A lonely minaret juts into the air above the remnants of a once-luxurious shopping center in a northern Italian town built by an eccentric developer as the “City of Toys.”
The town of Consonno, once a sleepy farming village about an hour’s drive north of Milan, was bought up, razed, and redeveloped in the 1960s by entrepreneur Mario Bagno, who hoped to turn it into something resembling Las Vegas.
But in 1976, just a few years after the opening of this adult playground at the foot of the Alps, a landslide destroyed the entry road, turning Bagno’s dream into a ghost town. In recent years, the village has been the site of underground raves, two international hide-and-seek championships, and the explorations of tourists drawn by the eerie charm of Italy’s abandoned villages.
Italy’s most famous tourist sites are its ancient ruins, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that some of its most striking, off the beaten track locales are its ghost towns.
Each village has its own story of abandonment. Some were deserted after natural disasters, their populations fleeing earthquakes, landslides, and floods. Others emptied for economic reasons—the closing of a mine, building of an alternate road, or an exodus from the countryside to cities in search of better job opportunities.
Many of the deserted villages are set in areas of breathtaking natural beauty—perched along scenic coastlines and set high on cliffs—like Sardinia’s abandoned mining towns or the medieval town of Craco, emptied in the late 20th century due to landslides.
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Italy’s “ghost houses” are believed to number in the thousands—some abandoned entirely, others with a few stubborn residents hanging on after their neighbors have fled. A 2007 effort launched by the Italian government to map unregistered properties discovered about two million parcels of land with unregistered ghost houses, with the heaviest concentration in the country’s economically depressed south.
In recent years, dwindling municipalities have tried a variety of tactics to beef up their populations. The medieval Tuscan village of Pratariccia, abandoned as its inhabitants sought jobs in the city, was posted for sale on eBay. The Guardian reported the mayor of Bormida floated the idea of giving 2,000 euros to anyone who would move there. The town of Ollalai offered houses for sale for one euro each, according to CNN.
It’s impossible to predict whether these ploys will prevent them from going the way of the ghost villages. In the meantime, curious travelers can wander through the remnants of Italy’s abandoned towns and imagine what life there once was like.