Embrace Traditional Italy for $1,500 a Month

There’s no shortage of hilltop towns, castles, and olive groves to explore in scenic Abruzzo. ©iStock.com/Romaolso

In the morning, I like to take in the view from my balcony: To the south, I have the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the central Apennines, to the east, a turquoise stretch of the Adriatic Sea. And in between, olive groves, green meadows, and picturesque hilltop towns.

I feel lucky to live in Abruzzo, a central Italian region that remains unspoiled by mass tourism, where traditional life remains alive and well. I choose to live here not only because of the region’s natural beauty and low-cost living, but also because it offers no shortage of things to do and see in my spare time. One day I may go hiking in one of Abruzzo’s national parks, hoping to spot a chamois (mountain antelope) or deer; another I may stroll through an ancient mountain hamlet, greeting old ladies who sit outside their stone houses beaming friendly smiles at passers-by. On summer days, I like going for a swim and lazing on the pebbly beaches that dot Abruzzo’s coastline.

It’s impossible to get bored here. There are formidable castles to explore, mountain views to swoon over, wineries to visit, and hearty traditional dishes to devour. Rural restaurants serve gargantuan portions of handmade pasta, grilled local lamb, and other delicious specialties the region is famous for. In my local bar, complete with centuries-old vaulted ceilings, a fragrant cup of espresso costs 90 cents, and a generous glass of vermouth, accompanied by a plate of small pizza bites and light snacks, comes in at a whopping $2.80.

For fresh seasonal produce at rock-bottom prices, I go to weekly local markets. On my last market spree, I bought four pounds of Sicilian oranges, four pounds of apples, a large bag of spinach, a bunch of celery, and 10 artichokes—all for $11. Combined with the vendors’ friendly banter, stunning mountains as a backdrop, and glorious sunshine, my weekly grocery shopping is not a chore anymore; it’s a happy social event. I buy freshly pressed, organic, extra-virgin olive oil directly from a small producer, sheep’s-milk cheese from a farmer nearby, and stone-ground, high-quality flour from a mill a short drive from my home. You don’t need to be rich to have the best here.

Lisa Grassi Blais and her husband Jake Rupert, from Ottawa, visited Abruzzo for the first time in 2006. “We started coming on a yearly basis, after we had reconnected with my mother’s side of the family here,” she says. “We fell in love with the people and the area. Abruzzo has this rugged, unspoiled feel, and we were hooked immediately.”

The couple moved to the region permanently in 2015, ditching their successful careers in law and journalism to set up a guest house and tour company. “I love the connection to tradition here in Abruzzo. People tend to understand its value, identify with and are proud of their local traditions,” explains Lisa. They both enjoy the slow-paced life here, which is so different from what they knew in Canada. In his spare time, Jake likes jumping in the swimming pool at their villa, while Lisa relishes long walks in the nearby olive groves with her two dogs or chilling out on the patio with a book and a glass of wine. Neither of them misses the snowy Canadian winters. Throw in the affordable cost, and you have a little paradise.

“Most things are more affordable here,” says Lisa. “For example, an excellent meal in a local restaurant, with fresh, homemade ingredients and a great bottle of wine, will cost approximately $45 for two people. Back home, this wouldn’t cover the cost of the wine.”

Real estate prices are also very reasonable. If you want to wake up to the sound of seagulls and splendid sea views, a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, beautifully restored house in the seaside town of Vasto could be right up your alley. With vaulted ceilings, wooden floors, and a large balcony, the house is in the historic center, near many great restaurants, pizzerias, and bars. It’s priced at just $200,000.

Summer can be really hot here, reaching 86 F to 90 F. If you prefer cooler temperatures, many affordable options are available in the hills and mountains. You can buy a piece of history in the small town of Penne, where a restored 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment in a 17th-century palace costs only $113,000. It has a fireplace, bread oven, and access to a pretty communal garden.

Short-term rentals (that is, three to six months) are hard to find in Abruzzo. But if you want a taste of life here and can commit to a year or more, prices range from $300 for a house in the mountains to $700 for an apartment in a seaside town.

With such low rents and inexpensive groceries, a couple can live comfortably in the region on less than $1,500. And that budget includes a good supply of excellent local wine and great meals in restaurants a few times a week.

Several big hospitals in the region offer free emergency visits. Even if you choose to go to private medical centers, the prices won’t break the bank. A visit to a specialist costs between $70 and $200, an ultrasound can be done for $40, and a simple filling at a dentist’s rarely costs more than $80.

A final perk to life here is how well connected this region is. Now and then, when I start missing a big-city buzz or need a dose of high-brow art and culture, I jump on a bus, which costs $30 for a round-trip ticket, and two hours later arrive in Rome. Or I hop on a fast train to Milan, which takes four-and-a-half hours and costs $80 round-trip.