It’s very tempting to use meaningless superlatives to describe places in Italy: Venice is surreal, Tuscany is charming, Sicily’s beaches are stunning, Rome’s architecture is magnificent. I think one of the greatest challenges in travel writing is to describe Venice in an original manner, and I haven’t read many pieces that succeed in capturing its essence without getting lost in inflated extremes. So when you visit a place as extraordinary yet melancholy fated as Civita di Bagnoregio, perhaps only poetry can suffice.
The Dying City
I have written previously about this ‘dying city’, home to a dwindling number of residents and streets stalked by a growing population of cats. After two years of travelling and reflection in Italy I can say without banality of words that this has been the most enchanting place I have ever visited. In my previous article I waxed lyrical about the frail hilltop village and its sombre fate should another earthquake strike. I also speculated that it might succumb to an even worse end before that: the death of its culture, community and ‘reality’ to the hands of tourism or developers.
Unfortunately it seems that, yet again, us mere mortals are responsible for the destruction of our own historical creations rather than nature. In just two years, thanks mainly to Rick Steves poetic fantasies, Civita has tipped the scales from ‘hidden gem’ to guidebook must visit. Rather ironically Rick suggests;
To enrich your experience of this rustic place, be an extrovert. Poke around and talk to people. I take a seat in the piazza, and smile and nod at each passerby.
Considering there were only 8 residents on my last count, the chances of actually chatting to a local in this manner seem scarce. Most bar and restaurant owners come over from Bagnoregio, and those charming rustic cottages are slowly being gobbled up by shrewd businessmen engaging tenants who coo over Civita’s darling daintiness without experiencing the harshness of its isolation in winter surrounded by ghostly shells of abandoned houses and a 3km journey to the nearest town.
The City that Survives
However, don’t abandon hope yet. This is a city that has outlived Etruscans, Romans, Lombards and Nazis and, against all odds it would seem, battled nature herself. Perhaps for another year or so Civita will cling on to the vestiges of its controversal sorrowful beauty before tourism digs its claws in too deeply. Visiting in November as I did you’ll hopefully experience Civita as a territory lorded over by cats, whose piazza is still the hub of local life flanked by a restaurant effervescing with visitors on a Saturday night. There are bars to be stumbled across tucked under archways, a nature-defying bell tower, giddy views across a yearning white valley, and the precarious feeling of visiting a place just in time.
Having now realised that Civita might just be the superlative of Italy I can see that I visited with complete naivety. By sheer luck I timed my arrival at sunset when a golden light was spreading across the plucky island of clay topped by an implausibly bewitching muddle of structures seemingly hewn from the rock itself. I didn’t lose myself in every possible nook and cranny like I should have, I spent too long drinking wine and chatting to a bar owner from Bagnoregio and I didn’t even visit inside the church, usually a magnet for me. In fact most of my photos are of blurry cats streaking round corners. I will beg, hitchhike and will my way back there as soon as possible, perhaps for the donkey palio, before the ticking clock runs out.
Civita di Bagnoregio, Viterbo, Lazio
Access costs 1.5o euros
What to See
Church of San Donato: 16th century, resting on remains of a pagan temple. Host to two Etruscan sarcophaguses, a fresco from the School of Perugino and a 15th century wooden Crucifix by the School of Donatello.
Remains of Saint Bonaventure’s house: birthplace of S. Bonaventure who was cured of illness by Saint Francis of Assisi. The remains of his house are just visible today.
Porta Santa Maria: The single remaining door to the city, the Porta Santa Maria, dates from the Middle Ages. It features two lions who hold a human head in their paws representing the revolt of the people of Civita against the Monaldeschi family. Carved into the walls is ancient graffiti of crosses on triangles, symbolic of Golgotha hill, which have been attributed to pilgrims returning from the Holy Land.
Where to Eat
Museum of Geology and Landslides (lots of interesting historical, cultural and geological information on here in English)
Video featuring breathtaking aerial views and a couple of the ‘surviving’ residents