Living on the Edge

December 11, 2012 / Places
Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy
Looking over your shoulder for the better part of two-and-a-half millennium is probably not the best way to cope with Mother Nature. But, that’s exactly what the tiny village of Civita di Bagnoregio has been doing since the innovative Etruscans discovered a rocky peak far from the madding crowd and decided to call it home.

Surviving more than 2,500 years of wind and erosion, Civita sits strikingly atop a pinnacle of slowly crumbling friable volcanic tuff that overlooks the Tiber River Valley in the province of Viterbo in the Lazio Region of Central Italy.  Not surprising, Civita is referred to by Italians as il paese che muore (the dying town).

It’s relative isolation has actually helped Civita survive for as long as it has, but, if left unregulated, the increase in foot traffic from squads of curious day-trippers could actually send Civita over the edge, literally.  In 2006, the World Monuments Fund placed Civita on its endangered list, citing the constant threat from erosion and unregulated tourism.

Because of its precarious situation, Civita has watched its population dwindle to a select few — about 12 residents in winter and just over 100 in summer.

Along with its famous topography, Civita is the birthplace of its most heralded son, St. Bonaventure, the 13th century Franciscan friar and noted theologian. His home is long gone, but the basic layout of Civita survives, with the Church of San Donato as its centerpiece.

Civita di Bagnoregio, one of Italy’s prettiest villages and her most fragile. If you plan to visit, don’t wait too long. The days of il paese che muore are numbered. It’s just a matter of time. A photographer’s dream come true, the town is a living snapshot of the Etruscan, Roman and Medieval eras. Each step and turn along its cobblestone paths holds a surprise.

by Tom Weber

Tom is a veteran print-broadcast journalist who resides in the Colli Euganei (Euganean Hills) in the province of Padova in the Veneto region of northestern Italy. He hosts the eclectic travel/foodie/photography blog The Palladian Traveler.com, is a regular contributor to Los Angeles-based TravelingBoy.com, and is a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance. Feel free to follow Tom as he “meanders along the cobblestone to somewhere.”

27 Responses to “Living on the Edge”

  1. Colleen Simpson

    Tom: Grazie Mille for a wonderful note about one of our favorite places. We live in Umbria and one day last summer on a whim we revisited Civita after a long absence. Wonderful coincidence that it was the day of the donkey races in the main piazza! As donkeys figure prominently in Civita’s history, making 40 trips a day to bring in supplies and power the olive mills, it was their day to shine! Possibly the funniest race we have seen. Civita truly is in danger though. Don’t know if Rick Steves did the hamlet any favors by encouraging loads of tourism, but the local restaurants and cafes are happy he put them on the map. Mixed blessings for sure. Grazie again for such a thoughtful and informative note. Magnificent photos!!

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  2. Tom, Great article,Incredible pictures.I guess the other thing that struck me besides being a beautiful place was just 12 winter residents…I can’t even imagine just 12 people there and 100 is not a lot either. I’m sure the 100 are very close knit.

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  3. Paula (Giangreco) Cullison

    Tom, Mille Grazie!! In 2006, I planned a month in Italy with our daughter. While in Orvieto, we took the local bus to Civita di Bagnoregio. It was just the two of us and a few other tourists. We met several locals, including Vittoria who was over 80. It was apparent that the elderly women are keeping the town alive. I took many photos which are included on my website. A number of my (Italian) friends here in Phoenix are from Vicenza. ItalianNotebook always makes my day.

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    • Hi Paula – Glad you had an enjoyable time when you visited Civita. I have family in Phoenix/Scottsdale. Ciao for now.

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  4. Joan Fenendael

    I visited Civita in 2002 and remember my visit fondly. We met an elderly man who invited us into his garden which was beautiful. Since we were always looking for food at off times, we were pleased to find a small restaurant that served us wood fired bruschetta and a lovely red wine served in jelly glasses.

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    • Joan – There wasn’t room in this post to showcase all the photos I shot, but I did get off a couple of that cliffside garden you mention. I had to pay the elderly lady, probably the wife of the elderly gentleman you encountered, a euro or two to at her “check point” to get in to take a peek around. Thanks for your comment.

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  5. This is a beautiful community and as you indicate threatened with uncontrolled tourism. Your suggestion to get there now only exacerbates the problem hastening its end and the livelihood of its residents.

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  6. Marcia Bailey

    I too love this fragile town. My daughter and I and an Italian friend from the Viterbo area were there on a frigid April day. The wood fired bruschetta spot had not only great food but a very WARM fire. Much appreciated.

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  7. Anita

    Nice post and lovely evocative photos,Tom, though it looks like it some seasons may no longer be an escape from the madding or maddening crowd(s)!

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  8. Thank you for the lovely article – can’t wait to visit. I hope you don’t mind if I point out that the expression you used ought to have been ‘far from the madding crowd’. It’s common mistake.

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      • Just one more … one millennium (singular), two millennia (plural) or (less preferred, millenniums). Lucky you to live in Vicenza – a huge favourite of ours. Will definitely be following you as you meander along the cobblestones in future.

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  9. Question: Can nothing be done to help preserve the town from further natural destruction? With all the new innovative engineering, is it just a matter of finances and if so, why not charge the tourists for the privilege of visiting such a unique and lovely town?

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    • Virginia – Thanks for your comment. I was told a study had taken place to see if steel rods into the ground around the edges would help stabilize the area and prevent, or at least diminish, the erosion. If it was done, I couldn’t see it.

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  10. I visited in October, I walked up that bridge, coming down was a little more difficult (my knees). I never took so many photos of one town. If you are in Italy and off the beaten track, you should visit.

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    • Paquale – I missed you by about a month. I, too, took loads of photos of Civita. Glad you enjoyed your trek up the bridge.

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  11. I was delighted to read this article, and thank you Tom. I am still in planning stages of our trip in September ’13, and our base agriturismo is just a short distance from Civita di Bagnoregio. I will definitely work this stop into our itinerary, which I never would have known about had I not signed on to receive your newsletters. Keep ’em coming.

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    • Suzanne – If you’ll be close to Civita from your base agriturismo, then you MUST visit “the dying town.” You will not be disappointed. Ciao!

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  12. Great post! We really enjoyed our visit to Civita di Bagnoregio. At first, I was expecting it to be a ‘disneyfied’ Italian city, i.e. a picture-postcard fake Italian town. I was really surprised therefore when I found it buzzing with local life (and yes, an awful lot of tourists). Despite the number of visitors, we were still able to find quiet streets and to enjoy the evocative nature of this special medieval town. We’ve actually blogged about our trip over on our blog. I won’t link to it, but do check it out if you want a second opinion on Civita di Bagnoregio ;)

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