Sicily Sold Homes for One Euro. This Is What Happened Next.

For more than a decade, Sicily has been trying to revive its villages by selling vacant houses. Writer Lisa Abend heads to the largest island in the Mediterranean to see how life has changed.

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Mussomeli is roughly 60 miles from Palermo.

Photo by Julia Nimke

Like any small town that isn’t yours, Sambuca di Sicilia, located about an hour’s drive south of the Sicilian capital, Palermo, feels a little intimidating at first. Stroll its perimeter on a late afternoon in winter, when the sun sets the buildings alight, and eyes follow you. Order the town’s signature minni di virgini—breast-shaped cakes filled with cream, chocolate chips, and squash jam—and a hush silences the chatter in the local bakery. It’s not unfriendly, this exaggerated alertness, but it does make you, the visitor, feel a bit self-conscious.

By the time I walk into a small restaurant that first evening seeking dinner, my self-consciousness has reached an uncomfortable peak. The restaurant’s only other guests, a middle-aged couple, fall quiet as I make my way to a table. After the waiter and I stumble through my order, impeded by his poor English and my worse Italian, I pull out a book to hide my awkwardness while I wait for the food. But when the first course arrives—a heap of ocher-tinted pasta topped with crimson shrimp and shards of pistachios—I am so clearly delighted by the dish that the waiter then decides we are friends. He introduces himself by name, Giovanni, and when two women with their children enter the restaurant, he seats them next to me and introduces them as well. “La famiglia,” he says—his own, and that of the chef, who, stepping out from the kitchen to kiss his wife, also comes over to greet me.

Two hours later, I walk out into the night air, aloft on a wave of bonhomie and sturdy Sicilian wine. Oh yes, I think to myself. I could live here.

I’m not the only person to arrive at that revelation. In fact, I had come to Sicily to investigate a program that has attracted thousands with the same notion. A program that allows people, although they may not have the financial wherewithal to go full-bore Tuscan-villa-with-frescoed-ceilings-and-private-vineyard, to nevertheless live a different version of the dream. A program that promises them a house for a single euro.

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About the size of New Hampshire, Sicily has 4.8 million residents.

Photos by Julia Nimke

Since the 19th century, large numbers of villagers in the poorer parts of Italy have migrated to more prosperous regions and countries. The migration continues; in some places, populations have shrunk so dramatically that there are no longer enough patients to keep the local doctor in business, or enough children to fill the school. Young people who moved away to study or work didn’t want to return, and when their parents died, the family homes stood empty, sometimes for decades. Around 2010, the village of Salemi in western Sicily was one of the first towns to come up with an idea: What if you could fill them again by offering the properties for sale at a ridiculously low price?

I wasn’t in the market for a house, one euro or otherwise. But I wanted to know if the program worked. Though the rumors I’d heard about driving in Sicily gave me pause—highways that suddenly turn into rutted cow paths; drivers whose chosen passing method involves achieving the closest possible proximity to the fender of the car in front of them—I decided to set out in a rental car through villages in various stages of implementing the initiative. Were once-sepulchral towns reinvigorated by newcomers eager to put down roots? Were the new residents integrating into small-town life, or was an influx of new blood bringing unintended side effects? And did a town that drew enough newcomers lose the qualities that had attracted said newcomers in the first place?

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From left: The population of Sambuca di Sicilia has declined because of a low birth rate, but the town gained media attention after The Sopranos actress Lorraine Bracco bought a home there; The Valley of the Temples has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997.

Photos by Julia Nimke

The morning after my dinner in Sambuca di Sicilia, I leave my home base to see my first one-euro house. Before that, I stop in the Valley of the Temples. Located in a national park, the valley preserves the remains of a Greek colony founded in the 6th century B.C.E. on land inhabited by the indigenous Sicani. A couple of millennia later, the original temples to Hercules and Hera survive, but so does evidence of Carthaginian rampage and Roman reconstruction. Those peoples would in time be followed by Vandals from northern Europe and Muslims from Africa, to say nothing of the French and Spanish. Standing there, looking at the gold-colored columns of once-grand temples set against the sparkling sea and flowering almond trees, time seemed to bend. Outsiders, I realize, have been making their homes here for a long time.

They’ve also been leaving. When I arrive in Cammarata, a steep jumble of a village whose mountains are dusted with snow, I can feel an absence. In the winter sunshine, it’s beautiful, but it’s also empty. In the 15 minutes I spend standing in front of a very sleepy-looking town hall, where I’ve arranged to meet architect Martina Giracello, not one person passes by.

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The members of StreetTo want to rejuvenate Cammarata.

Photo by Julia Nimke

Finally, Giracello arrives, her corkscrew curls bobbing, and explains the silence. “People here wanted to live in larger, more modern apartments,” she says. Many moved to neighboring San Giovanni Gemini, about half a mile away, where the gentler topography allows for larger buildings and better conveniences. Now, Giracello tells me, “the one real estate agency in the area doesn’t even handle houses in the historic center.”

Like other young people from the region, Giracello and her boyfriend, Gianluca, moved away for university and to start their professional careers. But as they approached the end of their 20s, they returned to Cammarata, yearning for a quieter life. They also wanted, however, some kind of cultural scene, and neighbors their own age. “We studied other towns with one-euro programs, saw that for a lot of buyers, once they are there, the house is just a vacation home, and they don’t have a relation to the people there,” she tells me. “We wanted to do something different. We wanted to create a community.”

As we slowly make our way up Cammarata’s steep streets, the silence gives way to the sound of hammers and saws. ‘Hear that?’ Giracello asks. ‘It’s working.’

They banded together with other professionals to form a volunteer association called StreetTo, which convinces the owners of abandoned properties to sell, then helps foreigners find their houses and navigate the inspections, paperwork, and renovations that follow. And, in the hopes of forging community, they also organize exhibitions, concerts, and gatherings for townspeople old and new. Driven by their desire to revive the Cammarata they love, StreetTo’s members offer these services free of charge. (“At the moment, it is a project geared toward foreigners, but what we want is to also bring Cammarata’s citizens back, just as Gianluca and I have come back,” Giracello says.)

It’s not pure altruism, though. Their town gets something in the way of revitalization. As we slowly make our way up Cammarata’s steep streets, the silence gives way to the sound of hammers and saws. “Hear that?” Giracello asks. “It’s working.”

Panting from the climb, we reach the first property, where Giracello introduces me to the reality of what one euro buys you: not much. The home, more vertically challenged shed than house, has what real estate ads might call “significant structural issues” and what I might call “a massive hole in the roof.”

For an extravagance like a ceiling, Giracello says, you’ll need to spend a bit more. We press on to another house. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, she mentions its price—just over $10,000. The tall, narrow home is built, like many older Sicilian dwellings, with a single room per floor, its stairwell is carpeted in debris, and the battered sink and laminate countertops make it look like the kitchen was outfitted sometime around World War II. But the floor is adorned with beautiful geometric tiles, and a view of the valley spills through the windows. “We try to find houses in not really good condition,” Giracello says. “Because the purpose of the project is to help the town get better.”

StreetTo has helped negotiate the sale of 18 houses so far, but contract negotiations and renovations are still in progress, and none of the buyers have been able to move into their homes yet. But Giracello is confident it won’t be long before her village swells with new life. She pulls out her phone to show me a video.

“When a German nurse and her husband bought a place, a local couple were so happy to see new people that they held a dinner for them, and invited us,” she says. “Even though the Germans didn’t speak Italian and the Italians didn’t speak German, now they are all friends.” She pauses. “We are all friends.”

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Today a church and monastery, Santa Caterina d’Alessandria was home to nuns from 1311 to 2014.

Photo by Julia Nimke

My next stop is Mussomeli, located nearly in the center of the island. Unlike many Sicilian towns, which drape themselves seductively across a ridge, Mussomeli is all about the vertical. On the morning I approach, the craggy volcanic outcroppings that rise from the valley below have trapped pools of mist, making the town appear to be floating on clouds. It feels like entering Middle Earth.

The illusion doesn’t last: With a population of nearly 11,000 people, Mussomeli is large enough to support a Carrefour supermarket and even a mini traffic jam. But as I push on to the town’s core, the fantasy returns. Mussomeli’s heart holds ancient churches, tiny squares where kids play ball, and views from its tangled streets of that mystical valley and a hilltop with the ruins of a 14th-century castle.

Streets so tangled, in fact, that I get lost, and ask for directions in a dark, tiny bakery selling nothing but focaccia. I pay for an oily square, and ask the elderly man behind the counter what he thinks about the foreigners moving to town. “There aren’t so many here now,” he says. “But in summer they buy a lot of focaccia.”

Seems a fair trade. Mussomeli doesn’t cater to tourism, but between its services and charm, more than 200 inexpensive homes have been bought by foreigners in the past few years. Australian Danny McCubbin owns one of them. Ready for a quieter life after 17 years of working in London for the chef Jamie Oliver, McCubbin was recruited by producers late in 2019 for a television show that planned to follow people on their one-euro adventures in Mussomeli. The pandemic intervened and the show was never finished, but McCubbin had found his purpose. By the end of 2020, he had decided to move permanently to Mussomeli and turn his home into a community kitchen to help people with inadequate access to food.

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From left: The Good Kitchen rescues surplus food from supermarkets to provide for people in need; Australian Danny McCubbin moved to Mussomeli in 2020.

Photos by Julia Nimke

After I make several wrong turns, I find McCubbin, clearing dishes from a long, communal table. He’d just served lunch to local residents and Ukrainian children welcomed by the town after fleeing the war. These days, the Good Kitchen also supplies weekly meals for the elderly and has taught some of Mussomeli’s youth to cook. A clutch of older men use the space as an afternoon hangout, and there’s also a free Sunday afternoon lunch. (The only requirement for those with means is that they bring something to share.) Not long ago, Mussomeli’s mayor told McCubbin that he had planted a seed, and that more in Mussomeli were now thinking about social projects. “My whole way of living is so simple and joyful now,” McCubbin says. “I don’t know where else I could have done this.”

Rubia Andrade Daniels has also adjusted her expectations. One of the earliest buyers in Mussomeli, she fell in love with a vibe that reminds her of the Brazil where she was born and spent her childhood, but that also seems open to the kind of diversity she’s found in California, where she has lived for the past 30 years. “For the first few days, I couldn’t figure out why people here were being so nice to me,” she says with a laugh. “Then I realized they’re like that to everyone.”

Andrade Daniels, who works for a renewable energy company, loved the town so much she purchased three one-euro houses on her first visit in 2019. Four years later, her enthusiasm remains undimmed, but her timetable has shifted: The kitchen in the house where she plans on living part time once she retires wasn’t finished until August 2023, and progress on the other two—an art gallery and a wellness center—has been pushed to an undetermined future, in part due to the pandemic and the delays in its wake. “You can’t have American expectations,” she says. “Here, things take the time they take.”

I think about that pace each day when I return to my base in Sambuca di Sicilia. There, too, there’s been such demand for the listed houses that one euro is no longer the final sale cost but rather the opening bid in an auction that could see prices rise into the thousands. Even then, the campaign was so popular that the municipality launched a second round in 2021, with an increase in the starting price—to two euros.

Margherita Licata, who has been summering in Sambuca since childhood and eventually settled here full time about 20 years ago, says that “99 percent” of Sambucans welcome the newcomers. The other 1 percent? “They worry they have been invaded by Americans,” says Licata, who works for a real estate agency in town. “If Sambuca one day has a thousand outsiders living here, of course it will change our lives. But it will maybe mean the young [people] can find a job and not go somewhere else. If we want that change, we must accept other changes too.”

Of course, it’s possible that Sambuca could become transfigured by take-out coffee joints and big-box stores and other supposed comforts that the town’s new residents like. Already, some Americans have complained about the local teenagers who cruise the streets on their motorbikes at night. And imported class divisions are also emerging: Among the more free-spirited DIYers who have purchased homes, rumors circulate that some of the wealthier buyers want to build an exclusive, members-only swimming pool.

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From left: Margherita Licata has lived in Sambuca for roughly 20 years; Pasticceria Enrico Pendola is one of few bakeries in the small town.

Photos by Julia Nimke

But for now, there’s little evidence of a non-Sicilian presence in Sambuca, and it remains difficult to find anyone who speaks English. What I did find was an archaeology museum where, after I inquired if it was open, a woman rushed out, turned on the lights, and marched me at breakneck speed through the antiquities on display while barking descriptions of them at me in Italian. I also found a market that popped up alongside the traffic circle where the fishmonger told me how to cook the sardines I bought from the back of his van, as well as a café whose arancini made me finally understand why anyone would want to eat fried balls of rice, and where the elderly man who glared at me as I drank my breakfast cappuccino turned out not to be annoyed with the foreigner invading his morning sanctuary, but just
waiting for the opportunity to ask me if I knew his cousins in New Jersey.

I’d arrived in Sicily wondering if the one-euro initiative would ruin the towns that adopted it, replacing their traditional culture with more consumerist ones and destroying their lifestyle and easy sociability. And when that turned out not to be the case, I also wondered if it wasn’t simply a matter of time: Perhaps the pandemic had slowed an already slower way of doing business, and the reckoning would still surely come.

But as I sat again in that same restaurant from the first night, it seemed to me that Sicily would be just fine. Maybe the slower pace was not a flaw that would eventually be overcome, but instead a feature that would ensure Sicily remains alluringly and unequivocally itself. After all, I thought, as I remembered the
Valley of the Temples, different peoples have been arriving on these shores for millennia. They may leave an imprint; they may shape the culture. But it’s clear that a distinctively Sicilian spirit still dominates.

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From left: Mussomeli is one of the most popular towns in Sicily for one-euro home programs; Sambuca di Sicilia was a prominent trading hub centuries ago.

Photos by Julia Nimke

And so, just before my departure from the island, I went to visit Margherita Licata again, but this time for reasons slightly more personal. Because I had seen enough one-euro homes to know that my powers of imagination were no match for their state of decrepitude, we skipped right to a “premium” home. As soon as she pushed open the doors to the arched courtyard, I was entranced. The rooms were rundown and furnished with old-fashioned chandeliers and faded wallpaper. But they were also large and bright, with intact walls and floors covered with gorgeous patterned tiles. Downstairs, there was an attached space that would make a perfect rental apartment. Upstairs, two rooftop terraces offered views of the town center in one direction, and a lake in the other.

“Fifty thousand euros,” Licata told me with a wink. “But that’s just what the owner’s asking.”

The money in my bank account had not magically grown during my time in Sicily. But my imagination must have. Because in that moment, it all seemed possible.

Lisa Abend is a journalist based in Madrid and the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli. She is also a contributing writer at AFAR and correspondent for Time magazine.
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