PALÙ DEL FERSINA, Italy — Driving along a small highway into the foothills of the Italian Alps from the city of Trento, it would be easy to blink and miss Palù del Fersina.
The tiny northern Italian village spreads up and down the slope from a minor intersection. There is no central plaza like in the typical Italian villages nearby. The decentralized village is full of farmhouses that look like they were pasted from southern Austria or Germany.
During a recent visit, the church bells ring out across the valley at noon, and hardly a soul can be seen at first. Then two cyclists show up at a stream-fed fountain. One of them, Enzo Mazzurana, who rode uphill a couple of hours from Trento, catches his breath to say the views from town are picture-postcard gorgeous. His riding partner, Alessandro Cramerotti, describes it as "splendid."
This sleepy hamlet, home to only 160 residents, is hoping to cash in on its Alpine appeal — and it has a lot of money to try to do just that.
It is one of 21 villages across Italy that will receive $20 million each from the central government in Rome to try to reverse their economic decline and population loss, as part of a European Union recovery plan.
The EU is distributing more than $700 billion in grants and low-interest loans to member countries to help boost their economies hit by the coronavirus pandemic. And Italy is the largest recipient. Rome is in charge of spending some $200 billion on a wide range of projects. This program to save dying villages is just one of hundreds of initiatives funded by the recovery plan.
It takes more than a village
Franco Moar, the 35-year-old mayor of Palù, opens Google Maps on a computer in his office to talk to NPR about his plans for spending the money. A structural engineer by trade, Moar says he wants to bring in reliable high-speed internet, renovate many buildings and launch ecotourism projects, complete with electric vehicle charging stations.
He envisions a thriving village where young professionals can work remotely and tourists will come for the Alpine views, hiking and mountain bike trails.
Moar, like others who grew up in Palù, is a native speaker of Mòcheno, a language brought to this area by German settlers in the Middle Ages.
Saving the language was an integral part of his village's proposal — something the Italian government highlighted as one of the main reasons it selected Palù.
"A language lives," he says, "if people speak the language. If there are no people, there is no language."
Moar convinced the EU jury that the projects could halt the demographic collapse and that he could spend all the money in the required three-year time frame.
Jobs draw villagers away
Palù was never huge. Its population peaked at around 330 in the 1930s, according to Mayor Moar. Now it's less than half that. It keeps shrinking as young people leave to find work.
That includes the mayor's own cousin, Angelica Lenzi, who is about to graduate with an accounting degree.
She says she would prefer to stay in town. She loves speaking Mòcheno with her family and the unique village traditions, including a carnival in the spring. But the pull of work elsewhere is too strong to ignore.
"I am searching for a job probably in Trento, about 40 minutes away," she says. "But I'd like to be able to come back one day and open an office here if possible."
Down the street from where Lenzi lives is the only hotel and restaurant in town, Rosa Alpina. The owner, Gabriella Zoro, took over the place when her mother died. It used to be busy, she says, but now Zoro is happy if a few customers show up for lunch. She can't imagine her two grown children ever wanting to take over the business.
Zoro applied for some of the funds to hire local youths to scale up her husband's production of a local twist on Italian tortellini. At Rosa Alpina, they're stuffed with cabbage and leeks and served in a sage butter sauce. The project was turned down. But that's not why she is skeptical that the spending project will save the village.
"It would have made sense if they had made a better plan for young people to stay," she says. "But building a little rustic mountain hotel or whatever they want to build ... how many people do you think are gonna stay for that? How many young people are gonna stay to work here just for the summer season? Come on."
Rescue efforts have taken criticism
In recent years, Italy has launched projects to try to save dying villages — most famously the 1 euro home scheme. None has reversed the problem of economic decline and depopulation.
Some 1,800 villages across Italy applied for the $20 million grants, according to Italy's Culture Ministry. Many of the mayors who applied but lost out wonder if this is the best way to spend more than $400 million.
Luca Profili is the mayor of Bagnoregio, a stunning, medieval-era village in central Italy's Lazio region that applied for funds but didn't make the cut. He says the whole measure is wrong.
"My town and other small villages don't have the structure in place to spend this amount of money, especially in a short period as required," he says. "It would have been better to split the money between four or five villages in each region — that way it would have had a greater impact."
Despite his criticism, he acknowledged the program was attractive because of the amount of money he could have accessed for his town if it had won.
There is a parallel program, also funded by the EU, to divide more than $500 million among more than 220 Italian villages to upgrade their museums, cultural institutions and local economies. But with so many villages sharing that money, some mayors worry it would have little impact.
Moar acknowledges that $20 million is a lot of money for a small village like Palù del Fersina. But, he says, people need to have realistic expectations about what can be achieved in the short term.
"The target is not to have 2,000 inhabitants, it's to have 200, then let's see what happens," he says.
He's focusing on small gains that he hopes will have a big impact on his village — and the language he wants to protect for future generations.