Civita di Bagnoregio — Adrift in the Clouds

Civita de Bagnoreggio is one of those off the beaten track little places that Rick Steve seized on and turned into popular tourist spots.  We hiked the Cinque Terre nearly 30 years ago after I spotted a picture on a calendar.  When we were there the only other hikers we saw on the trail were an elderly academic couple with whom we began the first leg of the hike and a class of 14 year old Italian kids and their teacher.  When we neared the end of the trail on our hike from Riomaggiore to Monterosso we ran into an old man tending his garden.  He spoke a little German, we spoke a little Italian (very little) and he was astonished that we were Americans and that we claimed to have hiked the whole trail as ‘only Germans do that.’  When we arrived in Monterosso we saw a group of middle aged Germans in lederhosen and little pointed hats with feathers getting off the train.  There were no crowds, no special passes to hike the trail, no Chinese made tourist tat in the shops which catered to locals.

Now the Cinque Terre is on everyone’s list of stops which has changed its character.  Civita is similar.  A quirky rarely visited spot until it became one of the tickets to punch for an Italian tour.

The most wonderful thing about Civita is the first view of it.  In the picture at the head of this piece, we are standing on a hill across from the outcropping of tufa on which it sits.  The Etruscans founded Civita over 2500 years ago.  Its edges  have been crumbling into the valley for centuries and the town was long ago abandoned for the nearby Bagnoregio.  The bishop and local government  moved in the late 1600s and there are only about a dozen people who live there now year round.   The entire economic base  consists of a few vacation homes rennovated from the ruins and a couple of restaurants.

We had some difficulty reaching the town and ended up on the edge of Bagnoregio looking across the valley.  There was a road just before the square where we parked that lead down to the base of the hill where the footbridge begins, but we missed it. This meant we had to climb down steep stairs and walk a good way to the base of the bridge that provides access to the town. In this view, I am standing at the top of the footbridge near the gates to the city and looking back at the hill where we started our trip.

The walk is not difficult although a bit steep.

Walking up to this magnificent sight is thrilling.

The area is mostly tufa or porous limestone; Orvieto not far away from here also sits on a tufa outcropping with steep sides.  The tuff or tufa sits on a layer of clay which hastens its disintegration.  The Etruscans undermined their own town by building tunnels underneath and by mining for limestone for construction.  Later residents also mined the cliffs adding to the instability.  Erosion has created a wilderness around Civita as well as taken most of its buildings and territory into the valley below.  

Here is the town gate which was once part of the old fortifications; most of the fortifications long ago fell into the valley.   The gate is flanked by lions holding human heads which are medieval symbols of the church.  

St. Donato, the old church in the center of town  was once a Cathedral till the bishop’s move to Bagnoregio in the 17th century.  

The church was build in the 1200s and renovated several times over the centuries.

It still houses the relics  St. Victoria.  St. Bonaventure an early Franciscan was born here; his relics are in the parish church of St. Nicolas in Bagnoregio.

There are several quaint streets and locals take pride in the beauty of the town.  They have planted flowers and preserved relics from early in the town’s history.

There is a bit of a cat crisis, but they are adorable even if breeding out of control.

We were told that preservationists are attempting to stabilize the cliffs, but it doesn’t much feel like that when you get to the edges of the town.  I am not sure I would want to invest in a home on the edge here.

This home near the edge has at least one wall that is mostly just a wall without much house beyond it.

Civita is tiny, perhaps two blocks from the far edge of town to the town gate.

All medieval towns are rather similar.  What makes Civita special is its precarious position.  Civita di Bagnoregio is probably worth a visit once in your life, just for the stunning sight of this medieval town on an island of crumbling limestone.

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