Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

THE population of an Italian mountain village is down to just one elderly woman, highlighting an exodus from rural areas that has left hamlets across the country abandoned.

Thousands of villages are empty or on the verge of being forsaken, with some being offered for sale to foreign buyers in search of second homes.

Paolina Grassi, 90, is now the sole inhabitant of Casali Socraggio, a collection of slate-roofed houses in a valley on the border with Switzerland. Born in 1926, she has lived all her life in the hamlet and remembers when the village bustled with life.

"There was a restaurant, a shop, a bakery and an elementary school. In my class there were 36 children. When I was born, three families had 10 kids each," said Grassi, who is the youngest of five sisters. Her husband died more than 20 years ago and her last surviving sister died last year.

She loves the solitude. "The silence is wonderful, especially at night," she told La Stampa. "You don't hear so much as a car. Outside it is completely dark, but the sky is scattered with thousands of stars."

Casali Socraggio is just one of thousands of villages in Italy where the population has dwindled since World War 2. Migration abroad, and internal movement from the poverty-stricken south to the factories of the wealthier north, have left many settlements struggling.

A report last year found that a third of Italy's villages face depopulation. One inhabitant in seven has left their village in the past 25 years, according to one study. The exodus of young people has meant that 83% of inhabitants are over 65.

Nearly 2 500 villages are at risk of turning into ghost communities, according to the report, which was compiled with the help of the National Association of Italian Councils.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. A report released this week by the national statistics office showed that Italians had 577000 babies in 2008 but only 473000 in 2016.

In an attempt to remain viable, some villages are offering houses for sale at rock-bottom prices, including Gangi in Sicily, which put dilapidated homes up for sale for about R14 each. Other villages are looking to the tens of thousands of migrants arriving in Italy from Africa. Acquaformosa, in Calabria, is one of several communities that have invited refugees to settle in empty homes.

Back in the mountains of northern Italy, Grassi has no desire to leave the valley in which she grew up. "I hope my legs will hold out until the end," she said. "I don't want to end up in a nursing home. It would be like a prison."

The Daily Telegraph, London

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