(CNN) — Italy has sold hundreds of dilapidated homes for next to nothing in recent years, thanks to plans to attract new residents that have sparked a wave of regeneration for rural communities.
For one man, buying a single house was not enough. He bought an entire village.
Scottish businessman Cesidio Di Ciacca has just finished renovating Borgo I Ciacca, a rural hamlet dating back to the 1500s and historically named after his family.
It is located in the wild, rugged region of Ciociaria, between Rome and Naples, at the foot of the town of Picinisco.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, my grandparents Cesidio and Marietta left the village in search of a better future,” Di Ciacca told CNN. “They migrated to Scotland, leaving behind their native village, which has been forgotten for half a century.
“It was a haunted place. I started restoring it more than 10 years ago. It was a huge task, but now it is finally alive again.”
Lured by nostalgia for the land of his ancestors, and after building his finances as a lawyer and adviser, Di Ciacca decided to return to revive the village his family had left behind and revive the local economy.
“It was a haunted place,” Cesidio Di Ciacca says of his ancestors’ village.
The village used to be a cluster of dilapidated stone farmhouses, barns and windowless storage rooms with cracked doors and unstable stairs. The village now has neatly restyled pastel-colored buildings with a circular panoramic path overlooking green hills.
It houses a wine canteen, conference room, library and two suites for guests longing for a rural retreat without electricity. The estate’s vineyards grow Maturano grapes, a previously lost variety that has been rediscovered.
Di Ciacca was born in the fishing village of Cockenzie, outside of Edinburgh, but says he has always had a deep fondness for his native country.
“My family has never lost touch with the origin,” he says. “Every summer my parents brought me here as a child to visit our relatives. As I grew up, my visits became more frequent until I decided to embark on a life mission to completely reconnect with my roots and bring our grave back from the grave. grave family borgo [village]†
140 former owners
Di Ciacca’s family emigrated from the village at the turn of the century.
Cesidio di Ciacca
The first step was to track down all 140 owners of the 30-acre village estate – a long and complicated process made more difficult by the fact that they had been dispersed all over the world by emigration.
“The village was fragmented and split between so many heirs who often owned only a corner of a house, a patch of pasture, forest or farmland, or just an olive tree,” says Di Ciacca.
According to Italian law dating back to Napoleonic times, ownership does not pass to the eldest heir, but to each individual child. Over several generations, that property can splinter over many families.
The last resident of the village, Di Ciacca says, was a distant great-aunt who died in 1969. Over the next 50 years, the already dilapidated hamlet fell further into disrepair – jungle-like vegetation crawling over walls and doors.
Remnants of his former life were still visible everywhere, including wine bottles and nails hammered into ceilings and used to hang sausages to dry. When digging finally started for the renovation, ancient spoons, coins and religious amulets were unearthed.
Di Ciacca says he had to acquire the entire village in order to begin the restoration because of the complicated jigsaw puzzle of ownership.
“I just had my family subunit,” he says. “It took me years to buy back all the shares, offering each small owner a price at the market value of the land, even if the lot wasn’t worth it, so they all had the same offer.”
The local land and church registry helped identify the many owners, but Di Ciacca’s genealogical hunt was possible, he says, because the area’s communities stayed close to family and neighbors.
“So a first cousin knew another cousin and so on, like a chain. Mainly through word of mouth and memory,” he says. “The migrant community in Edinburgh, to which many had moved, also helped me in my search.”
Di Ciaccia had to work hard to convince several family members to give away their parts of the village. Although they couldn’t use the properties, they were reluctant to sell for sentimental reasons.
Despite Di Ciaccia not disclosing any details about how much he invested, he admits to spending a significant amount to revive the village, with most of the money going towards its reconstruction.
‘O! I don’t even want to think about it,” he says. “Certainly too much, it was a crazy initiative. The sub-units were not expensive, it was the restyle that cost a lot.”
Di Ciacca has tried to preserve the original charm of the village buildings.
Cesidio di Ciacca
Before its decline, Borgo Di Ciacca was a thriving microcosm where a total of 60 people lived in small dwellings of barely 50 square meters – about six families in all.
As part of the restyle, the old houses had their ceiling-high ovens and fireplaces renovated. They are now used for pizza parties and summer get-togethers. Antique furniture adorns every room.
Borgo Di Ciacca also celebrates the local culinary traditions. During seminars and events, dinners and aperitivos, guests are served gourmet dishes such as pecorino sheep’s cheese, black pork lard (the animals roam freely on the estate), goat’s cheese ricotta and platters of cured ham.
“It all started as a hobby, then I realized I had to turn my dream into a sustainable business,” says Di Ciacca. “When my daughter Sofia decided to quit her job and take care of the vineyards, I turned the borgo into a rural farm producing honey, jams, wine and extra virgin olive oil and launched environmentally conscious activities.”
The 2,500-square-foot village now houses a small cultural center and conference space for academic, food, and agricultural seminars. There is also a canteen with wine tasting and a kitchen for cooking classes. The entire borgo has underfloor heating and strong WiFi.
Since the first harvest in 2017, his wine has won three international silver awards and is now also exported abroad.
Country marathons are held in the spring, with people running up and down the vineyards, then relaxing in the small square where villagers would meet in the evenings after work in the fields to chat.
A “social orchard” of fresh produce has been created, bringing groups of children together for lessons on rural life, while a gastronomic school is due to start this year.
“I haven’t changed the rooms inside, I’ve kept the original decor and country feel with the gritty stone walls and the old thick wooden doors with metal bolts,” says Di Ciaccia. “The different colors of the residences are exactly as they were originally painted, with each color denoting a different time period.”
Tracking down 140 family members, however, has been a breeze compared to Italian bureaucracy, says Di Ciacca, who admits the paperwork is frustrating. He has employed local youth to look after his business while in Scotland.
When the pandemic broke out, Di Ciacca was stuck in the village and said the unpolluted air and under-the-radar location were a godsend. Together with his wife, son, daughter and grandchildren, he now spends most of the year in his parental home.
Cesdio Di Ciacca now lives in the village with his family.
Cesidio di Ciacca
The countryside around the village is dotted with abbeys, monasteries and pilgrimage sites famous for the apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
“It has been a physical transit point for millennia thanks to the pure water, fresh air and fertile fields,” says Di Ciacca. “Prehistoric men chose it as their home and many saints roamed this valley of faith, from St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Benedict. It is magical.”
During the Middle Ages, Ciociaria was a crossroads of shepherds, hermits and saints. In the 19th century, it was the lair of Italy’s most wanted outlaw, Domenico Fuoco. After that, emigration and a series of natural disasters shrank the local population. Today it is one of Italy’s best kept secrets.
In the village, Di Ciacca’s father, Johnny, was born before his mother and father took him north to Scotland, where they started an ice cream parlor.
It had been owned by their family for more than 500 years, and as the only living heir who really wants to revive it, Di Ciacca wants to secure his future.
“I want this village to become a central hub for all Italo-Scottish people abroad who want to return and reconnect with their origins, and maybe even help their native country by launching activities and growth opportunities,” he says.
There are also plans to open an agri-food academy in the village, but so far the pandemic has delayed the schedule, and to partner with European universities on preserving and pursuing rural traditions.
For someone who has managed to convince 140 people to offload their tiny piece of property to create a major project, it shouldn’t be too difficult.