Abruzzo home raffle went so well, Brit is doing another not far from L’Aquila and its comeback story

The town of Santa Stefano di Sessanio shows the beauty of the Abruzzo countryside and the work still being done from the 2009 earthquake. Photo by Marina Pascucci

L’AQUILA, Italy — Jamie Abbott learned it’s pretty easy to sell a slice of heaven. Now he wants to sell another. The line has already formed to the right.

Remember my March blog on the Englishman who raffled off a house in rural Italy for 50 English pounds (about $65)? Well, he easily sold all 6,000 tickets in a heated frenzy and in the live June 29 drawing, which drew an audience on Facebook of 2,500 people, it went to a young Italian man of about 30.

The bathtub in their home they’re raffling off in Caporciano. Jamie Abbott photos

The view from the 1,290-square-foot home.

Jamie is looking to do it again. This time, for the same 50-pound ticket price, it’s the house where he, his wife Lea and their two young daughters live. It’s a 1,300-square-foot house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, two large woodburners, vaulted ceilings and a huge terrace with views of the forest and mountains. It’s in the town of Caporciano, with all of 215 people, a megalopolis compared to Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90), Abruzzo’s smallest town where the raffled house sits.

The two villages, 10 miles apart, are at about 2,700 feet in the beautiful, rolling hills of Abruzzo. This is the Italian region tucked in the back pages of tour guides, the place everyone overlooks on their journey to the next Tuscan winery or Adriatic beach or Roman ruin.

Squeezed between Rome’s Lazio region and the Adriatic, Abruzzo is a land of cool mountain air, sprawling national parks, unspoiled villages, spectacular cuisine and Montepulciano wine. Sprinkle it all with hearty locals still fighting back from a devastating natural disaster and you have Old Italy, the Italy you see in romantic movies.

I know. The Abbotts hosted Marina and I one August day and we experienced all of the above in a few hours.

Marina and I took the dirt-cheap Flixbus from Rome two hours to the Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila. This is the part of Central Italy that goes from green plains and walled, hill towns to thick forests and green mountains. The forested hills stretch high toward the Apennines which cut down the spine of Italy. Barely another structure is in sight.

Jamie Abbott and Lea Abbott Loft raffled off their last house for 50 pounds. Photo by Marina Pascucci

However, as much as Mother Nature blessed Abruzzo, she has also been a complete bitch to it. For centuries Abruzzo has been poleaxed by earthquakes, from 1315 when 1,349 died to the 2009 quake that killed 308, injured 1,500, damaged up to 10,000 buildings and left 65,000 homeless.

As soon as Jamie picked us up in L’Aquila, we could see the lingering after effects. We looked up at empty shells of buildings, many without windows or pockmarked like honeycomb. Massive scaffolding held up others. Hovering over it all were giant cranes, their towers looking like giant praying mantises picking up the pieces. Marina and I looked at each other. It reminded us both of what we’d seen in March.


The long sign showing mugshots of some of the 25 students killed when their building here collapsed. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We went up one hill where a large fence blocked off an open pit. It looked similar to the surroundings of the World Trade Center after 9-11. L’Aquila, a university town, had a large student housing structure here. It collapsed during the earthquake, killing 25. Some of their mugshots adorned one of the many signs, one of which quoted noted Chilean poet Pable Neruda: “E’ prohibito piangere senza imparare (It’s not allowed to cry without learning).”

Jamie was in his home in Caporciano on that April 6 day. At 3 a.m. he was sound asleep when his bed “just danced across the room,” he said. The lights started flickering. Household items started crashing. His car alarm started ringing. Growing up in Colchester, England, and working many years in London, he’d never experienced an earthquake. He only moved to Abruzzo four years earlier.

One of the many buildings still under repair in L’Aquila. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“I didn’t want to wake anyone up so I went and turned my car alarm off,” he said as he drove through L’Aquila’s otherwise pleasant tree-lined streets. “Everyone was out on the street. No, they said. It’s a big, big earthquake.”

No one died in Caporciano 20 miles away. Five people died in Castelnuovo, two villages over. Not knowing if the house was safe, Jamie spent a month precariously dashing in and getting supplies and sleeping either in his car, with friends outside the village or others in Pescara, Abruzzo’s major seaside town 50 miles away. Finally an inspector making the long rounds came to Caporciano and deemed the house habitable.

Jamie moved back in but the sorrow never moved out.

“I was just shocked and sad,” he said. “Everyone in this area was affected or knows someone affected majorly by the earthquake. They either died or lost their house. I felt I wanted to stay. Many people say, ‘Why are you still here? Just go back to England and carry on there.’ I really felt it was home.”

The countryside outside L’Aquila is still seeing the effects. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As he continued driving we could see why. The narrow country road climbed into the hills, occasionally passing through hamlets with only a few buildings, some with scaffolding and others still the same charming centuries-old yellow stone architecture. Small stone paths led up off the main road toward small homes. We barely saw another person.

Jamie knows these roads like his old home in England. He and Lea have an antique Italian furniture online business called Rustic Italia (https://www.etsy.com/shop/rusticitalia) and they comb these hills looking for items they ship as far away as Australia. He never tires of the drives.

“When we talk to people we compare Abruzzo with Tuscany and Umbria which are inundated with tourists and have a sense of everything been discovered,” he said. “Whereas here there’s so much to discover which is one reason we really, really love it. It’s very special.”

Climbing up to 2,775 feet, we weaved our way through the village of Prata d’Ansidonia, a town of 487 people that dates back to the 4th century BC. Heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1703, it still hasn’t recovered from the 2009 earthquake. We walked under scaffolding covering a narrow stone path where an intimidating fence kept us from continuing. The path beyond has been ruled too dangerous to walk.

The staff at Borgo dei Fumari. Photo by Marina Pascucci

No matter. The curtailed end of the path was our destination. A modest sign over a door designated Il Borgo dei Fumari. In a building more than 600 years old, the restaurant oozes as much country home charm as anywhere I’ve been in Europe. Fumari comes from fumare, the Italian word for “to smoke.” Every room of the three-story restaurant has a fireplace.

The friendly, attentive staff led us to a private room featuring stone floor and walls and featuring an elegant gold tablecloth, two wine cabinets and a door opening up to a patio with a view of the Abruzzese countryside. Flower pots lined the patio rails.

I could imagine curling up here in the winter, the yearly snow piled up on the hills outside the window, a fire roaring and a rich Montepulciano in my hand.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was built just before the 2009 quake. It suffered little damage but had to close as the damage surrounding it made it inaccessible. It reopened three years later.

Emidio Pepe is one of the most popular wines in Abruzzo. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This is where you go for a sampler of Abruzzese’s underrated cuisine. Hugging mountains with cold, wet winters, Abruzzese cuisine is hearty. Its highlights are lamb, mutton and macaroni pasta. Leading ingredients are saffron, rosemary, chili peppers and truffles, lots and lots of truffles. These are the cherished mushrooms scattered all through Central Italy and are priced all the way up to $2,700 an ounce

After Lea joined us, Jamie ordered the grande antipasto. Out came an endless parade of appetizers. First came scomorza, a Southern Italian curd cheese, with jam and almonds. Then came grilled mushrooms and zucchini, a quiche with chili peppers and truffles, bruschetta (toasted fresh bread) with truffles and lard, potato squares, polpette checci (chickpea meatballs), cheese in a marmalade sauce, sliced local salami, mozzarella with truffles and tropea cipotle (caramelized red onions) and pizza fritta (a fried ring of pizza dough).

All washed down with a bottle of Montepulciano from the local vineyard Emidio Pepe, it was the perfect setting to discuss one of the Abbotts’ favorite topics.

Raffling off a house in this countryside.

This house in Carapelle Calvisio received bids from 40 countries. Jamie Abbott photo

“We sold 6,000 tickets and that was our goal and our maximum,” he said. “We could’ve sold 2,000-3,000 more. It was crazy.”

It started last winter when Jamie saw a blog I’d written in January about an American who bought an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turned a few grape vines into a fledgling vineyard. Jamie asked if I’d be interested in an Englishman raffling off a house for the price of a good meal. I’d heard of small, struggling towns in Italy raffling off houses for as little as a euro.

This was an opportunity to get the inside of how you beat a collapsing Italian housing market. We did a phone interview and I posted the blog. The next day The Local, Italy’s only source of English-language news, reprinted it. Then so did Travel & Leisure. Then Business Insider. Then Il Messaggero, Rome’s main newspaper. Soon word spread around the world with Yahoo South America and the Eastern European press joining the publicity train.

Seeking a minimum of 4,000 tickets, he reached the 6,000 mark shortly thereafter. It raised 300,000 pounds, about 50,000 pounds more than the value of the house with the rest going to marketing costs and the 15,000-pound second-place prize. People bought them from 40 countries, from as far away as the Galapagos Islands.

Now people wanting to raffle their properties are coming to him for advice. What does he say?

“You would need to be on the bureaucratic side,” he said. “Follow the rules and make everything be honest and be transparent. Give the whole package. One of the things that certainly helped make it very successful is we linked our Facebook and Instagram and social media and included ourselves within that. Many people who do this, there’s no face to it.

Jamie and me in Carapelle Calvisio. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Try to give it authenticity.”

He recalled one raffle in England that sold 700,000 pounds worth of tickets for a first prize that was only 100,000 pounds. He said they claimed the other 600,000 pounds was for marketing costs.

His transparency overcame skeptics concerned about a scam. However, I asked him how he answered those who wondered about the 6,000-1 odds.

“In terms of a lottery or a prize drive the odds are good,” he said. “Lotto is 1 in 49 million.”

The event went over so well and with the infrastructure already in place, they want to do it again. Why not? He has 4,500 people who bought tickets who are still interested in trying their luck a second time.

Don’t worry about the Abbotts. They can rent for a while until they find something to restore or buy close to their daughters’ school.

“We’ve actually developed a brand,” he said.

The houses in Carapelle Calvisio date back to the 1400s. Photo by Marina Pascucci

After lunch we drove to Carapelle Carvisio, a small collection of stone houses spread out on a hill. Their raffled house, a rustic, yellow stone building, sits unassumingly near a half a dozen multi-level structures, all dating back to at least the 1400s.

It would be ideal for a young family or someone writing a novel. While singles probably shouldn’t apply, the Italian who won is a bachelor who’s using it as an investment.

Marina and I could live here. It’s only 40 minutes from the sea and the 70 degrees we experienced that day was 20 degrees cooler than in Rome. We could live there just for the food and wine. We continued driving up into the hills. Jamie pointed up to the top of one hill where above the village of Rocca Calascio is a castle. Surrounding it is an abandoned village totally open for anyone to explore.

We drove by the village of Capestrano, home of the Capestrano Film Festival that showed 20 films from around the world last month. He pointed out Castel del Monte, the village where George Clooney, who lives on Lake Como, filmed “The American” and fell in love with the area.

For long stretches of our day we saw no other cars. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Marina and I then noticed something. We saw no other cars. Not one. It was August, the height of Italy’s tourist season, and we didn’t see another tourist. But it’s not like you’re alone out here.

“Sometimes you’ll see 50-60 wild boar on these roads,” Lea said.

We continued climbing past red and white barriers that close off the road during the winter snow season. We entered the Gran Sasso mountain range and Jamie pointed out Corno Grande, a 9,550-foot mountain he invited me to climb with him this fall. If the view from down below is this spectacular, I won’t find words for what I might find up there.

Arrosticini at Ristoro Mucciante. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We finally reached a huge clearing where we found the cars. They had all stopped at Ristoro Mucciante. This is prototype Abruzzese barbecue where they serve the trademark Abruzzese dish, arrosticini. Jamie and I went inside to what looks like a huge butcher shop. Inside glass containers are sausages, bacon, beef slabs, ribs and lots and lots of skewered beef. These are the arrosticini, lean mutton you cook yourself on narrow, free standing coal barbecues. Jamie bought 15 of them and we sat down on one of the plethora of picnic tables with local Marcetto cheese spread on fresh local bread and the ubiquitous bottle of Montepulciano.

I’m not crazy about mutton. I had a lot in Kyrgyzstan in May and I’m still picking bits of fat from my teeth. But these mutton morsels were so lean they nearly melted in my mouth. Barbecue is one of the few things I miss in the U.S. but nowhere in Texas or Tennessee can you eat with this backdrop.

The Abruzzese version, with the surrounding mountains, pine and fir trees and old Italian vibe, who needed a backyard in a suburban cul-de-sac?

While L’Abruzzo has returned to livability, a lot of work is still being done. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We ended our day back in L’Aquila. After seeing L’Aquila’s ugly past, we saw L’Aquila’s bright present and future. We passed numerous new buildings built to replace the damaged old. High-end jewelry stores and hip fitness outlets lined Corso Federico II, part of the city’s main drag.

It emptied into Piazza Duomo where we could see seven cranes hovering in the air. The Duomo’s beautiful round tower, badly damaged, has been restored. People came in and out of Chiesa di Santa Maria di Suffragio, the aptly named church that has a plaque listing all 308 people who died. It includes 20 children.

The four of us at Ristoro Mucciante.

On the piazza, couples walked hand in hand. Teens flirted. We bought gelato and sat with locals enjoying life as if it never stops in a place this beautiful. With a black cherry gelato cone in my hand, the only signs of the earthquake was the cracked concrete on the piazza.

Santa Maria del Suffragio was badly damaged but has been mostly repaired. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I wished Jamie good luck in his next raffle, which will begin soon. You can sign up and see more photos at http://www.winahouseinitaly.co.uk. Their Instagram account is @your_italian_house.

In an Italian housing market reaching a crisis stage, this man is raffling his Abruzzo home for $65

This 1,300-square-foot house is at 850 meters on the edge of Gran Sasso National Park. Jamie Abbott photo

This 1,300-square-foot house is at 850 meters on the edge of Gran Sasso National Park. Jamie Abbott photo

Owning a home in rural Italy is as romantic as it sounds. Wake up to sunshine nine months a year, see rolling green hills above pretty, undisturbed meadows. Shop for fresh food every day in open-air markets and walk along millennium-old, cobblestone roads meant only for foot traffic. If you’re lucky, as I chronicled about a California man who moved to Umbria with his wife, you’ll find a house with a small vineyard and turn it into a fledgling wine business. Yes, buying a house in Italy is the stuff of dreams.

But try selling one.

In the last few years, that has become a nightmare. Italy is one of the few countries in Europe where property prices are going down. According to ISTAT, Italy’s national statistical institute, last year Italy’s property prices dropped 0.8 percent, the most in Europe next to Sweden’s 2.1. Doesn’t sound like much? Italians have price envy of Slovenia (up 15.1 percent), Holland (10.2) and Ireland (9.1).

Well, one man has found a way to beat the market: a raffle.

Jamie Abbott, originally from Colchester, England, is raffling off his three-story house in a village in rural Abruzzo, maybe the most underrated, prettiest, unspoiled region in Italy. He is selling raffle tickets for 50 pounds (about $65) and will hold the drawing in October.

A raffle is a long shot? Maybe but how often can one buy a 250,000-euro house, his asking price before the raffle, for $65?

Like so many homeowners in Italy, Abbott has become a victim of the housing crash. Somewhere between the time writer Frances Mayes made a house in Italy cool with “Under the Tuscan Sun” in 1996 to Italy’s current recession, a house in Italy went from cool to ice cold.

“The property market is so bad, that even for a gorgeous house like (this) … it was getting a lot of interest in property circles,” Abbott said by phone Wednesday. “People loved the house because in this particular area it’s almost impossible to find a detached house with a garden near the historical center of the village. So it was getting a lot of interest but people just weren’t going any further than that.”

The house is 120 square meters (about 1,300 square feet) with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It features curved brick and stone ceilings and vines stretching over the door frames. It has great views of the surrounding countryside, situated near the southern Gran Sasso mountains and just under 8,400-foot Monte Prena.

Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90) is the smallest town in Abruzzo. Jamie Abbott photo

Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90) is the smallest town in Abruzzo. Jamie Abbott photo

It’s located at 850 meters in the village of Carapelle Calvisio, just 18 miles from the Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila on the edge of the Gran Sasso National Park. With only 90 inhabitants, Carapelle Calvisio wears the crown as the smallest town in Abruzzo. The former Roman village is known for its truffles and is so picturesque it was used as the setting for “Ladyhawke,” a 1985 medieval fantasy film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer.

Abbott, 42, and his wife Lea went all out in making this raffle happen. He hired a web man to put together a lovely website, complete with video and is spreading the word by strategically leaking publicity on Facebook group pages and travel websites such as mine. They have a Facebook page and Instagram account (your_italian_house). As a fellow expat, and a lover of Abruzzo, I’m helping him.

Financially, it makes sense. Abbott has 6,000 tickets available. If he sells all of them for 50 pounds each, it will earn 300,000 pounds (about $400,000). That’s more than the property is worth. He is also raffling a second prize of 10,000 pounds ($13,200) with five third prizes of food and wine hampers. First prize also includes all notary costs, car rental and flights from anywhere in Europe.

The garden. Jamie Abbott photo

The garden. Jamie Abbott photo

Launched last April, they’ve sold just under 3,000 tickets and must reach 4,000 to cover costs.

“We’re just being as open and transparent as possible,” Abbott said. “We want to give the raffle authenticity to make it personal.”

House raffles have been successful in Great Britain for years, but in desperate Italy they’ve gone past raffles and are practically giving away houses. Last year the dying village of Sambuca, Sicily, announced it would sell houses for 1 euro. Two catches: Buyers had to commit 15,000 euros for renovations and put up a security deposit of 5,000 euros.

It didn’t put off many. Tens of thousands responded, including U.S. lawyers who wanted to do business and a Dubai woman who wanted to buy dozens of houses. The local mayor had to put up the town’s first stop sign — in the form of a No piu! (No more!)

Looking out onto the patio. Jamie Abbott photo

Looking out onto the patio. Jamie Abbott photo

Another mayor in Bormida, Liguria, posted an announcement of 2,000-euro bonuses for anyone relocating there. After 17,000 applications buried his office, he quickly removed the proposal, saying it was only an idea to the regional government. In January 2018 the town of Ollolai in Sardinia sold 200 uninhabited houses for a euro each. Gangi, Sicily, has sold homes for 1 euro since 2014.

Sound desperate? You’re right. This is the Italian real estate market’s equivalent to global warming. Italian authorities predict half of Italy’s smallest towns will become deserted in the coming decades. Abbott is aware of the skepticism. It’s one reason he’s avoiding the mass publicity by advertising in the big European dailies.

“People are like, It must be a scam,’ because it’s too good to be true,” he said. “We’ve published this on many group pages, like Facebook. But before they even look at the site they instantly come back with a cry of ‘Scam! Be careful.’ I personally reply to every single one of those saying actually it’s not. We’re trying to be open and transparent. Fifty percent come back and go, ‘OK, my apologies. My bad. Because I didn’t read it.’”

Living room. Jamie Abbott photo

Living room. Jamie Abbott photo

He set the price at 50 pounds to insure people are willing to make the commitment if they do win. Unlike the homes in Sicily, this home needs no renovation. In fact, because the national park is between the house and L’Aquila and its foundation is natural rock, the house suffered no damage during the 2009 earthquake that destroyed much of L’Aquila and killed 308 people in the area.

Unfortunately, despite the evidence, not many want to buy in regions where people get buried in their own homes. Combine that with a general downturn in the foreign market to buy second homes in Europe and you see what Abbott is facing.

I asked him, so why sell at all? He has an online rustic Italian antique business and wanted to sell the house to start another project. He currently rents it out as an AirBnB and lives in the nearby village of Caporciano.

He does not want to leave Abruzzo. We both agree it’s one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. He first discovered it about 15 years ago when he rode an old Italian Vespa motor scooter from London through France, Spain, Corsica and Sardinia onto the Italian mainland and then to Abruzzo, the region just east of Rome’s Lazio.

The kitchen. Jamie Abbott photo

The kitchen. Jamie Abbott photo

He fell in love with Abruzzo and bought the house in Caporciano. His parents followed him and bought a small apartment as well. Three years later, they bought the house they’re raffling.

“There’s so much to do here,” he said. “It’s like going to Tuscany but it’s completely undiscovered. You feel you’ve got something to discover and explore. It’s not overrun with tourists, even in the height of high season in August. You can hike on your own. There are lakes. You can ski in the morning, you can swim in the afternoon in the sea. You’ve got massive diversity of landscapes and within half hour of the house there are four national parks, one of which the house is literally on the doorstep.”

The bathroom. Jamie Abbott photo

The bathroom. Jamie Abbott photo

Ticket sales end Sept. 30 and the raffle will be held sometime in October depending on the notary.