Since arriving in Italy four years ago — and discovering the Borghi Più Belli account on Instagram — I’ve used the list as an occasional compass for my travels, a guide to the country’s hinterland. And I can confirm: the cities are magnificent. They are located, for the most part, far from the tourist trails. They tend to look like little crumbling time capsules – often set around the ruins of a castle, almost always with a good trattoria. Some of the cities, built centuries ago for defensive purposes, are perched so high on hills or mountains that they look more like apparitions, and among their wonders roads have been built to reach them.
So far I’ve visited dozens of hill towns across Italy, including 20 on the most beautiful list, and I often feel like their people are the brave last resisters, fighting for something. which is already half gone.
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No matter the size of the village, they host summer festivals and concerts that last well into the night. They offer daily gatherings for cards and aperitifs in the central plaza.
But there are also so many abandoned houses, the result of more than a century of rural depopulation. Who wouldn’t want to live in a storybook medieval town on a hill? But also: how many of us actually could?
So when I learned that the Borghi Più Belli association was organizing its national festival, I had to go. It was held this year in Abbateggio, a village in the Abruzzo region nestled behind Italy’s central mountain range, at the gates of a national park.
As soon as I got out of the car, the city was fully alive. Music and laughter echoed over the stone houses. The front doors have been opened revealing shops selling locally made goods digestive, olive oil and local cereals; there was even an art gallery. Mayors and visitors from other prettiest villages made the rounds, and an 86-year-old sat on a bench playing the accordion, right next to a bottle of chianti, with pours offered to everyone who stopped.
With enthusiasm, another man from Abbateggio, Giacinto De Thomasis, showed me around the oldest part of the village, cutting here and there, through small passages that he said he knew from having played hide and seek. – hides in his childhood. We arrived at a narrow stairwell that separated two houses, and at the end of the stairs there was nothing but a drop and a green panorama – the end of the city. De Thomasis pointed to the fortified exterior of the village.
“This area,” he said, “was once a castle.”
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But regardless, the houses on either side of the stairwell were now in disrepair. Same with a house across the street, its old wooden door ajar, decades of rubble inside. Up and down the street hung For Sale signs, and even properties that looked tidy from the outside, De Thomasis said, were nothing more than “shells”.
“No water. No electricity. Unlivable,” he said.
He knew this because he was looking to buy. And he was looking to buy because he hadn’t lived in Abbateggio for decades – having been effectively forced to leave, aged 19, by a shortage of available jobs. He instead moved to Montreal, where he spent his adult life and raised his family, while yearning so much for Abbateggio that he returned to visit 43 times. His home village, he said, had become quieter over the years. The butcher had left. Same at the supermarket. Even the art gallery and olive oil shops were only temporary.
They had been set up just for the festival in otherwise empty buildings.
As sunset approached, much of the city – along with visitors – gathered in a central plaza, where lights hung near a red-carpeted stage. The mayors wore their red, white and green sashes. The local archbishop stood among the dignitaries. And then the president of Borghi Più Belli, Fiorello Primi, took the podium.
What he wanted above all in these villages, he said, was to create a future “where people have a chance”.
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Primi had the idea for the Borghi Più Belli association when he was mayor of the Umbrian village of Castiglione del Lago. The idea was to attract tourism. He and other mayors were tired of looking sideways as attention and resources poured into Florence, Rome and the Amalfi Coast.
But as they form committees, write a charter and select the first 54 cities, the idea becomes more pressing. Cities were losing people. And one thing the band agreed on was that beauty depends on having a community.
Today, one of the explicit objectives of the group is to avoid depopulation.
Primi said the efforts were working — to some extent. In an interview on Lamb Kebabs, he said the 334 cities were in a demographic stall, not a decline. In other words, they were doing better than the average Italian village. But even some of the nicest cities — especially in the poorer south — had problems. And there were countless other cities that didn’t meet the standards to be recognized and would never get the boost. When cities are named the most beautiful, Primi said, property values tend to rise.
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So what does it mean to be the most beautiful? The Borghi Piu Belli association has a technical answer. A city is only eligible if at least 70% of the buildings in its historic center pre-date 1939. There must be a “harmony” of roofing materials and decorative elements. There are 72 parameters in total, dealing with community and historical aspects, and a scientific technical committee that evaluates the offers.
In some cases, cities can temporarily obtain the most beautiful status, provided that they make certain changes, such as making their historic centers car-free, for example. They are started if they do not follow up. As part of the final evaluation of a municipality’s application file, an expert from the association visits the premises.
The acceptance rate is around 40%.
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The beauty of Italy goes that far.
But there are also other ways of understanding beauty, and later in the evening, when the association organized a round table on Belleza, I snuck through the streets of Abbateggio and dove into the olive oil shop. A small crowd was tasting wine and oil washed down with bread. The man offering the samples caught my eye, because he was buzzing with energy, and after I introduced myself as a reporter, his ideas started flowing – fast enough for me to pause.
We agreed to meet the next morning.
The night, he said, was just a “taste” of what Abbateggio could become.
The next morning the crowd was gone. It was as if the stores had never existed. Apart from two passing cyclists, the only activity was at the highest point of the village, the café, where I met Bernardo Lecci, 51, and Donato Parete, 53.
They were a curious duo – Parete, a wealthy Milanese investor in cufflinks; Lecci, a rich, curly-haired merchant whose main occupation at present was advising Parete on how to use his money. Lecci had spent much of his career in the elegant northern town of Treviso, working for fashion label Benetton. Now he spent some of his nights on a folding bed in Abbateggio, and he no longer considered himself a visitor.
They had big plans for the city, they said.
Parete’s father, Ermando, was born in the village. After Ermando died in 2016 and after Parete himself became a father, he began to feel the urge to connect with his family past. So he arrived in Abbateggio and started buying houses – one, two, three… 12 in all. He also helped save the town’s cafe, which closed last year with no plans to reopen.
Together with Lecci, he began to imagine other ways to revive the village – ideas that were still mainly conceptual. Perhaps, he says, they could recruit university researchers interested in the mountain environment. Maybe they could attract digital nomads. Maybe they could use some of their properties for a hotel – rooms scattered around different buildings around town.
Parete said it would be a “lifetime” project.
Because right now Abbateggio doesn’t have much to offer visitors. It doesn’t even have the required trattoria.
Lecci showed me around all 12 properties and many in my opinion would need major restoration work. One was nothing more than a living room, frozen in time from a decade earlier, with a dusty television console, green bottles, and a small picture of Jesus. Yet another – which Lecci said they had their sights set on buying – appeared to have been hastily abandoned: a suitcase on the floor was half open, stuffed full of clothes. One side of the house was just a pile of furniture, broken like matches.
But I’m the kind of person who would be deterred by the work of such projects; Lecci is not. He’s already spent months trying to find the best neighborhoods in and around Abbateggio. He is enthusiastic about the local olives and the neighboring women who sell him cheese. He says the macellar 24 kilometers away is the “Tiffany’s of Butchers”. He loved a regional microbrewery so much that he stocked it at the local cafe.
And with the properties, he can also see the potential.
“With a little imagination…” he repeated, opening one door after another.
“I know it’s ugly right now, but…”
We crossed a few narrower streets and arrived at one last place on the tour, a courtyard hidden from the rest of the village. Some of the surrounding windows gave glimpses of the cobwebbed husks of empty houses, their exteriors crumbling away, revealing even older stones — layer upon layer of history. But Lecci was not thinking of the past. He thought of the future, and of a yard one day full of tables.
Maybe for tea, maybe for coffee.
“For the people,” he says.