I should start by telling you that Gangi (pronounced "gan-chee") isn't *technically* a ghost town.
It's actually trying REALLY hard not to be. In an effort to revitalize this town, the mayor of Gangi decided to start selling the vacant houses to outside investors for €1.00 a piece.
That's right: €1.00.
This insane bargain comes with 1 string attached: that you will spend no less than 35,000 EUR (43,212-ish USD) to fix up the house within 5 years. Yes, this is 100% true, and if you want to, you really could buy one of these houses right now. Mull it over as you read this article. And if you think you might actually want to do it, hit the button below! It will redirect you to where you need to be to start the process.
What is Gangi + why are we coming here?
Gangi is a tiny Sicilian town that I found in my pre-trip research, about 47 clicks down a Google Images wormhole. I knew that we were going to be driving from Catania to Palermo, and this wasn't too far off the main highway, so it seemed like a great little mini-adventure to get us out into the Sicilian countryside. Gangi isn't exactly a tourist destination, but the pictures that I found on the internet made it look so surreal that I was determined to chase this little gem down and see it for myself. The image shown below is that picture that I originally found on the internet.
Honestly, this picture still confuses me, because I have no idea what mountain this would have been. As best I can tell, it's supposed to be Mount Etna, but Mount Etna is on the other side of this town. I definitely didn't see any snow caps during my visit... but who knows! There were some clouds in the area during our visit, and if I learned anything from my trip to Syracuse, it's that you can see Mount Etna from shockingly large distances. Anyway, let's give this place some historical context...
The earliest days of Gangi are tied to the historical Greek city of Engyon, but this theory remains unconfirmed. There have been some Roman artifacts that have emerged through archeological excavations done in the area, but proving a concrete link between Gangi and the area's Roman past has also proved difficult for historians. The beginning of what we know about Gangi for absolute certain begins in (approximately) the year 1300. This was the year that Gangi, as we know it today, was built. Or, more accurately, re-built. Indeed, this was the rebirth of Gangi after it was completely destroyed during the War of the Sicilian Vespers (that's a Wikipedia link for you). In the events that have transpired since, despite its isolation and obscurity, Gangi has been a place of some intrigue. Apparently, in the 1700s, Gangi was a flourishing cultural oasis and a center for literature. However, things got a little rougher after the unification of Italy, which took place from 1815 to 1871.
After 1871, Gangi was a flashpoint for the government's fight against the "brignards" (these were highway robbers of their day). You see, before the unification of Italy, this area was fragmented into many different kingdoms. This made it easy for brignards to strike and then "flee the country." But once the country grew to encompass all of modern day Italy, these bandits had nowhere to run and so were forced to turn and fight. Gangi was apparently the setting for more than its fair share of fighting. Fast forward 50 years, and things weren't much less violent...
In 1926, Gangi was the site of heavy conflict between the Italian government and "Cosa Nostra," (a.k.a. the Mafia). Yup. Did you think we were going to get through this series on Sicily without touching on the Mafia? Think again. This violence occurred under the rule of Cesare Mori, who served as prefect (prefetto) of Sicily. Apparently Mussolini, who appointed him to this role, wrote him a letter sayings "...the authority of the State must absolutely—I repeat, absolutely—be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws."
DAMN! Them's fightin' words.
In his first 2 months in office, Mori arrested more than 500 mafiosos in Palermo, and he was just getting started. His fierce campaign against the Sicilian Mafia is legendary in Italy, but perhaps the most famous moment from this saga was his order that Carabinieri (military) forces occupy the village of Gangi. Apparently Gangi had become a stronghold for Cosa Nostra, so Mori's forces spent an extended period of time going house-to-house rooting out anybody with criminal ties. Mori is famous for having fought fire with fire, laying siege to entire towns, torturing mafioso prisoners, and taking women and children as hostages. Honestly... somebody needs to make this whole thing into a movie. Maybe an HBO series. My research on this was riveting.
Anyway, since that time, Gangi has been sitting quietly out in the middle of nowhere, with its population slowly diminishing. As people relocate to urban areas, the Sicilian countryside is increasingly full of beautiful little ghost towns, and today, Gangi is on the brink of being one of them. Here's map—zoom in/out so you can get a sense of where Gangi is!
Getting To Gangi
Prior to this trip, I had a lot of people advise me against renting a car in Sicily. They all complained about crazy drivers and narrow, poorly-maintained roads. BABIES! Thankfully, my lady on the inside set the record straight and told us to rent a car. Shout out to Camilla! (Maybe you remember her from Milan?)
Having a car was game-changing to this trip, and is absolutely the only reason we got to see any of the following. So, reader, if ever want to travel through Sicily, do yourself a favor and rent a car.
I'm told the Sicilian countryside is normally more of a brown-ish color, especially during the hot, dry summer months. However, in January, things were cold, wet, and green. The further from Catania we drove, the more rugged the terrain became. Ominous clouds swirled overhead, casting a gorgeous light show over the mountainous landscape. Every once in a while, a few raindrops would hit our windshield, but for the most part, the clouds just gave things character (as well as a few rainbows, pictured below).
Eventually, after a couple hours of driving westward, the time came to make our departure from the main highway. So far the roads had been smooth, uncrowded, and relatively easy to navigate, but I figured that if there was any truth behind the warnings we had received about driving in Sicily, this would be where we would find out. Immediately we found ourselves on narrow, winding mountain roads. It was a little nerve-wracking to drive on stretches of road that were on particularly severe cliffs... but aside from that, everything was still fine. The roads were fine, the traffic was fine—there was really nothing to complain about. The biggest thing about this drive that sticks with me was that it was JAW-DROPPING-LY GORGEOUS. 😍😍😍
The clouds hung low in the sky (or maybe we were just up really high in the mountains at this point) and swirled around these winding cliff-side roads in such a way that it felt like some kind of surreal dreamscape. This surprising combination of green mountains and rapidly changing cloud cover reminded me of Iceland. Every corner we turned and every ridge that we drove over revealed new extensions of this unexpected dreamland, with picturesque farmland filling the gaps between the rocky peaks that stretched unwaveringly off into the distance on all sides. We pulled off the road a few times so that I could take pictures from the beginning of these farm fields, and with every stop we took, the more it became clear that this was the real thing. Not a stone was out of place. Everything was manicured and orderly, with small Sicilian cottages dotting the landscape. I can't imagine that these views have changed much in the last few hundred years.
Every once in a while we would roll through sleepy Sicilian towns. They would rarely take us more than 4 minutes to drive through, and then we would be in the countryside again. Each of these towns was more charming than the next. In fact, the level of beauty seemed to be escalating with each successive town that we passed through. By the time we passed through the town of Petralia Soprana, I was tempted to have us stop there to spend the day. The way this town clung to the mountainside was gorgeous... we had been driving for a while at this point, and there was no guarantee that Gangi was going to live up to my expectations. But we pushed onwards. Here are a few pictures from the drive that won't possibly do it justice...
Of all the pictures I took during this drive, there is one series that stands out above the rest. Check these out! I mean, come on. These shots are a little too good to be true. The way the light was peeking through the cloud cover to illuminate this town was insane! I'm really not even sure which town this was... but I'm going to guess that it was Polizzi Generosa. We never actually drove through this town—we just saw it from afar, but damn. Gangi was going to have to be pretty mind-blowing in order to top this!
By the time we were coming up on Gangi, we had been on these tiny mountain roads for more than an hour, and what an amazing hour it had been! I wasn't sure if little ol' Gangi was going to be able to top what we had already seen... but then we turned a corner and BANG! There it was. It's actually a very weird-looking place to see. And because of its position relative to the road, it sort of has to be seen all at once, which adds to the surreal-ness of this place.
We pulled over so that I could snap a few shots of this place. The wind was blowing hard, and over my head, between weathered telephone poles, the menacing buzzing of Sicily's strained electrical wires seemed to urge me to keep moving.
We swung down and around towards the city, and were soon driving up into Gangi from the base of the hill, with the brown walls of the narrow streets growing more and more narrow by the second. It was clear that parking here was going to be a challenge, so we squeezed ourselves into the first spot we could find, near the bottom of the hill. Every few moments, a beat up car (presumably owned by a local) would emerge from the narrow streets ahead of us like toothpaste being squeezed from the tube. We were not about to follow them into the labyrinth, or at least not in our rent-a-car. Lest we forget what happened to Dev and Arnold...
It was going to be an uphill trek, but we were committed to doing Gangi on foot.
The cobblestone streets of Gangi unfolded before us, steep and narrow, with aged passageways leading us upwards. So we followed. These ancient streets frequently doubled back on themselves, often connected by precariously steep staircases. Most of the houses did seem to be deserted, but Gangi was not without signs of life. The houses that were still inhabited made themselves apparent, with homey decorations and the occasional sounds of Italian children yelling at each other echoing out the windows, off the surrounding stone walls. There were also houses here and there that were clearly undergoing renovations. (Remember how you can buy houses here for 1 EUR?)
The further upwards we climbed, the further we could see off into the distance. It was apparent that the view from the top was going to be out of this world. But rather than describe this ascent, I'll show it to you...
30 sweaty minutes of walking straight upwards later, and we had arrived at large plaza of level ground. There was a church and a small café here. I was tired. I needed to sit down for a minute, so we walked into the café and quickly saw that we were the only guests. I ordered a cappuccino, and grabbed a seat facing the window while the woman tending the shop prepared it for me. A few moments later, a chubby Sicilian man with a satchel and a polo shirt tucked into his pants came in and began to talk to this woman. It wasn't long before we turned around to notice them discreetly making out behind the espresso machine. Lolz. Yes, that is true. Anyways...
Here are a few pictures from inside of this church that sat across from the café in this plaza. It was pretty, but not nearly as pretty as the view I'm about to show you...
Looking Out From The Top of Gangi
Now we were at the top of Gangi. There was a wide observation deck looking out over the town from above, and the views were 100% worth the effort of getting here. I couldn't take enough photos. My DSLR was hard at work, getting its settings tweaked constantly as the shutter opened and closed. However, one of my favorite photos from this lookout point was a panorama that I'll show you below.
It should be noted that we did actually find a parking lot up here. That would have been really nice to know earlier, but I'm happy that we walked all over this town like we did. It was mostly deserted, but it was still amazing. And in spite of the clear and overwhelming vacancy of this town, at the top of the hill, there was a large Elementary school. The yells of children and teachers rang clearly out the windows of this place, breathing surprising life into this slice of the town. It is likely that, in addition to what few children live within Gangi, children from the surrounding areas go to school here as well. So even though Gangi is still mostly a ghost town, the local culture is not gone. This place may just bounce back. And if you want to be part of it, you can! Just click here.
Clearly, I really want somebody to buy one of these houses. It's just so cool—I want to live vicariously through whoever goes through with that. This would be an awesome place escape to every year.
As the sun slide lower in the sky, it was time for us to say goodbye to Gangi. By the time we had stumbled back down the hill to our car, my knees were hurting from the steep downhill journey. We got in the car, dislodged ourselves from our parking space, and then we were on our way. But before we turned that corner to leave Gangi behind completely, we stopped one more time, under those same scary electrical wires. I snapped a series of photos as the sun disappeared behind a large cloud, and once the town was totally covered in shadows, we left.
This would have been the end of the story, but about 10 minutes later, I caught a glimpse of an amazing photo out the passenger-side window of the car, and I made us come to a screeching halt so that I could get out, run down the side of the road, and capture it. This photo was a medieval castle sitting on a hilltop with a herd of sheep grazing in the foreground. By the time we stopped, it was a much longer way back to this spot than I had anticipated, so I was jogging down the side of the road in between cars speeding by in order to get there. The photos didn't turn out to be quite as good as I thought they would be... but here they are anyway.
From there, we savored every moment of the surreal landscapes and dizzying heights that stood between us and the main highway that we had left behind a few hours ago. I've been making a point to use mostly Italian music for "Track of the Day" in this series of articles from Sicily, but I'm going to break that rule here for something a little more cinematic. This song just felt right for the drive through the mountains to and from Gangi.
Next, we'll pick up where we left off, driving into Palermo.
Okay, so before we end, I'm going to give you one last chance to buy a vacation home in Gangi. Just think of the $$$ you could make turning this into an Airbnb! This place has some serious potential.