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As foreigners flock to buy old, inexpensive houses in Italy, one group has gone a step further, helping to revive a depopulated town.
Irsina, deep in the southern Basilicata region, is home to over 300 non-Italians from 12 different countries, alongside 4,000 local residents.
Until the 1960s, this hilltop village surrounded by fields had a population of 12,000, but mass emigration combined with harsh living conditions meant that by the 1960s, barely 4,500 people were living in the old historical center.
Today, things are different. Irsina in 2023 is an expat heaven of mostly retirees and American migrants living the rural Italian dream.
More than 15 families from the US and Canada have bought old properties in this remote village, known for its premium wheat fields and olive groves.
And they keep buying houses and expanding their properties, spreading the word back home of this dreamy location which seems to be frozen in time. Each time they come back, they bring along relatives and friends, all of whom become happy to spend between 20,000 and 150,000 euros ($22,000-$165,000) for a spacious dwelling with bucolic views.
Walking along the narrow alleys, all sorts of accents – American, Canadian, French, Norwegian – can be heard. There’s even a road which locals have rebranded “the Belgian Street” due to the many Belgians who live there.
The wild ‘hairy hill’
Irsina’s old name is Montepeloso, or the “hairy hill,” for its once grassy crest. It dates back to prehistoric times when it was inhabited by early humans, and later by local tribes. Archaeological objects including tools, weapons and ceramics used by cave men are on show at the village museum.
The old district, enclosed by high walls, is a maze of decorated stone portals, medieval watchtowers and elegant palazzos once belonging to the rich rural bourgeoisie. But the narrow, car-free streets that foreigners love aren’t what locals want. Many Irsina residents moved in the 1960s to newer neighborhoods of town, leaving the historic center largely empty.
Irsina is known for its “bottini” – underground tunnels which used to carry water to the town’s cisterns. It also has a tradition of “human towers” – each May, actors dressed as farmers jump on the shoulders of others dressed as rural gentry, to create a shape which represents the social hierarchies of the past.
The town is also known for its succulent dishes with weird-sounding names. A laghën(e) pu m’r’cutte is handmade pasta with figs cooked in wine and bell pepper, while callaridde are sheep and goat delicacies.
How the foreigners arrived
Even though life in Irsina isn’t always idyllic, with snowy winters that isolate the town for days, migrants here say they are living the dream.
The first foreign “pioneer” to buy a house in Irsina was Sandy Webster, a 63-year-old writer from San Diego.
Along with her husband Keith, 69, a Scottish finance manager, she visited on vacation in 2004. The couple fell in love with the village, bought an old house with thick stone walls, antique furniture and ancient maiolica-tile floors, and spent four years renovating it. They then relocated here from London in 2012.
“In 1989 I visited Sorrento with my then boyfriend and loved Italy, I spoke conversational Spanish and wanted to buy a house in a Mediterranean country, either in Spain or Italy,” Webster tells CNN.
She solved the conundrum years later, when the pair toured Basilicata for Keith’s 50th birthday. When she got an online property alert for a house in Irsina, it sealed their destiny.
“We drove and drove into the rural wilderness, as if further from civilization, until we got to charming Irsina. There was only one hotel back then, open for a few days a year, now there are plenty of B&Bs,” she says.
‘It would have cost $1m in London’
The Websters’ pinkish-stone house has four panoramic terraces, and overlooks a small, sunny piazza in the oldest part of the village district. Their renovation cost four times more than the purchase cost (which she won’t disclose). Utility bills aren’t that much lower compared to the UK, but they say the food here is cheaper.
“We redid the whole house. There was just one small bathroom, the attic was turned into a guest apartment, and we kept the original huge vaulted living room. The fixes would have cost us $1 million in London,” she says.
Family and friends often visit them and they love being just under two hours’ drive from the beaches of Metaponto, also in Basilicata, and Bari in neighboring Puglia.
What makes Irsina unusual among Italian villages is that it’s flat as a pancake. There are no killer steep steps or uphill alleys, just arched passageways. The village sits on an elevated plateau, which makes it great for walking – especially for elder people, says Webster.
“We wouldn’t change one thing. We might sometimes grumble there’s no real Mexican or Chinese food nearby to grab as an alternative to Mediterranean cuisine, which is delicious, but it’s all great,” she adds.
The Websters didn’t have to face head-splitting bureaucracy issues to buy and restyle the house, thanks to help from locals who were thrilled at having newcomers settle in their village.
The only obstacle remains communication: “We still speak Italian like four year olds, and had to write notes to the building team to give them clear instructions.”
The pull of their roots
So how did others follow in their footsteps?
Webster says that word spread thanks to a local company of plumbers and architects who joined forces and advertised potential holiday homes online.
But much of Irsina’s global appeal has to do with ancestry.
Tiffany Day, a 50-year-old former financial adviser from Nashville, is Irsina’s unofficial ambassador in the US. After purchasing five houses for her extended family (she has five kids and eight grandchildren), each time she has visited with her husband Rob, she’s brought along more American friends to buy property in the village.
Why? She felt the pull of her roots. Day’s grandmother hails from Irsina and she still has relatives in the village – like her aunt Antonietta, who knows all the expats.
Day likes to throw huge “mixed” parties on the elegant panoramic terrace of her 18th-century palazzo, where locals and Americans mingle.
In October, some 200 guests will be flocking over to celebrate the wedding of her son Hunter, whose parents-in-law have also purchased a home in town.
“I reconnected with this place in 2016 when my nonna held a reunion lunch in Irsina, we drove like mad from Rome to make her happy. We spent the night and the next day toured the place. I just love this little town on a hill, untouched green all around,” she says.
When the Days came back for a second visit they bought a house – once stately, but by then ruined – for 100,000 euros ($110,000) and spent the same amount renovating it. Now it looks like a luxury mansion out of a glossy magazine, with a panoramic bathroom overlooking the hills, and old thick stones that jut out of walls.
“I brought family members and friends from the USA, they all wanted to come, and bought nine houses,” she says, adding that a further “104 travel buddies” have visited.
Day says that the locals are kind and humble, and the beauty of Irsina is spellbinding but to really grasp it one needs to look beyond appearances.
“When we got here in 2016, over 80% of the population had fled to the newer district of Irsina, the old Irsina was empty and we loved how it looked. The village just needed some attention, everyone loves vistas and views, you just need to see it through other eyes, look at the hidden value.”
Foreign interest in the old district pushed locals to spruce up their houses too, triggering a revival of Irsina, according to Day, who visits four times per year.
Beth Ancona, the mother of Day’s future daughter-in-law, also bought a home in Irsina, spurred on by the desire to reconnect with her husband’s Italian origins.
“He’s Sicilian, but we found our casita in Irsina when we saw an ad while visiting Italy. There are so many great beautiful Italian cities like Rome and Venice but there’s something magical here,” says the 53-year-old teacher and author.
Their house, built into the old village walls, was on sale for 70,000 euros ($77,000).
The tight-knit expat community helped the family get through Italian red tape and purchase procedures.
Now, the Anconas have adopted a typical Italian routine: the passeggiata (morning or evening walk), and the post-lunch riposino (nap) from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., when the alleyways empty.
Not only did they adapt their lifestyle to the local beat, but Ancona convinced her own Arkansas-based parents-in-law to buy the house next door, too.
“My mother-in-law wasn’t excited at first about the idea of a village without cars, but now she has more fun here than in the US,” she says. “She walks, takes the bus to nearby Matera. Irsina has taught her how to lead an active lifestyle in her 70s. The sleepy vibe pushes us to live a slower life.”
Canadian Debra Semeniuk, a 65-year-old retired dentist from Vancouver, wanted to live in a non-touristy part of Europe, and picked Irsina in 2019 after spotting a rental ad on the web.
After staying a year to check it out, she got stuck in town due to the pandemic. That allowed her to fully experience the village life and get to know people. She’s now settled in and renews her elective visa yearly.
“I first rented a house from an Irish lady, then decided to buy one together with some of my family members. Having a base in Irsina, allowing me to travel around Europe, was a great idea,” she says.
Semeniuk says her elegant gated home in Irsina’s historical center was way cheaper than any apartment in Canada – though like Webster she doesn’t want to say how much it cost. It came with direct access to a private patch of land and olive groves that makes it unique in the historical center.
There were caveats, however. The property used to be a convent, and its historical significance means there are restrictions on renovations. Semeniuk would like to open up new windows in the walls to see the views, but cannot.
“I’m not allowed to change the structure of the property, but it’s all right,” she says. “I love how there are no cars in Irsina, I don’t have one. I just hire a driver from the airport and then it’s all on foot, long walks every day.”
“It’s very sociable here, there’s an open door policy, and it’s great fun. Food is locally grown, the lifestyle is healthy. The only problem is that I can’t learn Italian as we all speak English.”
Dave Tomlin, a former hospital cook from West Virginia in the US, also picked Irsina as a base for his family’s vacation home.
“We wanted a cheap house as we traveled every year to Europe with seven other couples,” he says. “In 2008 we bought an old one-room home with big arched ceilings, a terrace and cantina for 24,000 euros ($26,000) and did a basic restyle.”
Together with his wife Kerry, who works in the banking sector, Tomlin bought a second, larger house in 2012. They now own both, and spend six months per year in Irsina. He says that he adjusted quickly to the Irsina beat.
“I grew up in a small village with barely 700 people so this place is okay to me. I’ve got my hobbies, take care of the house and as Kerry still works, we come and go as we please,” he says.
Tomlin, who has distant Italian roots, says the expat community made it all very accessible to them, and the couple was won over by Irsina’s fresher food and slower paced lifestyle compared to the US.
He even considered applying for Italian citizenship but found it a tough task with too many procedures to follow.