The services listed on the billboard outside Rotondaro Costruzioni, an estate agency and builder, are written in Italian and Russian, as are the details of the properties advertised for sale in the window display.
Inside, about a dozen thick red folders, filled with plastic envelopes containing details of customers dating back to 2010, spill out of a cabinet. The majority of those property buyers were Russian. A short distance away is a stretch of Italy’s southern Calabrian coastline lapped by clear-blue sea. This is not the glitzy Costa Smeralda in Sardinia or Tuscany’s Forte dei Marmi, where lavish villas and yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs have been seized over the last two months, but Scalea, a low-profile holiday resort with a medieval hilltop village whose economy has flourished over the past decade, partly thanks to the ordinary Russians who flocked here for the cheap property and sunshine.
Nicola Rotondaro, the company’s owner, is finalising the sale of another property, a one-bedroom apartment worth €22,000 (£19,000), to a young Russian-Ukrainian man living near Naples. He is not in good spirits, however. The presence of Russian buyers and holidaymakers in Scalea had already all but evaporated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the unauthorised status of the Russian Sputnik vaccine in the EU. Now the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent economic sanctions, especially a ban on flights, means the Russians are unlikely to return for the foreseeable future.
“We are already at zero,” said Rotondaro. “The Russians don’t come any more; they’ve been cut off.”
Rotondaro is not the only one feeling the pinch. Scalea, a town of just under 11,000 residents, has about 30 property agencies, many catering to the Russian market. Restaurants, bars and shops had come to depend on their Russian guests, who tend to spend more than their Italian counterparts while elongating the holiday season by visiting outside the hot summer months. La Playa, a spacious bar and restaurant, has menus in Russian and Russian-speaking staff, but when the Guardian visited at lunchtime on a recent national holiday, there were few diners. “In normal situations, there are lots of Russians here. Now there is not even one,” said Salvatore, a waiter. “And they spend a lot. If the war ends soon, maybe they’ll return in time for the summer.”
Property-building boomed in Scalea, and other towns along Calabria’s coastline, in the 1980s, driven by demand for holiday homes from Italian buyers, mostly from Naples. “You could count the number of foreigners on one hand,” said Tony Hackett, a British-Italian property agent. “But then people who bought during that period stopped coming, and so a lot of property has been recycled.”
Interest from Russians started to gather pace from about 2010. They were schoolteachers, professors and doctors, snapping up humble properties that even today can be bought for as little as €14,000. The most famous Russian property owner in Scalea was Boris Klyuyev, an actor who died in 2020.
Some of the property owners have settled in the town, including Maria Stepura, the president of the Calabria-Russia association, which helps to promote Calabria in Russia and assists property buyers with Italian bureaucracy. Stepura bought a home close to the beach in 2010. “The value of the rouble at the time meant it cost much less than buying land near Moscow,” she said.
Buyers with enough savings would purchase a property outright; others would obtain loans from Russian banks. “Life here is simple: you have a beautiful beach, the cost of living is cheap, you can eat out cheaply and have breakfast at the bar, which is always a pleasure, and the locals are welcoming,” Stepura said.
Scalea has been described by the local press as “a little Moscow in Calabria”, but Giacomo Perrotta, the mayor since August 2020, begs to differ. “Yes, there has been significant investment from Russia – obviously Scalea is different from Moscow for those who like the sun,” he said. “But we also have other communities – Polish, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Recently we held a march for peace, and everyone participated, Russians and Ukrainians. As a population, we are well integrated.”
The property boom in areas of Calabria was partly fuelled by illegal building by mafia groups, with a crackdown since 2013 leading to the seizure of hundreds of tourist resorts and holiday homes. Some foreign investors became unwittingly entangled in the mafia’s real-estate crimes.
Scalea has not been left unscathed, and now the local administration is hoping to put properties confiscated from the mafia on to the market. “We’re participating in a competition for funding, so that is the first step – to have the funds to tidy them up,” said Perrotta.
It remains to be seen if Russians will return to buy the additional property stock, but Perrotta is confident that Scalea is in for a busy summer. “We will wait for the Russians to come back … but after two years of the pandemic, we anticipate a boom in tourist presence – we don’t only live off Russians; we have plenty of Italian visitors too.”