When the mayor of a sleepy town in Italy announced it was selling houses that people can move into for less than the price of a used car, he thought he might get one or two offers.
But after CNN Travel reported the deal aimed at reviving the fortunes of Biccari, a pretty community in Italy’s southwestern Puglia whose population has dwindled to 2,000, its civic leader says he received no fewer than 20,000 emails from all over the world.
“We were flooded with requests,” Gianfilippo Mignogna tells CNN. “Many people sent us touching letters of why they’d like to buy a house here and become part of our community, alongside their photos to introduce who they were.
“Some had intriguing, fascinating personal stories, linked to our territory and migration history.”
Messages keep flowing in, Mignogna says. Writers, cooks, scientists, doctors, movie makers and ordinary families have all reached out.
Biccari is the latest in a series of Italian towns and villages to sell off dilapidated old houses for a song in the hope of reversing depopulation trends that threaten their existence.
But while the town has joined others in putting dwellings in need of renovation on the market for a €1, or a little over a dollar, it bucked the trend by also offering hassle-free ready-to-occupy homes for sale with prices starting at €7,500 ($9,000).
Even with Covid restricting global travel, Mayor Mignogna says the deal acted like a magnet for people wanting to move to Italy. Some have been spurred to contact the town because of the pandemic.
“A few foreigners who happened to be in Italy drove over to see the buildings,” he says. “I’ve set-up a team to answer the emails. Very shortly the properties will be online.”
Among those dreaming of a new life under the Puglia sun, drinking great wine and indulging in tasty food, were some applicants hoping to return to the community their families emigrated from.
Tony Colanardi, who owns a paint company in Ontario, says his father was born in Biccari in 1938 and migrated to Canada in the 1960s to start his own family.
Colanardi says he has never lost with his roots and sees the cheap homes deal as a chance to further connect with the town of his origins.
“We retained many of the customs including the making of many food products at home,” Colanardi tells CNN. “To this day we still make our own tomato passata, sausages and wine.”
Colanardi even speaks a Biccarese dialect that only locals understand and often visits the village. He says his children love Biccari – the food, the hiking, the history of the area – and each time he returns to the village he’s enthusiastic to show them the real places of their grandfather’s stories.
“Biccari offers a nice calm lifestyle with gorgeous countryside,” he says “The climate is perfect for someone from Canada and as I move towards retirement age I would like to spend some of my time somewhere where the pace is not so fast and the people are nice.”
Saving the rural world
Hailing from the Netherlands, husband and wife Tom and Ellen Jannink own two companies focused on supporting villages in keeping their communities livable. They have two kids and are hoping to buy a ready-to-move-in property in Biccari for leisure and work.
“We are looking for a place where we can find our peace and rest,” Tom Jannink told CNN. “Space for our family, in which we can work and in which we can also receive guests.
“This way we can share beautiful Italy with our large social and business network. And perhaps entice more families to move to Biccari.”
Italian village sells homes for knock-down prices
Jannink says he’s worked with communities in the Netherlands which are facing the same issues as Biccari and believes he has the knowledge and experience to help revitalize the town.
The family is keen on a second residence in Biccari where they can spend a large part of the year working remotely – increasingly an option due to the pandemic.
Italian-Brazilian Eduardo Bergonzoni Junqueira from Sao Paulo also wants to lend a hand in reviving the dwindling local community.
His ancestors came from the Italian region of Tuscany. He and wife Ana Carolina want to offer their scientific skills to better the village. Junqueira is a laboratory technician, physiotherapist and has started his master’s degree in neuroscience.
“I want to explore and make sense of my Italian citizenship,” he says. “I’m planning to provide services in the area of information technology to help the local agriculture and tourism and strengthen the traditions of the local society.
“As my wife and I are in the healthcare field another option would be to validate our diplomas in Italy and work by offering our services to the people of the region”, says Junqueira.
They’re looking for a cheap redone house rather than a €1 property to avoid the complexities of renovation.
“I like old houses, and I just want a comfortable place that I can change according to the needs of my family and in my own time.”
‘Happy and fulfilled’
The realities of the coronavirus pandemic have pushed many people to reevaluate their lives, prompting their interest in Biccari.
Physicist Andres Jose Encerrado Manriquez from Chihuahua in Mexico says he would like to buy a ready-to-occupy house in Biccari to turn into a permanent residence.
No kids are on the way, but both he and his wife have extended families also interested in spending time in Biccari. They also have four dogs, two rats and one snake.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything is that life is too short to wait for our dreams to fall on our lap,” he says. “This I learned after both my father and my spouse’s father passed away last year due to Covid, which they got from performing their jobs in Mexico.
“We want to live a life in which we feel happy and fulfilled, not just a life of surviving and working to pay for the next bills”.
When he saw the original CNN story, Encerrado Manriquez realized the housing deal could help the couple in their goal of a happy life, while allowing them to contribute to the revitalization of a village packed with culture and natural beauty.
If he manages to turn this into a reality he’s eager to support the development of the cultural and artistic values of Biccari’s tiny community. He’ll says he will use his degree in physics to preserve the environment and implement green energy for sustainability – something his father used to do in Mexico’s farms.
Biccari is the only village in the increasingly popular tourist destination of Puglia offering cheap homes, which could partly account for the huge response from abroad. The region is renowned for its strong wines, extra virgin olive oil, delicious food and great locations.
Unlike the island of Sicily, where many towns have been offering €1 home deals, Puglia is on the mainland and boasts a strategic location on the Adriatic coast. It faces Greece, Slovenia and Croatia.
The Tiss family from Poolesville, Maryland, say they are also seeking a cheap holiday dwelling in Biccari, lured by the nearby beautiful Dauni Mountains park and the peaceful surroundings.
Even though they already live in a rural area with an agricultural reserve they still seek the idyllic tranquility of the village.
“We are thrilled about the idea of purchasing an inexpensive home in Biccari, one that has been redone already if possible, and we are looking to purchase the house as a vacation home for our family during the summer months”, says Andrew Tiss, a medical technology worker who assists in surgical transplantation and cryopreservation.
Together with his wife Tamara, an attorney with Italian blood, and their two daughters, they’ve picked Biccari also because it’s close to the Adriatic port of Brindisi, where they can hop on a ferry to visit friends in Greece.
They’re excited about traveling to Puglia and Tiss is willing to jump on a plane to take a look at the properties if that helps to speed up the process.
“We both plan to learn some Italian before our first trip to Biccari,” Tiss says. “I have already been vaccinated for Covid and my wife and children will wait to be vaccinated prior to any overseas trips.”
The right place
Italian-Argentinian movie director Ernesto Quaranta and his Spanish wife Analìa Diaz, an interior designer and economics professor, are hoping Biccari will offer them an escape from their hectic lives in Buenos Aires.
They think acquiring a ready-to-occupy home could also help them further foster transatlantic ties by using it as the headquarters of a cultural integration project.
As Quaranta’s grandfather came from the tiny village of Palata in nearby Molise, he feels the pull of reconnecting with his Italian origins and sees an opportunity to move closer to his native hometown.
“It’s a way to relive the culture and world of my grandparents,” he says. “We love the peacefulness and the life quality in Italy, far from the chaos and environmental pollution which makes it an ideal place for remote working.”
The couple are members of Argentina Per Il Mondo, an organization uniting Italian-Argentinians across the world. The body already has an office in Biccari aimed at helping Argentinians with Italian origin apply for Italian citizenship.
Quaranta and his wife plan to visit Biccari soon to select a potential house where they hope to develop virtual reality documentaries on the relations between the two communities.
“We seek a pleasant spot to live in where we can carry on with our jobs, do sports, travel, enjoy nature, eat good Italian food.,” he says. “We think Biccari could be the right place for us.”