Why you should care
Because people move in many unexpected directions, and this route might surprise you.
Welcome to Ciociaria, a wild and scenic mountain region south of Rome. Once a poor land — the name comes from local shepherds’ worn-out cioce, or hairy leather shoes — this was a place of farmers and cattle breeders where less than a century ago young people left in droves. Today, though, sleepy Ciociaria is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.
Italians have a saying: “Life is like a staircase: Some people go, others come.” While refugee boats land almost daily on Mediterranean shores, a well-heeled class of migrants has quietly gained a foothold in Italy, returning to the small villages their forebears left generations prior in search of a better life. Families who 70 years ago fled to England, Scotland, Canada, the United States and even Australia in the hope of building a rosier future have begun a reverse migration, trickling back to the land abandoned by their grandparents. Some of those grandparents fared well in their new homes and made fortunes — and now their descendants have returned with stacks of cash, in search of their roots.
Investments from Ciociaria’s “old-new” immigrants have revived the local economy in the form of restyled medieval dwellings and abandoned farmhouses, and the global promotion of local artisanal products like pecorino sheep cheese, black pig lard and goat ricotta. “All buildings have been restored by the sons and daughters of immigrants who went to the U.K. looking for a job,” says local Daniele Venditti, a resort concierge. “Everything is neat and shiny.”
Some of these newcomers stay only during the summer, while others live here half of the year. Most are concentrated in the Comino Valley at the foot of the rugged Apennine Mountains. Visit the tiny hamlet of Casalattico and you’ll find yellow Victorian-style mansions with elegant white columns and balconies juxtaposed with ancient Roman bridges, medieval castles and Renaissance arches. It’s like walking through a sort of Little Britain.
In the neighboring town of Settefrati, Venditti points out a tall redheaded couple leisurely walking dogs as the day fades to evening. “See them?” he asks, noting their Irish roots. “When they retired from work, they decided to spend the rest of their lives in their grandparents’ town, make a fresh start.” This peculiar category of wealthy reverse migrants has bought chunks of villages, opened luxury resorts and started bio farms as well as premium wine resorts.
Those who return often have nostalgic memories pulling them — and their pocketbooks — back to Italy. In Picinisco village, dating back to pre-Roman times, Scottish lawyer Cesidio Di Ciacca has led the way to a real revival. “My grandparents left this land decades ago,” he says. “I was born in a tiny fishermen’s village near Edinburgh, [but] my family never lost contact with Italy.” Indeed, Di Ciacca used to return every year with his family to spend time with cousins and other relatives. “The attachment for this place grew inside me as time went by, and all of a sudden I found myself visiting more regularly, bringing my own wife and children here to discover and admire Picinisco,” he says.
Finally, he decided to make the big leap backward: Buy a house and make it home. This was no ordinary dwelling. He moved into the old palace of an abbot, part of the original village watchtower that he lavishly restyled into a multiroom deluxe suite. Next he created a luxury resort, Sotto le Stelle, featuring medieval apartments turned into modern rooms. Then he purchased an entire hamlet — Borgo I Ciacca — of crumbling buildings that his family slowly abandoned over generations. Though the restoration is ongoing, it has become a thriving farm that produces olive oil, jams and honey. And now he’s recovering ancient vineyards and breeding free-grazing black pigs, renowned for their succulent meat.
But big investments like these (Di Ciacca won’t say exactly how much he’s dished out so far) take time to turn a profit, and sometimes never do. Meanwhile, if other curious investors on the sidelines don’t see profit potential here, then other struggling Italian villages and hamlets may continue to crumble away. “It’s a life mission — you need to believe in it [and] have money, sure, but above all, [you need] patience and tons of passion,” says Daniele Kihlgren, a popular Italian businessman who has invested around 10 million euros in purchasing abandoned hilltop towns and giving them a second life.
At Borgo I Ciacca, the bakery room fills on weekends with the scent of fresh loaves and pizza when Di Ciacca’s employees — all local — come here to relax. They say they feel like part of a big family. “He asked me if I could run this farm for him when he was away in Scotland, and despite knowing little about wine or olive oil back then, I studied and he took me on board,” says Marika Tuzi, the 24-year-old manager who runs the estate.
This small-scale economic revival isn’t limited to Comino Valley. On some tiny islands, such as Ventotene, a visitor might hear Italian spoken with a strong foreign accent. Enter Frank Imparato, a New York-based insurance broker who owns several properties on the island and regularly travels back and forth from New York, staying on Ventotene roughly a couple of weeks each summer. “It takes my sister and me about three hours to walk a few hundred meters,” he says with a Manhattan accent, noting they should really be staying months instead of weeks. “At every corner there’s a faraway cousin or uncle who stops to say hello and offers an espresso.”