Out on a limb in Italy

by Fleur.Kinson

The precarious village of Cività di Bagnoregio is one of central Italy’s most arresting sights. Cross the footbridge into a fairytale place with an astonishing history.

There’s nothing like that first, sudden sight of it. One moment you’re in the pleasant little town of Bagnoregio – all plastered Renaissance townhouses and tidy piazzas – and the next you’re looking at a fairytale clutch of buildings perched on a tall pedestal of striped rock rising from a white canyon edged by weirdly collapsed hillsides. The only thing connecting those buildings to the rest of the world is a kilometre-long footbridge slung high across a tree-lined abyss. It’s a sight that catapults you instantly from reality to fantasy. Like a unicorn sitting down next to you on the bus.
Home to about 30 people, but drawing several thousand astonished visitors each year, this perilously-sited village – Cività – looked very different 28 centuries ago. Then it was a thriving Etruscan city, spread across a wide table of rock ringed by fertile land. But surrounding streams were stealthily undermining the mass of rock, licking away the soft clay and sand 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 were no better when the Romans took over. Whole streets sometimes slid away into oblivion. And so it continued through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages and beyond. Cività grew smaller and smaller, its edges continually nibbled away. Regardless, people carried on living here, and building here, often to their terrible cost. The most recent losses are still vividly imprinted on the village – the single surviving walls of houses set on sheer precipices, their window-holes and doorways framing nothing but blue sky.
Periodically abandoned, Cività’s nickname is ‘la città che muore’ (‘the dying city’). But these days a steady trickle of visitors are bringing the place 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 prevent the rest of the village falling out of existence. No one’s yet found a way to stop the rot, but they surely try harder with every euro spent in the tiny art studios and cafés here. Meanwhile, the homes with so few inhabitants stay remarkably well-maintained and decked with flowers.
Cività is so small you can explore it all in about two hours. But what a two hours! First you must cross the footbridge – that slim umbilical, connecting Cività to civilization. An ocean of trees rustles beneath your feet as you cross, the only sound in the vast, quiet space. Previous bridges across the abyss collapsed, but this robust modern zigzag was built to last. The final slope up is a slog, and the old steps that follow seem endless, but curiosities are already appearing...
A shattered house stands on the left – a single wall with a gate and windows gazing onto the void. 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 in the pretty village, it’s startlingly quiet. Even in the height of summer when visitor numbers are highest, Cività remains eerily peaceful. Emptiness, it seems, is its recurrent theme – heard in its silence, seen in its void-gazing windows, experienced in lanes that end suddenly on a precipice, and felt through its dark tunnels.
Take the obvious route forward and you come to a central piazza, backed by the sleepy church that was once Cività’s cathedral. Built on an Etruscan temple site, there’s still an ancient shaft here which tunnels down to sacred caves. The Romans spruced things up when they took over, and the columns of their temple are still here – stubby grey stumps in a neat line at the foot of the church steps.
Carry on through the village, past cosy domestic lanes which end suddenly on new cliff-edges, hastily cordoned off with chicken wire. There are awesome views from these death-defying spots – vistas of collapsed white hillsides, trees climbing canyon walls, and the gentle hills of Umbria lining the horizon.
Further along the main street, if you’re lucky you’ll be accosted by an impossibly ancient lady or her equally aged husband. Either or both will be sitting on a low wall outside their house, and they’ll invite you to see the ‘panorama’ in their garden. If they do, for heaven’s sake go and see it. They have easily the most spectacular view in the village.
And it’s not just the view that’s fascinating. The couple have assembled a weird, ramshackle little folk-museum in small 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, icons, scythes, 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 old couple 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. Many visitors turn round at this point, but they’re missing Cività’s best secret. Carry on, following the narrow, overgrown path round to the right and descending the flank of the rock. Keep going until 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 main square, this tunnel was the dromos of the Etruscan city – an access corridor to its necropolis. As you wander through, small chasms to right and left suggest other passageways and undisturbed tombs. Like everything else about Cività, the tunnel makes you feel you’ve stepped into the realm of the fantastical.

Recommended places to stay

Antico Forno B&B
Piazza del Duomo Vecchio, Cività
Enjoying a lovely position on Cività's main piazza, this is the only hotel actually inside the village itself. 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. Double rooms from €62.
Agriturismo Divino Amore
Località Cerasone
This 18th-century farmhouse sits on a low hill in the otherworldly valley of white calanchi (collapsed hillsides) at the foot of Cività. It's been beautifully renovated using traditional materials like basalt, tufa and local hardwoods. The wide, leafy grounds contain a pool and a small artificial lake. Double rooms cost about €80.
Hotel Romantica Pucci
Piazza Cavour 1, Bagnoregio
This friendly hotel in an old restored building in the middle of 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 rooms cost about €80. 
Il Frantoio
Via della Fontana, Lubriano
Primarily an atmospheric restaurant and enoteca, Il Frantoio is also a charming place to spend the night. It's situated in the old centre of Lubriano (just round the canyon edge from Bagnoregio) and offers simple, snug rooms decorated in rustic style - from which you can gaze out over terracotta rooftops into the eerie space surrounding Cività. Double rooms cost about €70.

Recommended places to eat

Hostaria del Ponte
Localita Mercatello 11
Splendidly sited just before the dramatic footbridge out to Cività, this lovely restaurant is justifiably popular with tourists, who are keen to drink in the awesome view from its terrace. The typical local dishes show Umbrian iinfluence - 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.
Antico Forno
Piazza del Duomo Vecchio, Cività
The only fully-fledged restaurant in Cività itself, the Antico Forno is a friendly spot 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 village's main square or in an atmospheric dining room with a large fireplace. Meal for two about €45.
Il Frantoio
Via della Fontana, Lubriano
Situated in Lubriano (a tiny cliff-edge town that gazes acros the canyon to Cività), this restaurant and enoteca has splendid premises in a series of refurbished caves. The striking wine cellar has bottles nestling in myriad wall niches. The menu features typical local dishes (meat, game and pasta), prepared with some refinement and imaginatinon. Meal for two about €55.

Getting there

British Airways, easyJet, Alitalia and Ryanair all fly from the UK to Rome; from there it’s just over an hour’s train ride to Orvieto, and from Orvieto, it’s about another half-hour’s drive to Civita.