Molise, a sparsely populated region of southern Italy, is so off the radar that many Italians joke that “Molise non esiste” (Molise doesn’t exist).
But proud locals have rebutted the slight with their own saying: “Molise exists and resists.”
“I would add something else to what has become our mantra – ‘Molise convinces’,” Donato Toma, president of the region, told the Guardian.
Toma is trying to convince people to come and live in Italy’s second smallest region – a mountainous territory with a population of 305,000 that came into existence only in 1963, when it was relinquished by the neighbouring Abruzzo.
Of course, as with anything that sounds too good to be true, there are one or two caveats. But before we get to those, Toma makes the case.
“We offer tranquillity, no delinquency, fresh air, the purest water and a clean environment,” he said. “The people are very welcoming. You can leave your front door open and car unlocked with the keys inside without worrying … children can play freely in the streets.”
To verify Toma’s depiction, the Guardian ventured to Macchiagodena, a hilltop town of about 1,000 people, and Roccasicura, home to 520.
Surrounded by pristine countryside, both towns are well manicured. But they are among the 100 or so desperately in need of a population boost.
“We lose around 10 people a year to death, and only around four babies a year are born,” said Fabio Milano, the mayor of Roccasicura.
Roccasicura has a bar, grocery shop, chemist, butchers and artisanal cobbler. Its one school was forced to close in 2011 due to a shortage of children. There is a church, castle and countless trails for trekking and mountain biking.
“For me, Roccasicura is the most beautiful town in Molise,” said Milano. “The main difficulty is that there are so few of us, which leaves us with little money to dedicate to services.”
Milano said Toma’s initiative could help breathe life into the town, and that he would go a step further by exempting new residents to Roccasicura from paying tax. A home there costs an average €50,000 to buy and €150-€200 a month to rent.
Now for the small print: people who are given the monthly “residents income” must migrate to a town with fewer than 2,000 people and open a business. The business can be anything, while those who work remotely will also be welcomed so long as they prove they are contributing to the economy, for example by buying or renting a home and signing up to services.
“This is not a gift, it’s more an assistance,” said Toma.
The scheme will initially be limited to 40 candidates, and if after a year things are going well, Toma will seek more funding for more people.
But what do locals make of the idea?
Tony Lepore was born in Roccasicura, then moved with his family to Canada, where he lived before moving back at the age of 26.
Now in his late 60s, Lepore said: “It was a big change leaving Toronto, but you get used to it. I’d recommend it either for the very young, or senior citizens – for the fresh air and tranquillity.
For business, there are many opportunities in relation to tourism, as the market is completely open.”
Annamaria Iacovone, who runs the butchers, said: “It’s difficult to maintain a business here, but things take time. I’m very happy, it’s a wonderful way of life.”
Others were more cynical. “The scenery is great but there is no work … London is much better,” said Paola Ricciutti, Lepore’s cousin.
The scepticism was more acute in Macchiagodena. “This idea is a bit ridiculous,” said Fernando Meo as he played cards with his friends in the bar. “You can’t just gift people – they need to come here to work and create work.”
But Toma is undeterred by those scoffing at his plan, especially since being inundated with inquiries when the news of it broke, particularly after a story by the Guardian.
He has a message for disillusioned Britons keen to escape Brexit: “Come to Molise … on top of everything else, we have abundant sunshine.”