Italian town Ollolai sells $1 homes to lure new residents
Posted January 17, 2018 7:04 a.m. EST
(CNN) — Ever dreamed of owning a home in a pretty Italian village? The news you've been waiting for has finally arrived.
You can now buy one for just over a dollar.
Ollolai, a destination in the mountain region of Barbagia on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, is selling hundreds of abandoned homes for just €1 ($1.2).
It's not the first Italian town to try the gimmick, but it seems to be the first to live up to the promise. It's also got the beauty and history needed to draw people in.
The real estate bonanza comes with a catch, though. The 200 stone-built dwellings up for grabs are in poor condition and buyers must commit to a refurbishment within three years -- which will likely cost about $25,000.
Behind the sell-off is a plan to rejuvenate a community at risk of becoming a ghost town. In the past half century, Ollolai's population has shrunk from 2,250 to 1,300, with only a handful of babies born each year.
"We boast prehistoric origins," says Efisio Arbau, Ollolai's mayor. "My crusade is to rescue our unique traditions from falling into oblivion.
"Pride in our past is our strength. We've always been tough people and won't allow our town to die."
Formerly Barbagia's capital, Ollolai remains the most untouched and authentic patch of Sardinia.
Once buzzing, its maze of alleys and mural-covered piazzas are now silent, as younger residents have been lured away to bigger cities.
Abandoned by the families who once occupied them, many stone dwellings have been lying in ruin, covered in cobwebs, for decades.
Some traditional ways of life survive. Local shepherds continue to make the exquisite premium sheep cheese, Casu Fiore Sardo, that the area is known for, while artisans still weave fine baskets.
Arbau likens the town's struggles to its olden day battles.
"We once had a fiery king, Dux Ospitone, who united all heathen tribes in a league," he adds. "Our pagan ancestors never succumbed to the ancient Roman conquerors, who dubbed us 'barbarians.'
"These hills are Italy's 'Highlands' and we are sons of 'Bravehearts.'"
Now Ollolai, which takes its name from an ancient battle cry of "alalé," is fighting back once again.
In a bid to breathe new life into the town, Arbau contacted former home owners -- shepherds, farmers and craftsmen -- asking them to sign the homes over to town authorities.
"They're picturesque old buildings made with Sardinia's typical gray granite rock that grows on mountain peaks and shores," says Arbau.
"We need to bring our grandmas' homes back from the grave."
He approved a special decree and placed the properties on the market, at bargain prices, in 2017.
Despite their poor conditions, three houses have already been sold and Arbau says he's received more than 100 purchase requests from across the world, including Russia and Australia.
The mayor hopes the refurbishment of the homes will help create new jobs and revive the local economy.
Frozen in time
Vito Casula, a retired builder, was the first to snap up a two-story house for less than the cost of a cappuccino.
He transformed his new home using environmentally friendly materials, but kept the original decor, recycling old furniture.
"We live nearby and frequently visited Ollolai. Then one day my wife saw the ad in the newspaper. It was an opportunity," says Casula. "This quiet town is frozen in time. It offers a peaceful, healthy life."
He recommends the village to anyone who "is sick with too much stress and needs a break."
"The fresh air, zero smog and great views have a healing power. My bones and back don't hurt anymore," he adds.
Casula says Ollolai's relaxing vibe, delicious cuisine and friendly locals are among its top selling points.
"Residents are so open and friendly they make you feel at home. They never allow me to pay for anything at the bar and constantly invite us over for lunch and dinner," he adds.
Homemade specialties include su pane vratau, made of layers of flat crispy carasau bread soaked in water, tomato sauce, poached eggs and grated Fiore sheep cheese.
There's also su pistiddu, an autumn cake made of coffee, nuts, almonds, semolina, hazelnuts, raisins and sapa grape syrup.
Local delicacy porceddu (roasted baby piglet), is cooked on a bonfire, skewered on huge vertical spits and placed on burning charcoals.
In fall, cortes apertas (open courtyards) sees stables and ancient granite-and-turf taverns open to the public, offering crazily good wine, ham, cheese and a few other delicacies.
Other town events include a carnival where participants wear costumes including goat-style masks with horns, fur and dangling bells or white embroidered face veils that symbolize the union of death and life.
Newcomers can also explore folklore events and archaic rituals such as the "s'istrumpa," a tussle where players must toss their opponent to the ground to win the town's respect.
Steeped in superstition, Ollolai is a place where women make amulets to ward off bad luck and residents' cars carry written prayers to keep evil at bay.
Sardinia's 'primitive heart'
The village regularly attracts travelers looking for a quiet, sunny retreat,
The 1,200-meter-high peak Nodu de S'Aschisorgu (the Treasure Rock) boasts a spectacular 360-degree view of the island, while Ollolai's surrounding lakes, rivers, protected parks, oak and beech tree forests are dotted with cone-shaped primitive settlements called nuraghi.
And while it may be a long way away from Sardinia's luxury beaches, Ollolai is still close to shimmering pristine seas.
A one-hour car drive takes you to the breathtaking cliffs of Cala Gonone, with stunning sea grottoes perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Arbau is also introducing activities like cheese, pasta and basket making courses, alongside dialect lessons to keep newcomers busy.
"Our language is hard to understand, even for Sardinians, but we know foreigners love to mingle. This is also a social experiment," he says.
Only time will tell if the mayor's gamble has paid off, but locals are excited and interest in the town is growing.
In fact, a reality show centered around a group of Dutch families as they set up in Ollolai and restore some of the houses is expected to launch in May.