GANGI, Italy (AFP) - It's an offer you can't refuse: rustic abodes in a picturesque hilltop village on the island of Sicily, once home to Italian peasants and their donkeys, are up for sale for just one euro (S$1.70).
Hewn into the Madonie mountains and dotted throughout the town of Gangi, the houses were left empty after their owners emigrated in the 1920s. They boast period features such as 18th-century tiles, original wood-burning ovens and wooden beams, along with spectacular views.
Around 20 houses are on sale for one euro, with another 300 or so going for up to 15,000 euros in an initiative the village hopes will reverse decades of population decline and boost the local economy even as Italy falls back into recession.
Buyers must put down a guarantee of 5,000 euros for the council to ensure they renovate the properties within three years, with the cost estimated at 20,000 euros to make the homes habitable - more for those that need re-roofing.
Australian film director Dominic Allen is one of a crowd of potential buyers from the United States, Britain, Dubai and Sweden who have rushed to Gangi to snap up a bargain and transform the sparse living spaces and animal stalls into summer homes.
"You couldn't buy a parking space in Australia for the price of this house," Allen said, gazing around a narrow three-storey building with a rudimentary kitchen cut out of the rocks and views of wheat fields and woods in the valley below.
"In many ways if you like the Italian lifestyle and you're into a bit of adventure, it seems like a fun thing to do," said the 33-year-old, who was looking for a place he could use with friends or rent out to tourists.
Sheltering from the harsh midday sun under the arches of a medieval tower in the town centre, Cataldo Piazza, 83, said he was delighted to see families of Italian and foreign tourists filling the streets, drawn by the one-euro offer.
"There were times you'd go for a walk in the centre in the evening and not meet anybody. It was sad," he said, fanning himself with his straw hat.
'Ready to invest'
Mass emigration from Sicily at the start of the last century and following World War II saw around 9,000 locals leave Gangi for new lives in Argentina or the United States - driven away by poverty, lawlessness and sickness.
In 1926, renowned mafia-hunter Cesare Mori and his men famously held the village under siege to flush out the notorious Andaloro-Ferrarello gang. The crackdown spooked other bosses, sparking an exodus of wanted fugitives to other lands. The locals left behind struggled to keep the economy going, with many artisans or builders forced to seek work in the city of Palermo, about an hour away by car.
"The one-euro initiative is great because it will help repopulate the village, bring it back to life, and hopefully not just for the summer," Piazza said.
Many of the houses need extensive repairs, including new roofs, staircases or floors - jobs eagerly snapped up by local contractors. Mayor Giuseppe Ferrarello says the village, founded in the 12th century, may not be close to the sea, but it prides itself instead on its mountain air, hospitality and food, with local specialities including peppered goats cheese and homemade pasta with broad beans.
This year it won first prize in a nationwide competition for most beautiful historic hamlet.
Ferrarello admits foreign buyers may bring unwanted change, with souvenir shops pushing out traditional markets or the small trattorias tucked away between the cream stone churches, but he says the locals "understand this could be our turning point economically."
"The important thing for our elderly citizens, our parents, is that young people stop leaving. We're showing we can create tourism even in the middle of Sicily during an economic crisis. I hope we can be a model for the whole island," he said.
Australian IT manager Tavia Macnaughtan said she "hopped straight on a plane" when she heard about the one-euro offer, and fell in love with Gangi.
"I thought I'd found my perfect house, but it really was too rundown for me," she said, but insisted: "I'm still ready to invest in something."
"The houses might need quite a bit of renovation but buying one here could provide the perfect escape from the Melbourne winter," she said.