It starts with an online advert or two. It’s a more hopeful time when no one’s heard of a virus called Covid.
Cheap flights are making weekend trips to the sun more and more popular.
But getting on the UK property ladder is becoming harder than ever. So the ads promising an Italian house for one euro sound far too good to be true.That doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people from visiting the websites. And when they do, they find the tiny, rundown homes really do exist. So would-be buyers start booking flights and appointments with estate agents, heading for picturesque villages in their droves.Five years on, I’m following in their footsteps. The world has been reshaped by the virus and these days there are far fewer flights to choose from and a mountain of tests and paperwork.Maybe those hurdles make the sunlit hills of central Sicily feel even more magical. Even in the depths of January the medieval town of Mussomeli is bathed in light.
It’s also incredibly quiet. Just the odd battered Fiat rumbling up a cobbled street, pigeons bickering on broken roof tiles and the peal of church bells marking out each hour. Christmas has been and gone, Omicron is starting to take hold and many Italians are staying at home. But like other southern towns and villages, life has been draining away from this place for a while. Over the last two decades, more than a million Italians have left their homes in rural areas to find jobs in the cities of the North and around the world.How do you breathe life back into a place where one in four homes lie empty and abandoned? Where shops, restaurants and even schools desperately need more people, to stay open?Faced with those dwindling populations, local mayors started thinking big and the home for one euro was born. The scheme hasn’t worked everywhere. But in Mussomeli, they’ve sold more than 250 houses. I’m curious to find out why they’ve succeeded where others have failed.Oh and seduced by the early winter sun and two years all but confined to the UK, there may also be a euro burning a hole in my pocket....I’m meeting the town’s deputy mayor, the endearingly enthusiastic Toti Negrolli. We set up a camera next to a bench in the old square for our interview. It’s a disaster.Everyone knows Toti and wants to stop for a chat. This is no place for solitude.
Mussomeli's deputy mayor, Toti Negrolli, says the project is needed to encourage more people to the town.
But from the driver who stops on our first night and takes a detour to guide us through the twisting streets to our hotel, to Frank the local businessman who brings us a steady stream of homemade espressos, this place has a kindness that seems to belong to earlier times.The old town, strung with lines of washing between colourful, crumbling buildings is impossibly romantic. But Mussomeli turns out to be pretty pragmatic too.Other towns in Italy might sell you house for a euro but the deeds will be accompanied by a long list of conditions. Not here. Toti tells me there are very few rules. You don’t have to move to the town permanently. There is no minimum spend on renovation and you don’t have to employ local builders. You can turn your house into a holiday home, rent it out or convert it into a business.You can do what you like within your own walls but the external facade must be in keeping with the old town. You will also have to add to your one euro bill of around 3 thousand more in taxes and legal fees. There is a deadline of three years to complete renovations but Totti explains there is a bit of flexibility on that because of the constraints of the pandemic.Despite its isolated position, an hour from the beach, high up in the hills, there’s a hospital here, schools, the odd supermarket and fast WiFi is coming.
In contrast, many of the one euro homes on offer really are wrecks. We see walls buckling, floors covered in undergrowth and worse, missing window frames and gaping holes in roofs. But there are also ancient beams, magical views, tiled fireplaces, and glass fanlights over solid wooden doors.The reality is you’d need a lot more than one euro to make these places habitable. Many who have travelled here have done the maths and bought a place in need of much less work for 7 or 8 thousand euros.It's simply more cost effective.So the one euro home might be a myth. But in Mussomeli it's also a magnet. This place, despite its stunning castle, used to attract just 300 visitors a year. The ads promising the property bargain of a lifetime have turned that number into 3000.That boom in tourism alone is providing enough business for two new hotels and boosting the town's existing restaurants and bars. It's put this friendly hilltop town on the map.And staring a grey February in the face back at home, I’m still dreaming about parting with that euro.
Watch On Assignment on ITV at 10.45pm on Tuesday February 1.