Ever dreamed of abandoning the city to live in the bucolic landscapes of central Italy? It’s easier than you think.
“I just felt something was wrong,” says Lucilla, a teacher who lives in the small Italian city of Mantova.
Together with her husband Stefano and two children, Dario, aged eight and Leila, six, she had moved to Mantova to escape the frenzy of Milan. But they still felt unfulfilled and anxious, and were worried about how their children were growing up.
Constant rushing and stress, feelings of isolation and entrapment, lack of community and alienation from nature. The symptoms were clear. And the cause, they reasoned, was the urban lifestyle itself.
“The city is killing us,” says Lucilla. “Everyone is always on their phone. There’s no sense of being connected with the people around you, of being connected to the natural world.”
They decided that an alternative commune might be the solution to this malaise.
After shopping around, they settled on Honeydew, a relatively new eco-community based in the hills of Romagna in central Italy.
As I discovered when I visited earlier this year, they were just one of several families making the move from city to commune.
Welcome to Honeydew: Italy's eco-commune
Honeydew sits in an Elysian landscape of trickling rivers, dewy woodlands and soft, rolling hills that turn beguiling shades of pink and ochre in the evening light.
To the north, the landscape gradually peters out to a flat coastline, with the bright lights of Rimini twinkling in the distance.
Just across the valley, the medieval borgo of San Leo - described by Italian medievalist Umberto Eco as the most beautiful village in Italy - floats above the hills like some celestial apparition. As surroundings go, it’s hard to imagine anything quite so idyllic.
Part Dickensian dandy, part new age evangelist, Benjamin Ramm - the commune’s loquacious founder - leads me around the facility he now calls home.
Born and raised in London, Benjamin sold everything he owned and embarked on what he called the “the great transition away from the urban”.
Catalysed by the pandemic and the generational desire for a break with the material and ecological traps of city living, his commune began to take shape.
Visitors can stay in Italy’s eco-commune for free
Honeydew actively welcomes visitors to come and stay for free in their ‘hotel’ in order to experience communal life without committing to a full stay.
Guests can take part in touristic activities such as hiking, yoga and cooking classes while getting a feel for what life in an alternative community is actually like.
Ramm sees Honeydew as a bridge connecting people from the mainstream to a more sustainable communal lifestyle.
Some folks live here full time, others keep a foot in each world, and a few have used Honeydew as a springboard for transitioning to a completely off-grid lifestyle.
But there is a consciousness-raising aspect here too: an opposition to consumer culture and a belief in affecting social change through reconnection to self, others and nature. Notably, Ramm is an advocate for plant medicines as tools for spiritual emergence and community cohesion.
When I was there, the residents numbered around 30. They ranged from Workaway chefs from Minnesota, to yoga instructors from Rome, gardeners, masons, writers, artists, students and more.
One young family, from Latvia, had stopped by to offer their services as builders. Their two young daughters danced carefree around the halls, conversing fluently in a multitude of languages. I was surprised to learn that they had never been to a conventional school, and their precocious abilities had all been picked up through travelling, social bonding and what their parents referred to as “a natural education”.
Life on a commune in 2023
When I meet with Lucilla and Stefano, I ask them what specifically made them want to raise their family here instead of the city. They cited the natural surroundings, international vibe and co-operative approach to parenting as the main reasons.
“We liked the idea of creating a community of children and elderly persons,” says Stefano. “Here in Italy there are many ecovillages that are predominantly young, with strict rules involving a leader, a hierarchy and a belligerent attitude towards the outside world. Here the only rule is common sense. There is wi-fi and you can lead an omnivorous lifestyle, if you choose.”
The couple were especially enthusiastic about the commune’s approach to food, much of which is grown or foraged in the surrounding area.
“I don’t like cooking alone or just for your family,” says Lucilla. “I love the idea of preparing and sharing food together in a community.”
She contributes to the commune by offering yoga classes, while Stefano, an architect, helps with renovations. Both are in the process of moving to fully remote work so they can live permanently on Honeydew with their children.
Another parent at Honeydew is Stella, a single mum to four-year-old Ary. A qualified neuroscientist from Ireland, she was lured here by the communal ethos of sharing, healing and mutual care.
“We often say it takes a village to raise a child, but what does that really mean?” she says. “I often find myself alone with the challenges of parenthood and raising a little human in this world. I really see a communal way of living as an answer to the feelings of separation, isolation and detachment we feel from our fellow humans and from nature.”
Ramm has embraced the fact that many young parents have chosen to move here.
“It's such a joy having kids at Honeydew. At the core of our philosophy is the importance of play and playfulness - something often lacking in 'spiritual' communities,” he says.
“Here, kids have multiple parental figures, across cultures and generations, from whom they learn a diversity of traditions and languages. But above all, it is adults who are enriched by the abundance of energy and affection. They're given licence to let down their guard and revisit the inner child.”
Reviving dying Italian villages
Honeydew is located on the outskirts of Maiolo, a historic Romagnol village on the verge of having its last school closed and converted into a nursing home. The school, which serves a constellation of equally moribund villages, is currently two students short of the quorum for keeping it open.
In contrast to the siege mentality adopted by other communes, Honeydew has opened itself (and its newly restored outdoor pool) up to Maiolo. Its residents help with the village festivals and maintain excellent relations with the mayor.
When I asked Stefano and Lucilla about their children’s education, they said they were considering sending them to Maiolo to help keep the school open and the village alive.
In a recent survey by Area Studi Legacoop, 74 per cent of Italians considered the country’s low birth rate to be an urgent problem, with the most popular explanations for the demographic crisis being low wages and rising living costs, job instability and insecurity, and lack of public support for bringing up children.
In response, the Italian government announced it would follow the policies of Hungary, whose right-wing approach to population decline has been criticised as being narrow minded, patronising and discriminatory against single parents and same-sex couples.
Perhaps they could have just looked a little closer to home.