economies and employ young people. When asked if there have been any run-ins between the tour operators and the Mafia, Barone says no. But then again, the Mafia is such a part of Sicily it’s like the air you breathe. So he offers this vague answer: “Everyone here has an interest in attracting foreign investors and revamping forgotten areas that are outside traditional tourist routes.” And that’s a pity, indeed. All the picturesque towns now on sale were once roamed by the Saracens and ancient Greeks. The archaeological wonders they left behind make foreigners drool.

Purchases by tour operators comprise the most beautifully designed buildings of the villages’ historical centers — and those that are in the best structural shape. These “Saracen districts” feature lavish balconies and protruding gargoyles. Prices on property like this can reach up to 100,000 euros, whereas the really old, crumbly houses are priced more affordably.

In the town of Sambuca, stuck inside a maze of narrow alleys, roughly 50 old Arab-style cottages, with internal little gardens, are on the market starting at 10,000 euros, says Barone. On my first wintry visit to this sleepy town, I bumped into Jan De Joode, a 70-year-old grandpa from the Dutch city of Rotterdam who had come to see a few dwellings. “My wife and I have just retired and don’t want to spend the rest of our lives in damp, watery Holland, so wet it lies beneath the sea level!” he told me. “We want to escape the cold and snow. Our creaky joints are killing us — who knows how much more time we’ve got left?” De Joode says he found a cute 70-square-meter barn for just 15,000 euros but would need to spend an additional 10,000 to renovate it. That’s not chump change. But some think it’s not a bad deal for a whole year of sunshine, warm climate, sandy beaches and divine Sicilian ricotta-filled cannoli.

Many foreigners even establish residency and spend at least nine months a year here, which translates into more buzz. “Funny thing is, as our kids flee from Sicily in search of a brighter future elsewhere, elders from other European countries flock here. Now isn’t that a paradox?” says Anna Di Ponte, a Siculiana local. This new form of tourist colonialism, however, is by no means mainstream: It remains quite understated. It’s a different business operation from, for instance, the foreign cruise-liner companies coming in to buy a piece of Italy’s economy. Venice in particular has been invaded by humongous ships that navigate inside the Lagoon all the way along Canal Grande, irritating citizens and posing serious environmental threats. What’s happening in Sicily has a different, less sinister quality. “New investors are not radically transforming our villages and taking away the ancestral soul of this place like what those horrible cruise ships are doing in the north,” says Pietro Drago from Partanna, another village on the block. “Foreigners come here because what pulls them in is the simple, low-profile lifestyle of our towns that seem frozen in time.”

Similar trends are playing out across Europe, too. In Spain’s Catalonia and Galicia regions, entire villages are being sold to foreigners to revamp abandoned areas. With roughly 60,000 euros, you can buy a (crumbly) hamlet all for yourself, while many urban dwellers are leaving cities to revive ancient, declining towns such as Aguaviva. Europeans living abroad are also returning home to resurrect their ancestral villages. In Corsica, France, many locals who fled abroad during the 1950s in search of a job are now coming back to villages like Sartène, set in the inner wilderness where for decades only bandits lived.

The fact that foreign companies and individuals are driving the urban makeover in Italy’s south could be a guarantee of success. A few years ago, in Apulia, Italy’s heel, locals in the gorgeous town of Specchia came up with the great and profitable idea of joining forces to turn their houses into B&Bs and summer condos for tourists, with the goal of then selling them to foreigners. Now, if you happen to pop up there like I did this summer, there’s nothing left of such a grand project, and not a soul around. Giovanna Ciripicchio, owner of Specchia’s main eatery, says it was a ruse — people said they wanted to help the economy but “got state aids to restructure their homes and that was it,” adding, “thanks to taxpayer money, they now have a new, lavish home while this town is falling into oblivion.”

In this case, outsiders might actually be a good thing.

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