We’re in Lazio, in the Province of Viterbo, an hour from Rome, as we set out on our expedition to a very special place: clinging to a tuff stone hilltop, like a tiny island in a sea of huge stone waves.
This the impression you get as you get a first faraway glimpse of Civita di Bagnoregio, floating in an almost lunar landscape of deep ravines and narrow crests. It’s one of the most breathtaking geological landscapes in Lazio.
Set like a jewel of Nature’s architecture between Lake Bolsena and the Tiber Valley, it owes its fame to the fact that it lies at the heart of an eroding area: the spur of soft rock on which it perches is crumbling away little by little, hence its nickname as “the dying city”. Erosion, earthquakes and collapses have modified the old town’s stability...and yet, despite fissures and damage, the ancient ‘Civitas’ refuses to die.
The first settlements in this area can be traced back to the Neolithic period, but the oldest remains of stable human presence date from Etruscan times. Legend has it that the name Bagnoregio is derived from “balneum regis”, due to the presence of thermal springs which miraculously cured Desiderius, King of the Longobards, of a serious disease.
The small town still shows traces of its past. We know that Charlemagne consigned it to the Papacy, but that a popular revolt led to the creation of a Free Commune in roughly 1160. But the event that permanently changed the nature of the town (then known as ‘Bagnorea’, today as Civita) took place in 1695, when a huge earthquake struck the area. This separated the town from two of its quarters, Mercato e Rota, leaving it surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs, similar to how we see it today.
Nowadays, a long thin footbridge joins the main town of Bagnoregio to the old hilltop of Civita. The effect is thrilling, both from a distance and as you walk up it, suspended in mid-air, to the ancient town.
The old centre perched on its hilltop is the main attraction of Bagnoregio. You can visit it in one day, making sure not to miss its Palazzo Ducale and Parish Church. If you don’t fancy much walking, a shuttle can take you from Bagnoregio to near the bridge, but it may not be worth the wait, and in the short walk towards Civita you can visit many little shops with interesting local products.
Various conservation works have shorn up the perimeter cliff-edges, even though long-term erosion is inevitable... nevertheless, Civita welcomes its visitors warmly and vivaciously.
No cars can enter and nothing can disturb the panoramic view and the picturesque landscapes.
You will admire the beautiful Piazza San Donato with its 5th-century church of the same name, which contains a fresco by the school of Perugino and a 15th-century wooden crucifix that is considered to be miraculous: on the evening of Good Friday, this revered object is the protagonist of the Procession of the Dead Christ.
The town boasts a maze of alleys embellished by ancient arches and portals, passing friendly craft shops and delicatessens or warm tea-rooms for a tasty snack. And on all sides, amazing views open out onto the Valle dei Calanchi. A valley of fragile and delicate beauty, which at sunset especially offers interplays of light, shadow and colour that take your breath away.
The awe-filled fascination of the landscape of plunging gullies owes its origin to the action of rainwater streaming down hillsides created by clay deposits from the Pliocene age. Wind erosion and minor landslides contribute to further sculpt the fragile rock, creating a magical series of formations: spires, bridges, cavities, gorges... A unique natural environment, deserving protection and care.
Today Civita is a much-visited site thanks to a series of initiatives aimed at attracting a sensitive tourism that respects its priceless historical and environmental values. An ancient town that has revived to provide an example of progressive territorial enhancement, while respecting a delicate balance that openly contradicts its label: Civita di Bagnoregio is truly a living city!
You can park in Piazzale dei Bersaglieri, or alternatively opt for the shuttle service departing from Piazzale Battaglini.