And then there are towns like Civita di Bagnoregio. Like so many of the others, it has been preserved by the very forces that doomed it: poverty and abandonment. Unlike the others, however, Civita was saved by having been ‘‘discovered’’ by fashionable Romans (including Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele) and expats over the last 20 or so years, who have made summer houses or weekend places of its exceptionally fine, deserted buildings, drawn by the romance of Civita’s remarkable situation — and its proximity to Rome. The restoration of the entire town is eerily pristine; there’s nary a yellowing leaf on the potted geraniums and colorful hydrangeas that grace the exterior of every perfectly renovated house.
These days, Civita has become a tourist destination for day trippers, who arrive by the busload and pay a small fee to enter. Sometimes up to 5,000 people a day wander the town, which at its seasonal height sleeps only about 100. The effect of all these people — selfie sticks moving through the air like antennae — gives the place the unfortunate air of a Disney set: a hyper-clean, historically accurate medieval town as realized on a Universal Studios back lot. There is nothing to mar the scene — no pizzerias or Starbucks or even cars. And just as one starts to wonder what kind of town is one in which there are no children or families, no banks or offices, dusk starts to fall, and the tourists and the white heat of the day retreat. Things go quiet, the light glows pink and the ‘‘locals,’’ many from Rome and the U.S., start to appear — there are drinks on terraces and quiet dinners in the side streets, conversations in private gardens among neighbors and friends who know one another, and who all love and care for this enchanted, imperiled piece of history.
BUT THE FARTHER ONE gets from major cities like Florence or Rome, the more difficult it is to attract weekend tourists. Deep in Sicily, off a terrible road whose signs resignedly warn of potholes, lies the isolated town of Sutera, built around the base of a steep mountain. In 2013, at the behest of its mayor, the town opened its doors — and its empty houses — to survivors of the catastrophic Lampedusa shipwreck, which killed more than 360 refugees. Sutera’s population had dwindled from 5,000 in 1970 to just 1,500, and the mayor recognized the humanitarian and economic opportunity the migrants could provide for his moribund town. To help the refugees, most of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa, integrate into the community, they are paired with local families, and required to take Italian lessons, given to them by the town’s citizens. (The European Union provides funding for food, clothing and housing, which can spur the creation of jobs for both migrants and locals.) Initially, there was some resistance, but that has disappeared with the energy these newcomers have brought to the area. Today, one can find young Nigerians taking their morning espresso alongside the old men, and local children kicking soccer balls in the street with their new playmates. And each summer the town hosts a daylong festival featuring the traditional food, music and dance of the immigrants.
One of the first towns to invite migrants into its walls was Riace, in Calabria, whose mayor, Domenico Lucano, was named one of Fortune’s ‘‘World’s 50 Greatest Leaders’’ last year. By 1998, when it took in a group of Kurdish refugees, Riace’s population had fallen to around 800 from 2,500 after World War II. Today, its population is 1,500, with migrants from over 20 countries. Some of these are apprenticing artisans, learning old skills like embroidery, glass mosaic and pottery that were themselves dying out, and so helping keep Italian culture alive. Lucano told the BBC, ‘‘The multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace, have revolutionized what was becoming a ghost town.’’ Other towns have taken Riace’s lead, too: an act of humanity that has become an act of self-preservation as well.
UNLIKE URBAN CENTERS, hill towns were built to be connected to the countryside, which provided each its particular raison d’être, from its subsistence to its commerce. Even physically, the towns appear like natural outcroppings, terraced along the sides of hills, as if sprouting from the earth beneath them.
In the region of Abruzzo, surrounded by the high peaks of the Apennines, the stunning fortified medieval hilltop village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio sits atop a ridge overlooking a dramatic and lush plateau. Once a bustling center of agriculture and wool production, it began to shrink when the Italian wool industry went into decline, crippled by competition from abroad. By the 1990s, the town had only about 100 full-time residents. Santo Stefano is just two hours from Rome and is surrounded by countryside that resembles the Austrian hills of ‘‘The Sound of Music’’: expansive fields of wildflowers backed by majestic snowcapped mountains. It is a sublime place for hiking or bicycling in summer and skiing or snowshoeing in winter. And yet, Abruzzo, long considered poor and backward, has never been particularly beloved by Italians, and consequently, not much considered or well known.
The ancient hill town came as a shock, a revelation really, to Daniele Kihlgren, the renegade scion of an Italian concrete fortune, when he came upon it while on a motorcycle ride in the late 1990s. Although semi-abandoned, its medieval character and architecture were completely intact — unruined, ironically, by concrete, the material Kihlgren is the first to acknowledge has disgraced so much of Italy. How, he wondered, might places of such distinct and exquisite beauty be revitalized without wrecking their historic identity? And how might their local traditions, from food to domestic handicrafts, be organically preserved? ‘‘We can’t compete with China in mass production, and we can’t compete in technology,’’ Kihlgren says, ‘‘but we have what no one else in the world has,’’ which is the beauty of these villages and the cultural history of its people, the stuff he calls Italy’s minor patrimony. ‘‘And if we don’t ruin it, it can be what saves southern Italy.’’
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