By Nick Squires
The population of an Italian mountain village is down to just one elderly woman, highlighting an exodus from rural areas that has resulted in hamlets being abandoned across the country.
Hundreds of villages are empty or on the verge of being forsaken, with some of them 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 wistfully remembers happier times 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 passed away more than 20 years ago and her last surviving sister died last year.
She may be the village’s sole resident but she loves the solitude. “The silence is wonderful, especially at night,” she told La Stampa newspaper. “You don’t hear so much as a car. Outside it is completely dark, but up above the sky is scattered with thousands of stars.”
Casali Socraggio is just one of hundreds of villages in Italy where the population has dwindled in the decades since World War II. Migration abroad, and internal movement from the poverty-stricken south to the factories of the wealthier north, have left many settlements struggling to survive.
A report last year found that a third of Italy’s villages face depopulation. One inhabitant in seven has left villages in the past 25 years, according to one study. The exodus of young people has meant that the number of inhabitants aged over 65 has risen by 83 per cent.
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 577,000 babies in 2008 but only 473,000 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 just one euro each.
Other villages are looking to the tens of thousands of migrants pouring into 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.”