CASTLES IN THE AIR

Italy Is Giving Away Free Castles

But there’s a catch…

ROME—Ever thought about giving up everything and moving to Italy to live in a castle, if only it were free? Well, then Italy’s state property agency has got the online brochure for you. Go ahead, take a look and start dreaming. There’s a majestic castle with its own clock tower available in along the Francigena pilgrim trail in Viterbo on page 179. How about a former convent near the Amalfi Coast on page 193?

Due to an abundance of rundown treasures the state can no longer afford to keep up, Italy is offering up 103 free farmhouses, castles, towers, convents, monasteries and villas.

There is, of course, a catch—or two. You can’t just fix up the rundown ruins for yourself. To acquire the property, you have to promise to develop it into a tourist entity. You can turn it into a hotel or spa, a restaurant or a special spot catering to pilgrims or cyclists. And the properties have to be returned to their former glory, which means no lofts added on to the turrets and no sun rooms on the windowless castles.

The state’s Tourism Ministry will help judge the proposals and give all winning entrepreneurs a nine-year free lease to realize the dream, which will probably take at least that long given Italy’s notorious time frames when it comes to construction. The new owners will have to pay for all the materials and labor, and will not be given any tax breaks or special dispensation for expenses. People under 40 will be given preferential treatment in the bid.

The properties are spread across the country, but none are in high traffic tourist towns. There are 27 in Puglia and Basilicata, eight on the island of Sardinia and seven in Sicily.

The idea is to promote the “slow tourism” sector, according to Roberto Reggi, the agent with the State Property Agency who is in charge of showing the properties and collecting proposals. “The goal is for private and public buildings which are no longer used to be transformed into facilities for pilgrims, hikers, tourists, and cyclists,” he said when he announced the project this week.

Almost half of the properties are along established pilgrim routes and hiking trails, including the ancient Appian Way and the Via Francigena, which used to take Catholic pilgrims from Rome to Canterbury.  Others are along cycling trails the country is trying to develop.

This is not the first time Italy has tried to unload disused property to get private owners to develop it. In 2015, they sold off a string of lighthouses and fortresses along the country’s coast line. Thirty of the lighthouses were sold, which are now being developed. In 2013, Italy also tried to sell off 50 of its most famous landmarks, including Castello Odescalch outside of Rome where Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were wed. Only a few of those properties were sold.

In 2008, the Sicilian community of Salemi tried a similar scheme by selling properties for €1. They had tried to attract foreign buyers but the bureaucracy proved too daunting for most. Instead, many were bought up by local crime families who cut corners and exploited the program. In 2012, the Salemi city council was dissolved due to Mafia infiltration and most of the houses are abandoned once again.

This is the first time Italy has offered up so many properties for free, and they have already had a lot of interest, says Reggi, who says they received hundreds of calls and emails in the first few days since the online brochure was published.