Feel as if your vast apartment or even more spacious mansion is cramping your style? Then, suggests Gary Jones, why not upsize to something even more expansive?
Declining populations in some of southern Europe’s most appealing destinations mean it’s now relatively routine to read of sun-bleached stone cottages in idyllic Italian hilltop communes and rustic, fixer-upper farmhouses in medieval Spanish mountain towns coming on to market for significantly less than the price of a few square feet of Singapore real estate – and occasionally for small change that wouldn’t even buy an espresso.
In Spain, the phenomenon has been dubbed la España vacía, or “empty Spain”, with the number of abandoned villages estimated to be ticking up by one every week. More than 3,000 once-thriving communities in rural Galicia, in the north of the country, have been abandoned, decimated by a low birth rate and fast-ageing society, as well as a lack of opportunities that’s seen younger folk migrate to cities and other EU countries looking for work.
And things are just as troubling across the Mediterranean, in rural Italy, which is also suffering a demographic time bomb. In 2019, for the first time in close to a century, Italy’s population fell to about 55 million, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, plummeting by an astonishing 677,000 in the previous four years.
In the hope of breathing new life into “ghost” towns, such as Salemi, Gangi and Sambuca on the Italian island of Sicily, desperate local authorities began auctioning off abandoned homes at starting prices of just €1 (S$1.60) in recent years. And occasionally, rather than attempt to flog such European communities piecemeal, entire villages and hamlets come up for grabs, with overseas investment especially welcome.
One such hamlet is in the autonomous community of Asturias in northern Spain. Surrounded by protected meadows with mountain views on all sides, including that of the Picos de Europa range, El Mortorio is on the market courtesy of boutique agent Iberia North for €1.87 million.
Surrounded by 13 hectares of rolling countryside, the hamlet comprises 12 individual buildings on three buildable hectares of land, with 20 plots earmarked for future development. The main residential building covers 12,000 sq ft, with an additional 4,3000 sq ft barn for storage and future conversion. Eight additional holiday cottages of two to four bedrooms, each with traditional lounge, kitchen and dining areas, comfortably sleep 48 people. All enjoy private access, individual heating and ample parking, and most benefit from wood-burning fireplaces.
The property also includes a horreo, a traditional Asturian timber structure raised off the ground on stone columns. Two further buildings have potential for renovation.
The nearest market town to El Mortorio is Infiesto, just 10km away, with cafes, bars, restaurants, a supermarket and annual festivals. Intriguingly for the foodie, this part of Asturias benefits from a number of excellent restaurants, such as the two-Michelin-star Casa Marcial and one-star El Corral del Indianu in nearby Arriondas. Spain’s unspoiled northern coast is just 20km away, while Bilbao – the de facto capital of the Basque Country and home to the world-class Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – is just a three-hour drive away.
Significantly more expensive and in Italy’s sought-after Tuscany region, the entire uninhabited hilltop village of Poggio Santa Cecilia is up for sale for €40 million.
Just 25 minutes from the beautiful city of Siena, which is celebrated for its medieval centre and annual Palio horse race (a must on the Italian social calendar), the village is surrounded by thick woodland and dates to the 1100s, though most surviving buildings are from the 16th century.
The deal includes the remains of a medieval castle, an 18th-century villa with terraced garden, and streets of terraced houses (once home to those who worked the land, ran the forge and maintained livestock), as well as piazzas, a church with a bell tower, stables and an olive mill. Twenty farmhouses spread around the estate are also included, as are agricultural fields, olive groves, vineyards and orchards, a forest and multiples lakes. The total land area is 700 hectares.
From the 1500s to the mid-20th century, Poggio Santa Cecilia was owned by members of the noble Buoninsegni family and at the heart of the village stands the 75,000 sq ft Buoninsegni villa, once a grand home with beamed ceilings, majestic fireplaces and a solarium. Much of the residence is intact, with many items of original furniture still in place. While population declines and demographic shifts in Italy and Spain mean news of rural villages up for grabs doesn’t come as a surprise, the possibility of buying an entire community in prosperous Scandinavia is much more rare.
But that is possible with the restful yet thriving Swedish spa town of Sätra Brunn, one of Sweden’s most venerable wellness resorts that nestles in the countryside about a 90-minute drive from the 24-hour buzz of Stockholm. It’s up for sale for 70 million Swedish krona (S$11.2 million) via Christie’s International Real Estate.
Discovered by a doctor around 1700, water from the natural spring here is rich in minerals and believed to have healing properties. With the support of the Swedish aristocracy, a flourishing spa community grew up around the so-called trefaldighetskälla, or “source of trinity”, and Sätra Brunn has rights to extract 100 million litres of water annually.
Today the local bottling plant is supported by a village of 70 buildings, including a three-star hotel with 43 double rooms, nine single rooms and one family room, conference facilities, a bathhouse with connected spa and 15m heated indoor swimming pool, two hot tubs and a Jacuzzi, steam sauna, six treatment rooms and a gymnasium.
The 58 hectares, with 34 of those still being forest, also holds a 200- seat restaurant, a traditional Swedish pub, a kindergarten, a church dating back to 1866 – making the village an attractive wedding venue with townies from the capital – and a collection of summer cottages built from local timber. Sätra Brunn also has an alcoholic beverage production facility, with its own sparkling wine and schnapps.
According to Christie’s, the village did more than 30 million Swedish krona worth of business in 2019.
On the other side of the world, meanwhile, in the heart of New Zealand’s north island, Mellonsfolly Ranch sprawls over more than 360 hectares. Built in 2006 as a “boutique western town”, the themed community’s 10 period buildings replicate an 1860s Wyoming frontier outpost and currently operates as a resort. It’s being marketed by Sotheby’s agent Ben Hawan for US$7.5 million (S$9.9 million).
The ranch boasts three distinct homes – the main private residence and two rental houses that double as staff accommodation – as well as accommodation for 22 guests who then get to enjoy the saloon, the courthouse that serves as a cinema and a billiards lounge, all strung together by a well-worn boardwalk.
Summers at Mellonsfolly Ranch are for hunting, fishing and swimming in the crystalline rivers that wind their way through the unspoiled landscape. And during winter, the picturesque ski town of Ohakune and the Mount Ruapehu ski fields are just short drives away. The closest international airports are in Auckland and Wellington, both being about five hours by road.
As well as having its own herds of sheep and cattle, Mellonsfolly Ranch also operates a thriving business in manuka honey — one of New Zealand’s most profitable exports.
And finally, sticking with the American “wild west”, US$999,999 will buy you the real thing in the form of the ramshackle, 16-hectare Arizona ghost town of Cleator, which is on the books of agent North & Co.
Hidden away in the arid Arizona desert, about 100km north of Phoenix, Cleator was originally called Turkey Creek and sprang up in the late 1800s as a gold-mining outpost. Then served by the Prescott and Eastern Railroad, the settlement was home to 1,500 people in its 19th- and early-20th-century heyday, and bustled with workers and their families. With the closure of the railroad, however, many of the town’s mines had shut down and the rural outpost became all but deserted by the 1930s.
A small, tight-knit community remains today, residing in 20 weathered buildings and hanging out in the general store and the saloon – playfully named Cleator Bar & Yacht Club, and decked out in an oddball mix of cowboy Americana and nautical trinkets – waiting for the glory days to return.
The hopeful will note that the price includes mining rights to the area – and there really might still be gold in them thar hills.
(Main and featured image: Mellonsfolly Ranch/Ben Hawan)
This story was published in the March 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.