Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Visit To Italy's Dying City

Civita di Bagnoregio perched atop the hill

Every time I visit Italy fall in love with the country even more.  Our most recent jaunt across the Adriatic took us to the Viterbo region.  Located north of Rome, the little piece of Italy is as beautiful as the rest of the country.  Because we were visiting friends who are lucky enough to call Viterbo home, we had the opportunity to see towns that are often missed by passing travelers in their rush to get from Florence and Rome.  We saw many beautiful places during our short tip (those will be topics for future blog entries) but my favorite place by far was the hilltop village of Civita di Bagnoregio.

Fog lifting over the Tiber River valley; this wouldn't be a bad
view to wake up to each morning

Called Italy's "dying city" due to its precarious location atop a plateau overlooking the Tiber River valley, this ancient Etruscan city dates back twenty five hundred years and was the birthplace of Saint Bonaventure who died in 1274.  Once a thriving community, extensive erosion of the clay earth, coupled by major earthquakes, helped hasten its decline to a shadow of its former self by the 17th century.  Today, Civita di Bagnoregio is essentially an island set off by itself, only accessible by a narrow, reinforced pathway.  This "island" is getting smaller as, despite ongoing countermeasures to prevent further erosion, buildings perched on the outer edges of the city are crumbling and falling into the valley below.  In 2006 it was listed on the World Monuments Fund's list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites because of the ongoing erosion.

Today only a handful of people call Civita di Bagnoregio home.  One census claims that there are 12 year around residents with the population "booming" to 100 in the summer.  Bed and breakfasts and cafes fill the remarkably well preserved structures that remain within the walls.  Because the village is a pedestrian only zone--even if vehicles could enter the walls, the narrow lanes would prohibit their movement---everything that can't be hand carried is driven in by golf carts and all visitors must walk up the long and narrow approach to reach the inner walls.  The day we visited there were few tourists and locals were busy staging the entire village for a live nativity scene.  Coupled with the lifting fog, the village felt as though it was trapped in time and it was the epitome of everything I think of when I dream about an Italian village.  We wandered the narrow lanes just taking it all in and marveling at the beauty.  In one shop we saw pictures of Civita di Bagnoreio through the ages starting when it was a part of the surrounding hillside towns to the isolated peninsula it is today.  The visible changes were obvious only driving home the notion that the village is literally falling off of the cliff.  Sidney was particularly entranced with the well fed and friendly (unless you were a dog) village cats that roamed freely.  I loved the hidden and meticulously maintained stairways and doorways leading into the buildings.  Despite it being late December, clay flowerpots overflowed with brightly colored blooming plants and vines.

Civita di Bagnoregio is one of the most beautiful and enchanting places I have ever visited and the thought that after thousands of years it may cease to exist, saddens me.  I feel fortunate that I was able to visit and definitely want to return.  As much as I fantasize about buying my own little piece of Italian real estate however, this is probably not the best place to invest.  But returning, and perhaps even spending the night in one of the small bed and breakfasts?  Now that sounds like the perfect Italian vacation.

A house with a view--for the moment anyway

Along the crumbling outer wall looking back into the village

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