(CNN) — When Alexandra Stubbs heard a friend had bought one of Italy’s infamous €1 houses, she felt a little rattled.
“I did the usual kind of thing — what the hell’s that all about, how is that going to work? I’m really skeptical,” she says.
But underneath the skepticism, there was something else, too.
“I absolutely loved Sicily from visits in my 20s and 30s, so I just thought, oh, I’ll tag along with him when he goes back to visit his house — I was visiting friends in Rome and I thought I’d really like to check out Sicily again,” she says.
Little did she know — or maybe, little did she want to admit to herself — that she’d end up buying one herself. Actually, not just one, but two.
“I was on the train, chugging through the Sicilian countryside. We got to Mussomeli [where her friend, Mark, had a house] and I just absolutely loved the whole landscape and the vibe. Straight away I thought, oh my god, maybe this is actually for me,” she says.
“It was a holiday weekend, so the agents were shut and we couldn’t get access to any of the viewings — and Mark couldn’t get his keys, either, so we couldn’t see his house. But we had a really cool couple of days exploring the backstreets, and it had such a lovely vibe, and the landscape was stunning. I was captivated.”
High in the hills of central Sicily, about an hour from the southern coast, Mussomeli is one of several towns in Sicily regenerating its historic center by selling off abandoned houses to foreigners for the price of a coffee.
But Stubbs — along with other foreigners who’ve bought properties in the town and are vocal about their love for it — says Mussomeli is special.
“I guess it’s a bit like dating — you either have that connection with the energy, and the whole package, or you don’t” she says.
“For me, it was the setting straightaway — the landscape — and then it became about the interaction with the people. It was a festive evening and they had done a procession carrying a Madonna. We ended up in this restaurant where all the locals had headed to, and it was just such a great feeling — it’s hard to describe, but they were very warm, natural and hospitable — and know how to live well.”
Falling — and staying — in love with Sicily
Mussomeli’s location is in spectacular central Sicily.
For Stubbs, the motivation to buy wasn’t just that she fell for Mussomeli, or that she had a friend who’d already bought a house there. Another plus was that the town is a short (and pretty) drive through the hills to Villarosa, where another friend, Sarah Wolferstan, has a farm with her Sicilian husband Paolo.
“I was skeptical, actually,” she says.
“I didn’t speak to her about it before she jumped in, and then I saw a couple of posts on Facebook, and I thought, oh god, she’s not going to do that is she, because I know what a long haul Sicily is.”
“But then when she explained it to me, it made me want to not be the person who’s negative about incomers — especially when I’m an incomer.”
Instead, Wolferstan wanted to give her friend a crash course in the history and culture of the island, so that Stubbs could end up getting as much out of it as she herself had.
“There’s a sense of history and of magic in the air in Sicily when you first go there — you can’t not see it because it’s everywhere you look,” says Wolferstan.
“So you fall in love with that, but just as when you’ve been married to someone for 20 years your relationship moves on, I can also feel all my own personal stages of getting to know the island better, feeling frustrated with its baggage, then accepting the baggage and then falling in love again, but in a different way.
“I see Alex and my love stories with Sicily are at different stages — and I don’t want her to break up.”
Regenerating a town sustainably
Many houses in Mussomeli’s historic center have been abandoned.
Maurizio Di Maria, Comune Mussomeli
Wolferstan met her husband Paolo — they are both archeologists — at the age of 21. Initially they lived in London until in 2014, after their second child was born, they moved to Sicily. While they were there, they visited Gangi, one of the first towns to launch a €1 house scheme. And to start with, Wolferstan was horrified.
“I thought, oh no, what are they doing? Gangi is a really, really beautiful town not far from the sea, why are the Sicilians feeling forced to sell their heritage? This is so tragic.”
Her uncle-in-law was mayor of a different town at the time, and introduced them to the mayor of Gangi.
“I was there saying, ‘I think you’re going to gentrify your town — I’ve seen some in northern Italy that have lost their souls.’ And he listened to me really patiently and said, ‘We’re on top of it in Gangi, and that’s not going to happen.’
“And it hasn’t, and he’s done amazingly well. He’s plugged into all the regional, national and European projects to do with rural sustainability, food systems and slow tourism, and he’s done it very slowly.
“And he’s brought the community on board and he’s worked with local businesses to invest in €1 houses as well. And you think, oh wow, it might just work. It made me panic less.
“But while the situation is what it is, I still wish the Sicilians could have a way of running these businesses themselves.”
A cultural excavation
The view from Alex Stubbs’s house.
Instead of sparring over their different viewpoints, the two friends decided to join forces. Stubbs wanted her holiday home, but wanted to do it sensitively, becoming part of the community; in return, Wolferstan wanted Stubbs to get to know her Sicily.
“Being able to share this from two completely different perspectives is what’s really interesting,” says Stubbs.
“I feel pretty confident I can make this work just based on my limited experience, but being able to drill down into it — like an archeological excavation — is the best of both worlds.”
To start with, Wolferstan has been recommending lots of books: histories of Sicily, biographies, and the history of the mafia — mainly written by Sicilians.
“The problem is that non-Italian speakers don’t have access to so many amazing books about Italy and Sicily, so we just read what other foreigners like us say about it,” she says.
“There’s such a market at the moment for travel books, and they all say the sort of dull things about Sicilian identity, but so many of them are so superficial and just talk about food.
“Buyers of €1 houses may not even know that Sicily has a separate geopolitics from mainland Italy, Sardinia or Venice — and why would they? But when you read this ‘travel lite’ literature saying Sicilians are different from mainland Italians because they’re Greek and Arab [from historical occupations], it’s othering them even more than they’ve already been othered.”
Helping, not hindering, the community
Stubbs helping with the olive harvest on Wolferstan’s farm.
For Wolferstan, the projects have value, as long as they don’t alienate locals.
“It’s a very dynamic move to do something radical to save these houses that are in a state of collapse, and it’s bringing work, income and a different perspective. But it depends on how it’s managed,” she says.
“Sicily has been failed by the last 100 years of what’s happened around the world — not just by Italian politics.”
In Mussomeli, the houses must keep their original façade, and the planning process is tightly controlled so that new owners can’t make changes that aren’t in keeping with the area.
“It’s stopping houses from collapsing into disrepair, so basically it’s a win win — I don’t feel they can lose, and they’re totally in control,” says Stubbs, who’s employed a local architect to work on her houses.
‘Sicily needs positivity’
Sicilians know their island is spectacular, says Wolferstan.
Maurizio Di Maria, Comune Mussomeli
For many, the idea of (relatively) rich foreigners coming into a struggling town and buying up property as second homes is loaded with issues. But as a die-hard Sicily supporter, Wolferstan says she’s realized that, if handled with care, the €1 schemes can not only regenerate the town fabric and provide jobs to those working on the projects, but can also spark a new sense of pride in residents of rural towns which, since World War II, have tended to see people leave, rather than arrive.
“When you’re born and raised somewhere, you don’t see it with the eyes of an outsider, and if visitors come and say, ‘This place is so amazing that we want to buy a house here,’ I think that swells their hearts with pride,” she says.
“They have the perspective of all the economic problems that are the reason why so many have left.
“Sicilians are proud of their island anyway, they already thought it was the best place in the world, but because of it’s been at the bottom of the pile in Italy, when there’s positivity from the outside you can really see that effect. And Sicily needs positivity coming from the outside because it’s an embattled identity that everyone has criticized for 150 years, and now it feels like the tide is turning.”
Getting on with the neighbors
Alexandra Stubbs bought two homes in Mussomeli.
Stubbs plans to throw herself into the community, and has already befriended her neighbors — the woman living opposite was born in her house, she says, while she’s bonded with the guy next door over his love of Elvis.
Although you’d think they might resent incomers pitching up and starting noisy building work, she says they’ve been nothing but pleasant.
“There’s never been a whiff of them thinking, god, it’s going to be morning till night of drilling, bashing and crashing — what a nightmare,” she says.
Her houses have a “churchy feel,” she says, with walls made from huge rock slabs and light streaming through the shutters.
“I don’t want to make a shiny villa — these are houses with such character that all they need is to be given some TLC,” she says.
The two properties were already partially connected, and her aim is to make a “semi industrial, rustic blend with reclaimed and repurposed materials,” creating an internal garden in the space where the two houses connect.
Eventually, she’d like to set up some kind of cycling business to attract tourists to the little-visited central part of the island. With most tourists sticking to the coast, there’s an opening for “slow tourism” and adventure tourism in the middle, she says.
Learning Italian is a priority for her — “I don’t want to be one of those expats who chatters away nonstop in my own language,” she says.
How the €1 schemes can help Sicily
The schemes have the potential to benefit both the newcomers and the residents.
Both women have learned from each other. For Stubbs, it’s been a crash course in Sicilian history, politics and culture.
And for Wolferstan, the experience has tempered her view of the €1 house schemes.
“I’ve changed my mind knowing Alex, and reading about the project,” she says.
“I still don’t think it’s a miracle cure, and I definitely see it as a strand in a lot of strands that need to be done to help rural areas in the south of the Mediterranean, not just Sicily. But all the Sicilians I know think it’s a fabulous idea because they can’t see what else to do with these tiny little houses in the middle of town.
“Everyone is leaving, so why would they be investing? But I think that the fact that people are coming in is a big boost to their confidence, and people are starting to think, well, maybe we’ll hang around. Some people have started businesses on the back of it.
“Hopefully it’ll spill over into public investments and infrastructure, and hopefully there’ll be a bigger percentage of the population who wants to stay, wants to buy and eat local — it could have a ripple effect.”
Love Sicily, don’t leave it
Buying here isn’t easy, but it has the potential to be the love affair of your life.
Both are clear that buying a €1 home isn’t a bed of roses.
“When I say to Alex, ‘Sicily is really complicated,’ she says ‘Of course it is’ — she’s not going there expecting to have a nice frothy experience and eat pasta all day with all her new friends, so she knows what she’s getting into,” says Wolferstan.
“So I reinforced that — but also have hopefully expressed the joy of what it means to create a longer term relationship with places that are so beautiful with such warm people, but, like any culture, they have ways of working that aren’t familiar to us.”
For her part, Stubbs says, “I’m hoping that Sarah’s going to un-expat me — I don’t want to be clueless, I want to understand better as quickly as possible.”
Both think that the more homeowners who do the same, the more the towns will benefit — and the more the incomers will get out of it.
“People can appreciate what the place has, that it’s not as superficial as Hollywood or a travel guide makes out,” says Wolferstan.
“I don’t want people to gentrify, love Sicily and then break its heart by leaving. You want people to get the whole story.”
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