Sambuca, a hilltop town with views over the Mediterranean island and nearby beaches, has placed dozens of dwellings on the market for €1, or just over a dollar.
The deal is aimed at reviving a community that, like many other rural spots in Italy, has suffered from depopulation in recent years as residents move to bigger cities.
It’s not the first Italian town to lure in outsiders with tempting offers but, say local officials, Sambuca is scrapping red tape to make sure anyone interested can more or less make their purchase right away.
“As opposed to other towns that have merely done this for propaganda, this city hall owns all €1 houses on sale,” says Giuseppe Cacioppo, Sambuca’s deputy mayor and tourist councilor.
“We’re not intermediaries who liaise between old and new owners. You want that house, you’ll get it no time.”
City of Splendor
But there’s a catch. The new owners must commit to refurbish their choice of the crumbling 40- to 150-square meter dwellings within three years, at a cost starting from €15,000 (about $17,200).
They’ll also need to cough up a €5,000 security deposit that will be returned once the restyle is complete.
Buyers won’t be disappointed, says Cacioppo.
“Sambuca is known as the City of Splendor,” he adds. “This fertile patch of land is dubbed the Earthly Paradise. We’re located inside a natural reserve, packed with history. Gorgeous beaches, woods and mountains surround us. It’s silent and peaceful, an idyllic retreat for a detox stay.”
With the population dwindling, Cacioppo says the town needs outsiders to prevent it falling into ruin.
“We can’t afford to lose our lovely Arab heritage. Luckily, foreigners are lending a hand in this rescue crusade.”
Founded by the Ancient Greeks, Sambuca was later conquered by Saracens who turned it into a flourishing trade center.
The town is named after the Emir Al Zabut, aka the Splendid One. It’s an open-air museum, a patchwork of contrasting architectural styles.
Churches with round Arab-looking domes sit next to Baroque palazzos with glazed tile floors, decorated with smiling cherubs, fearsome gargoyles, twisted columns, allegorical statues and coats of arms.
This is where Sicily’s Arab soul lies. Most houses on sale are located within the “Saracen District,” a kasbah maze of arcaded stone portals and winding narrow alleys (less than a meter wide) through which people squeeze.
Guardian of the valley
The countryside around Sambuca is dotted with ancient ruins.
The two-story Moorish dwellings, built with pink-reddish stones that glow at sunset, feature inner courtyards, lavish palm gardens with orange and mandarin trees, arcaded entrances, flowery majolica staircases, typical Sicilian tile roofs and terraces overlooking the stunning scenery.
On clear days it’s possible to see Sicily’s Mt. Etna volcano and the distant island of Pantelleria from the Belvedere Terrace, where Al Zabut’s lavish palace once stood as the “guardian of the valley.”
Zabut’s legacy is strong. Streets and local surnames are Arab-sounding. There are couscous cooking classes and Moorish costume parties.
Sambuca’s charm lies also underground, in its “sunken city,” Cacioppo organizes guided tours through the labyrinth of purrere, the holes and caves of old sandstone quarries. Most houses come with private grotto access.
The ghosts of Saracen soldiers slaughtered by the Christians are said to haunt the caves and district at night — there’s even one street called The Phantom — but so far there’ve been no spooky sightings.
There’s already been some interest in the town, says Cacioppo.
“Foreigners are flocking here, flabbergasted by all this beauty,” he says. “Some 10 houses have already been sold. Dozens of others are available but badly in need of a makeover. We’ve been contacted by people from Switzerland, France and Spain and are receiving many requests.”
He hopes newcomers will help breathe new life into the town, boosting the local economy and preserving the architectural jewels.
It’ll take some work, though. The abandoned houses on offer are filled with piles of broken stones and forgotten furniture, covered in cobwebs.
The town’s deputy mayor says Sambuca is an “idyllic retreat.”
Courtesy Franco Alloro
Susanna Heinson, from Germany, has already purchased a house and is restyling it, anxious to move in.
“I can’t wait to spend next summer in Sambuca,” she says. “It’s a lovely, special place. The people are very open-minded and friendly. Good restaurants, great wineries. We feel at home.”
She says she’s happy the recovery of the Saracen neighborhood will help to preserve the original face of Sicily and feels “proud to be a part of this.”
The revival is already underway.
Sambuca was nominated in the 2016 Italy’s Most Beautiful Towns contest and there are plans to open a “diffuse,” scattered hotel to help newcomers experience the thrill of blending in with local village life and mingling with residents.
Sambuca’s prime location is one of the biggest selling points.
The countryside is dotted with ruins of pagan temples and Arab lookout towers. Trekking routes lead up to the rocky peak of the nearby Genuardo mountain and its Greek necropolis of Adranon, a hotspot for mushroom foraging.
The mesmerizing archaeological site of Selinunte and the Valley of the Temples are also just a stone’s throw away.
Food and wine
Sambuca’s architecture is a patchwork of Arab and Baroque styles.
And then there’s the wine. Made in the area since the time of the ancient Greeks, Sambuca now has vast vineyards stretching all the way to the sea.
This is where the renaissance of elite Sicilian wine started.
Niche red grapevines — mainly Nero d’Avola — are grown in estates surrounding Lago Arancio, an artificial lake where low water levels in summer sometimes expose the ruins of an Arab fortress.
Non-local grapes such as Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay have recently been planted to make premium bottles exported worldwide.
This being Italy, there’s also the attraction of the local food. Anyone staying here should be prepared to stretch their waistline.
Sambuca is called “Sicily’s barn” for its huge amount of grain production.
Old millstones still make bread and pasta using traditional methods and ancient Saracen black wheat varieties, such as sweet-flavored Tumminia.
Signature dishes include busiate short pasta with qualeddu (a wild large leaf yellow flower), sausages and breadcrumbs, and macco di fave dried beans soup with wild fennel.
Cucciddatu is a doughnut with pepper, cheese and sausages.
Grandmother-recipe omelettes are made with blue borage flowers and lemon.
Vastedda is a special string cheese of sheep milk, flat as a pizza.
The sweet-toothed can indulge in almond cupcakes and cassateddi, fried sweet ricotta-filled ravioli covered in sprinkled sugar.
“Imagine having breakfast each morning with one of these cakes: who wouldn’t drool at the simple thought?” says Cacioppo.
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