SAMBUCA, Italy – Tempted by the deal offering homes for just over $1 in the town of Sambuca on Italy’s island of Sicily?
You and everyone else.
Since CNN Travel broke the news about the €1 ($1.14) offer aimed at revitalizing a beautiful but depopulated community, there’s been a stampede to buy.
Within 48 hours of the story going live, the town has been inundated with tens of thousands of inquiries from people hoping to grab their piece of the rural Italian dream.
Giuseppe Cacioppo, the town’s deputy mayor, says he’s excited by the level of interest, but is freaking out.
“This is great, I’m flabbergasted by the response,” he says. “I haven’t come up for air since the story appeared.
“It’s just been a few days, and I’m already under stress. The €1 houses’ email inbox is full, so people have been calling me on my mobile. It hasn’t stopped ringing. I have received something like a thousand phone calls, I hope not to go nuts.”
The deputy mayor says the constant phone calls mean he hasn’t been able to sleep. He’s struggling to juggle his institutional role, private job and this new unexpected PR gig.
As of Friday, the town had received 38,000 emails about its deal, which requires buyers to promise to spend up to $17,200 to renovate their new Sicilian homes.
“The whole world has got in touch,” Cacioppo adds. “Callers are from Europe, mainly Spain, Russia, and as far as South Africa, Australia, USA, the Arab Emirates.”
And it’s not just individuals and tourists lured by a dream house in sunny Sicily.
“A team of US lawyers, working for an American company interested in doing real estate business in Sambuca, wants to meet up with us,” says Cacioppo.
“A businessman from New York just called me, saying he’s flying to Sicily tonight.
“And a very rich lady called from Dubai. She wouldn’t say her name or who she works for, but wants the whole package. She wants to buy all the dozens of €1 houses on sale.”
Cacioppo says he’s delighted the article has triggered such global interest but won’t be able to satisfy all incoming requests.
Language barriers are making it all the more harder.
“That story has killed me,” he jokes. “My English is OK — not great — but with other languages I must admit I have a hard time understanding what I’m being asked.
“It’s not easy talking to people on the other side of the world over the phone.”
Cacioppo says newspapers and TV outlets have gotten in touch with him, including Italy’s state broadcaster, RAI, which had no idea of the initiative until CNN reported it. The Italian network now plans to run a special coverage on Sambuca.
Susanne Heinson, a German woman who has already bought a home in Sambuca and was quoted in CNN’s original article about what makes it such a “great, perfect place to live in,” says she’s been tracked online by interested buyers and national German media.
“People get in touch to have more info about the location, what Sambuca is like, how’s the lifestyle there,” she says. “Many ask me to liaise with the town authorities and put them through to Cacioppo. Now I’m just worried Sambuca will stop being a niche place and that flocks of foreigners will arrive.”
Many interested buyers have also targeted CNN’s reporter via social media out of desperation to get a slice of the Sambuca action.
One woman from the United States implored: “Please, can you forward me the phone number of Cacioppo? I need to buy a house in Sambuca. I need to buy it NOW!”
City of Splendor
There is a catch to the jaw-dropping offer, however. The new owners must commit to refurbish their choice of the crumbling 40- to 150-square meter dwellings within three years, at a cost starting from €15,000 (about $17,200).
They’ll also need to cough up a €5,000 security deposit that will be returned once the restyle is complete.
Buyers won’t be disappointed, says Cacioppo.
“Sambuca is known as the City of Splendor,” he adds. “This fertile patch of land is dubbed the Earthly Paradise. We’re located inside a natural reserve, packed with history. Gorgeous beaches, woods and mountains surround us. It’s silent and peaceful, an idyllic retreat for a detox stay.”
With the population dwindling, Cacioppo says the town needs outsiders to prevent it falling into ruin.
“We can’t afford to lose our lovely Arab heritage. Luckily, foreigners are lending a hand in this rescue crusade.”
Founded by the Ancient Greeks, Sambuca was later conquered by Saracens who turned it into a flourishing trade center.
The town is named after the Emir Al Zabut, aka the Splendid One. It’s an open-air museum, a patchwork of contrasting architectural styles.
Churches with round Arab-looking domes sit next to Baroque palazzos with glazed tile floors, decorated with smiling cherubs, fearsome gargoyles, twisted columns, allegorical statues and coats of arms.
This is where Sicily’s Arab soul lies. Most houses on sale are located within the “Saracen District,” a kasbah maze of arcaded stone portals and winding narrow alleys (less than a meter wide) through which people squeeze.
Guardian of the valley
The two-story Moorish dwellings, built with pink-reddish stones that glow at sunset, feature inner courtyards, lavish palm gardens with orange and mandarin trees, arcaded entrances, flowery majolica staircases, typical Sicilian tile roofs and terraces overlooking the stunning scenery.
On clear days it’s possible to see Sicily’s Mt. Etna volcano and the distant island of Pantelleria from the Belvedere Terrace, where Al Zabut’s lavish palace once stood as the “guardian of the valley.”
Zabut’s legacy is strong. Streets and local surnames are Arab-sounding. There are couscous cooking classes and Moorish costume parties.
Sambuca’s charm lies also underground, in its “sunken city,” Cacioppo organizes guided tours through the labyrinth of purrere, the holes and caves of old sandstone quarries. Most houses come with private grotto access.
The ghosts of Saracen soldiers slaughtered by the Christians are said to haunt the caves and district at night — there’s even one street called The Phantom — but so far there’ve been no spooky sightings.
Susanna Heinson, from Germany, has already purchased a house and is restyling it, anxious to move in.
“I can’t wait to spend next summer in Sambuca,” she says. “It’s a lovely, special place. The people are very open-minded and friendly. Good restaurants, great wineries. We feel at home.”
She says she’s happy the recovery of the Saracen neighborhood will help to preserve the original face of Sicily and feels “proud to be a part of this.”
The revival is already underway.
Sambuca was nominated in the 2016 Italy’s Most Beautiful Towns contest and there are plans to open a “diffuse,” scattered hotels to help newcomers experience the thrill of blending in with local village life and mingling with residents.
Sambuca’s prime location is one of the biggest selling points.
The countryside is dotted with ruins of pagan temples and Arab lookout towers. Trekking routes lead up to the rocky peak of the nearby Genuardo mountain and its Greek necropolis of Adranon, a hotspot for mushroom foraging.
The mesmerizing archaeological site of Selinunte and the Valley of the Temples are also just a stone’s throw away.
Food and wine
And then there’s the wine. Made in the area since the time of the ancient Greeks, Sambuca now has vast vineyards stretching all the way to the sea.
This is where the renaissance of elite Sicilian wine started.
Niche red grapevines — mainly Nero d’Avola — are grown in estates surrounding Lago Arancio, an artificial lake where low water levels in summer sometimes expose the ruins of an Arab fortress.
Non-local grapes such as Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay have recently been planted to make premium bottles exported worldwide.
This being Italy, there’s also the attraction of the local food. Anyone staying here should be prepared to stretch their waistline.
Sambuca is called “Sicily’s barn” for its huge amount of grain production.
Old millstones still make bread and pasta using traditional methods and ancient Saracen black wheat varieties, such as sweet-flavored Tumminia.
Signature dishes include busiate short pasta with qualeddu (a wild large leaf yellow flower), sausages and breadcrumbs, and macco di favedried beans soup with wild fennel.
Cucciddatu is a doughnut with pepper, cheese and sausages.
Grandmother-recipe omelettes are made with blue borage flowers and lemon.
Vastedda is a special string cheese of sheep milk, flat as a pizza.
The sweet-toothed can indulge in almond cupcakes and cassateddi, fried sweet ricotta-filled ravioli covered in sprinkled sugar.
“Imagine having breakfast each morning with one of these cakes: who wouldn’t drool at the simple thought?” says Cacioppo.