There’s nothing like that sudden first sight of it. One moment you’re in the pleasant little town of Bagnoregio – all Renaissance townhouses and tidy piazzas – and the next you’re looking at a fairytale clutch of medieval buildings perched on a tall pedestal of striped rock rising from the middle of an eerie canyon. The only thing connecting those little buildings to the rest of the world is a kilometre-long footbridge slung across a tree-lined abyss. It’s a sight that instantly catapults you from reality to fantasy. Like a unicorn sitting down next to you on the bus.
Currently home to about thirty people, but drawing several thousand astonished visitors each year, the perilously-sited village of Cività looked very different twenty-eight centuries ago. Back then it was a thriving Etruscan city, spread across a wide table of rock flanked by fertile valleys. It was an idyllic spot, but one which was slowly consuming itself. Streams were silently undermining the mass of rock, licking away the soft clay from its base and leaving ever wider sections of stone unsupported. The tiniest flicker of an earthquake and whole chunks of the city’s periphery would break off and tumble down to the valley floor, taking homes and lives with them.
Things got no better after the Romans took over the place in the 3rd century B.C. Whole streets, even whole neighbourhoods, sometimes just slid away into oblivion. And so it continued through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond. Cività grew smaller and smaller, its edges constantly nibbled away by the forces of nature. Regardless, people carried on living and building here, often to their terrible cost. Many losses are still vividly imprinted on the village today – the single surviving walls of houses set on sheer precipices, their window-holes and doorways framing nothing but blue sky.
Strangely, all that now remains of Cività is the most central and important part of the original city – the main piazza and the streets in its immediate vicinity. Etruscans liked to build their cities on a grid plan and to honour one central square with the biggest temple, chief government building and the marketplace (ideas later seized upon by the Romans).The main street through Cività is still the ancient decumanus maximus, the major east-west axis of all Etruscan and Roman settlements. And the old cardo maximus or north-south axis still crosses this main street to form the main square – the civic and religious centre of Cività from its very beginning. That this most important part of the city should be the one to survive seems to suggest that what matters most will always endure. The ground may fall away from beneath people’s feet, but there’ll always be God and commerce!
God might have protected the centre of Cività until now, but it is commerce that’s likely to safeguard its future. Locals have realized what an irresistible prospect their village presents to outsiders, and growing tourism is doing much to save the place. These days a steady trickle of visitors are bringing the so-called ‘citta che muore’ (‘dying city’) back to life, making it financially worthwhile for residents to stay put and giving extra urgency to engineers’ attempts to prop up the rock and hang onto what’s left of the village. No one’s yet found a sure-fire way to save Cività, but they surely try harder with every euro spent in the tiny art studios and cafés. Meanwhile, the homes with so few inhabitants stay remarkably well-maintained and decked with flowers, ready to oblige the tourist’s camera.
Cività is so small you can explore it all in about two hours, but what a voyage of discovery those two hours are, with a series of wonders constantly unfolding. First there’s the bridge – that slim, umbilical kilometre of concrete connecting Cività to civilization. Crossing this feels like leaving the real world behind and climbing towards a realm of myth. An ocean of trees rustles beneath your feet as you cross, the only sound in the vast, silent space around you. Previous bridges across this abyss collapsed, fell to bits in earthquakes, or were blown up by Nazis, but this robust zigzag of modern stone was built to last. It’s the only route for all supplies into Cività – driven in by mopeds now, the donkeys of yesteryear having hung up their hooves. The final slope up is a killer, and the old stone steps that follow seem endless, but curiosities are already appearing, and you have no thoughts of turning back.
First you spot a shattered house on the left – a single wall with a gate and windows gazing onto the void. A little coloured shrine to Mary is still embedded in the wall, poignantly bright and unbroken in the midst of surrounding destruction. Up ahead yawns the city gate, fronted by a Renaissance arch. Step through, and you’re in an entrance tunnel carved by the Etruscans more than two and a half thousand years ago. When you emerge on the other side into the pretty village itself, you’re immediately struck by the silence. Even in the height of summer when visitor numbers are at their highest and many home-owners move back here, Cività remains eerily quiet. Emptiness, it seems, is the village’s recurrent theme – seen in its void-gazing windows and its dark tunnels, heard in its silence, felt on its streets that end suddenly on a precipice. Holes and nothingness abound.
From the small first piazza, there’s only one route forward, and it eventually leads you into Cività’s central square, the Piazza del Duomo Vecchio. As the square’s name suggests, the sleepy church here was once Cività’s cathedral – until 1699 when local religious bigwigs decamped to Bagnoregio for safety. It’s built on the site of an original Etruscan temple, and there’s still an ancient shaft nearby dug to connect the temple to the network of Etruscan burial caves beneath Cività’s rock. The Romans spruced the place up when they took over, and the columns of the temple they built are still here now – as stubby grey stumps in a neat line at the foot of the church steps.
Inside, the church is unexpectedly gaudy – more a work of Central America than central Italy. The heads of plasterwork saints are ringed by domestic lightbulbs. A life-sized Jesus writhes in lurid agony on the cross. But there are delicate frescos too, faded and crumbling, and sprays of fresh flowers touchingly laid by the faithful. The exterior is undeniably pretty, with its vaguely Florentine shapes and proportions, its mix of grey basalt and honey-coloured tufa. Try to imagine the boisterous crowd here on the church steps on the first Sunday of June each year, when Cività holds its madcap ‘Tonna’ festival. Think Siena’s Palio, but with donkeys instead of horses – crazily racing round the tiny piazza with young men on their backs.
From the central piazza, the main street carries on through the village, past cosy domestic lanes that end suddenly on new cliff-edges, hastily cordoned off with chicken wire. Views of the surrounding landscape glimpsed from these death-defying spots are breathtaking – white collapsed hillsides meeting an infinity of trees, and the gentle round hills of Umbria silhouetting the horizon. Toward the end of the main street, if you’re lucky you’ll be accosted by an impossibly ancient lady. She’ll be sitting on the low wall outside her house, and she’ll invite you to see the ‘panorama’ in her garden. If she does, for heaven’s sake go and see it. Her garden has easily the most spectacular view in the whole village, the vast surrounding landscape on fullest display.
But it’s not just the view that’s fascinating. The woman and her husband have assembled a weird, ramshackle folk-museum in little caves behind their house. Arranged with no regard to age or usage, and somehow all the more interesting for it, the caves are hung higgledy-piggledy with pots, baskets, trowels, bridles, ceramic icons, scary iron scythes, esoteric spikes and nameless rusted hoops. Old wooden dressers stand beside terracotta amphorae and what look for all the world like Roman breastplates. Here is the whole history of life in Cività seen through its objects. Be sure to slip the elderly lady some euros when you leave.
Further on, the main street dips and dwindles. The homes come to an end, and slabs of ancient stone frame a desolate view: pale, sharp-edged ‘calanchi’ or collapsed hillsides. An east-facing city-gate once stood near this spot, but no longer. Many visitors turn round at this point, but they’re missing Cività’s best secret. Carry on, following the narrow, overgrown path down and round to the right, descending the flank of the rock. You’ll pass tiny caves with rustic wooden doors (Etruscan tombs turned into toolsheds) and gaze up to see homes sitting on the sheer edge of the rock, doubtless the next ones to tumble unless engineers come up with a plan. Keep going. Eventually the dwindling path turns suddenly to reveal one final marvel: a long straight tunnel with daylight at its end, piercing the whole rock and running the full subterranean width of Cività.
Positioned directly beneath the village’s main square, this tunnel was the dromos of the original Etruscan city – an access corridor to its necropolis and network of sacred caves. It’s an amazing sight, and as you wander through, small chasms to right and left hint at other passageways and undisturbed tombs. The tunnel feels mythical, fantastical – like everything else about Cività. Who would have believed you only had to go as far as northern Lazio to step into a fairytale?
ANTICO FORNO B&B
Piazza del Duomo Vecchio
+39 0761 760016
The only hotel actually in Cività itself, the Antico Forno sits on the main square of the village, with every room looking onto Cività’s central piazza. The 15th-century building has been refurbished in a quaint, vaguely rustic style, and there’s a very good restaurant on the first floor. Hotelier and chef Franco speaks English.
Single rooms from €45; Double rooms from €65
HOTEL ROMANTICA PUCCI
Piazza Cavour, 1
+39 0761 792121
This friendly hotel in a recently-restored building in the middle of old Bagnoregio has five romantic rooms decorated in very different styles – two with curtained four-poster beds. The cosy little restaurant with dark beams overhead serves typical local dishes. There’s private parking, and the owner speaks English.
Double room €80
AGRITURISMO DIVINO AMORE
+39 0761 792757 / 792379
This 18th-century farmhouse sits on a low hill in the otherworldly valley of calanchi at the foot of Cività. Beautifully renovated inside and out using traditional materials like basalt, tufa and local hardwoods, the agriturismo has two double rooms, a quadruple, and a ground floor double equipped for disabled visitors. The wide, leafy grounds contain a pool and a small artificial lake.
Double room €80
Via Fidanza, 25
+39 0761 793444
In the centre of old Bagnoregio, with Cività a pleasant 20-minute walk away, the Fidanza occupies a stately old townhouse with a long-standing family connection to St. Bonaventura. Its 24 en suite rooms are decorated in an unfussy and comfortable modern style. There’s private parking, and a good in-house restaurant serving local dishes.
Double room €74
Via Roma, 33
+39 0761 792328
This tiny, homey B&B in a renovated old house in the centre of Bagnoregio has just two double rooms – with pleasant, simple décor. Breakfast is a friendly affair in the small, tidy kitchen with its open stone fireplace. Parking is available on the street outside, and buses to Orvieto and elsewhere stop nearby.
Double room €40 - €50
HOSTARIA DEL PONTE
Localita Mercatello 11
+39 0761 793565
Splendidly sited just before the footbridge out to Cività, this lovely restaurant and enoteca is justifiably popular with tourists keen to gawp at the awesome view from its terrace. The typical local dishes show Umbrian influence – making much use of black truffles, porcini mushrooms, wild boar and game. There’s an especially extensive list of good local wines.
Meal for two about €45
Piazza del Duomo Vecchio, Cività
+39 0761 760016
Well-situated on the village’s main square, the Antico Forno is a friendly place serving very good local cuisine – bruschetta with truffles/peppers/pumpkin, meat and game dishes, strozzaprete (‘priest-choker’) pasta traditional to northern Lazio, and so on. Dining is outside on the square or in an atmospheric dining room with a large fireplace.
Meal for two about €40
BRUSCHETTERIA LA CANTINA
Via Maesta, Cività
+39 0761 793270
On Cività’s main street, on the right just past the church, this rustic wine cellar and bruschetteria has a handful of tables outside and a cavernous indoor dining room. The friendly owners serve delicious bruschette on plastic plates and homemade wine in plastic cups. A fun and atmospheric place to stop for a snack or lunch.
Bruschette and wine for two about €12
IL VECCHIO MULINO
Via Marconi 25, Lubriano
+39 0761 780505
Five minutes north of Bagnoregio, the tiny town of Lubriano sits perched on a cliff- edge – gazing straight across the canyon to Cività. Il Vecchio Mulino’s tiny balcony enjoys a fabulous view, but there’s more reason than this to come here. Super-friendly staff serve wonderful regional food (traditional dishes plus exotica such as tortelli filled with buttered nettles and cinnamon).
Meal for two about €55
Via delle Fontana, Lubriano
+39 0761 780401
Also situated in Lubriano, this restaurant and enoteca has splendid premises, occupying a series of refurbished caves that served as agricultural storage spaces until the 1960s. The enoteca section is especially impressive – with bottles in myriad wall-niches. The menu features typical local dishes (meat, game, and pasta) prepared with refinement and imagination.
Meal for two about €55