The Dying City: Civita di Bagnoregio
As I guide people around Italy, I often find myself in Rome, Florence, and Venice — many, many, many times (did I mention I’ve seen them a lot?). I don’t blame “the tourists” for flocking to these cities! If you have ever visit Italy, they are “must see,” and I love them.
But every region of Italy offers infinite attractions, and I try to visit at least one place I have never seen, every time I lead people around. In my most recent trip, I was trying to talk my group into detouring to see Civita di Bagnoregio, but without much luck, until a fortuitous encounter.
One member of our group, Drew, kept asking Italians we met what place we absolutely had to see. Most of the answers he heard were —you guessed it — Venice, Rome, and Florence. But during one meal with Italian friends, Drew excitedly called my name from across the room. “Tell her what you said,” he said to the young man sitting nearby. “You must see Civita di Bagnoregio – it’s magical!” my Italian friend said. So, it was set! Drew was sold! We immediately changed our plans to detour off the autostrada (highway) from Florence to Rome and spend a few hours visiting La Citta’ che Muore (the city that is dying). I was super excited!
We left the highway at Orvieto and followed the signs to Bagnoregio, the nearby town where people migrated from Civita. We asked a local resident where to eat, and he pointed us to a row of restaurants side-by-side. When we asked which one, he said we couldn’t go wrong with any of them. We chose one at random and were not disappointed with the pasta with truffles and the glass of sparkling prosecco to start off our meal.
Back in the car, we made our way to the parking lot, paid our entrance fee, and were
stunned by our first view of Civita di Bagnoregio. Wow! Perched atop a slim, conical hill which juts dramatically upwards in the middle of a huge valley, this town is like none other in Italy. It looks suspended between sky and land, not tethered to either. It’s both fragile and imposing, as the erosion of the tuff rock continues, unrelentingly, around and under this city with the buildings of centuries-old solid rock.
The only way to get to the city is to walk, a little more than half a mile, on the single, narrow road suspended high above the deep valley, built in 1995. It’s a bit of a hike. There is no sign left of the winding road that once made its way up the hill to the town before this high bridge was built. We visited in March, on a blustery, rainy day, and I don’t think even all eleven people— the town’s current population— were home that day.
To say that Civita di Bagnoregio is old is like saying Dante was a good poet. Founded by the Etruscans, those mysterious forefathers of the Italians, 2,500 years ago, Civita hosted the Romans, who arrived about 265 B.C., and remained a thriving, prosperous town throughout the Middle Ages because of its location on an important trade route. An earthquake in 1695 devastated the town and eroded the town’s volcanic base even further.
Its epithet could not be more perfect – la Citta’ che Muore (the dying city, or the city that is dying). For 500 years, the town has been suspended in time and place. As its buildings slowly tumbled off the edge of the cliff, its people left for nearby Bagnoregio and beyond. When you enter the city, through a huge Gothic archway, you are transported to a tiny realm
of medieval towers, renaissance houses and architecture that spans 700 years. The ambient quiet adds to the town’s magic, as there are no cars, buses, motorcycles or much of anything beside the church bells, to break the silence.
We roamed the town, snapping picturesque photos at every turn and met back at the main square, Piazza San Donato, dominated by the 13th century Cathedral of San Donato. It didn’t take us more than an hour to leisurely stroll the entire city and look at the valley below from every “cliffhanger” view.
Civita di Bagnoregio is in constant danger of destruction. The geography of the land will eventually reclaim the town, even though efforts are being made to shore up the crumbling terrain. It is now probably one third of its original size, and it cannot escape its gradual decline.
My companions and I left awed by the “dying” city. So, add Civita di Bagnoregio to your list of “must see” places in Italy. And hurry! It really will be gone soon!