Tourists Revive Italian Hilltop Village, but Nature Has Other Plans

Categories: Rural Land


CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO, Italy — Forgive Sandro Rocchi if he seems a smidgen satisfied as he enjoys a midday glass of red wine at his children’s restaurant and relishes the unlikely revival of this stunning hilltop village. He moved away in the 1970s for lack of prospects. Now there are shops, restaurants, boutique properties and gobs of tourists.

“The place has come back to life,” Mr. Rocchi said.

There is a teensy problem, though.

Civita di Bagnoregio is slowly, steadily collapsing, and it has been for centuries. Landslides have incrementally eroded the sheer cliffs, at one point slicing off the ancient stone residence of the village’s most famous native, Giovanni di Fidanza, the medieval theologian canonized as St. Bonaventure. For years, this losing war of geological attrition was not such a big deal because barely anyone lived in Civita, and not too many people visited.

The year-round population is still tiny — maybe six people, maybe eight — but Civita, 75 miles north of Rome in central Italy, is now a tourism dynamo, with more than 500,000 visitors expected this year. It is a candidate to become a Unesco World Heritage site. It is the centerpiece of a regional tourism campaign and is featured on city buses in Rome. It is, everyone agrees, a marvel.


And it is still collapsing, if very slowly. In May, a hillside gave way near the elevated one-lane road that leads to the footbridge that leads to the village. The road remains stable as crews are working on the hillsides; tourists have not seemed to notice. A local geologist estimated that Civita had suffered about 10 landslides during the past year, some of them small, others more damaging.

“Rain is the main problem,” said the geologist, Giovanni Maria Di Buduo, who oversees a local museum dedicated to the geology of Civita and the surrounding region. “Rain gets into the fractures of the volcanic rock and creates alterations. In the last five centuries, we’ve seen a reduction of the cliff by about 20 percent due to landslides.”

Given the newfound tourist trade, as well as the historical and cultural significance of a village first built by the ancient Etruscans, the Lazio regional government is moving to respond. One possibility is to push for a national law granting special status and funding to Civita. Also, Lazio officials say they will draft a 10-year plan for a holistic approach to reinforcing and protecting the village, after more ad hoc efforts in the past.


“We realized that investments have been made in the past, but it was too diluted,” said Fabio Refrigeri, a minister in the Lazio government. “It wasn’t efficient.”

The Etruscans built Civita more than 2,500 years ago, one of many hilltop villages fortified to protect against invaders in the valleys below. But as centuries passed and as warfare changed, eclipsing Civita’s strategic advantage, the village became increasingly isolated. An earthquake in the 17th century did not help; the local government was moved to what had been the adjacent suburb of Bagnoregio, which still oversees Civita today.

Then erosion accentuated the problem. Landslides transformed the village into a compact island, as a land bridge that connected Civita to Bagnoregio gradually collapsed (it was later replaced by a steel-and-concrete footbridge, used today). Maps in the village’s geological museum document the steady shrinkage of Civita as erosion has chewed away at its chalky volcanic tuff.


“That landslide was from last November,” said Luca Profili, the deputy mayor of Bagnoregio, pointing to loose rubble gathered at the bottom of one cliff. In the distance, the landscape surrounding Civita is a blend of green valleys cleaved by eroded hillsides of white, chalky soil. “If you look at pictures from last year, these areas have changed because the soil is so fragile,” Mr. Profili added.

Not so many years ago, decline seemed inevitable, which perhaps explains Civita’s nickname: Il Paese Che Muore, or The Town That Is Dying. Except it has not died, not in the least. Pope Benedict XVI visited Civita’s cathedral in 2009 to pay homage to St. Bonaventure. Tourism officials in Lazio promoted Civita in national ad campaigns. Accounts in the news media picked up on the novelty of a pristine medieval village atop a jagged cliff, confronted by erosion. It was irresistible and stunningly picturesque.

“The fragility of Civita is bad, but it is also what makes it unique,” Mr. Profili said. “It is the idea that you have it today, but you don’t know if you will have it tomorrow.”


Now, restaurants and gift shops cater to streams of day-trippers. Several stone buildings have been converted into bed-and-breakfasts. Donkey races are hosted in the small piazza twice a year. On Good Friday, the large crucifix from the cathedral is carried in a procession into Bagnoregio — always returned, since legend holds that Civita will collapse if the crucifix is not back by midnight before Easter.

Arianna Bastoni, owner of La Cantina di Arianna, a restaurant just off the square, lives most of the year in an upstairs apartment. Days are now busy as she and other family members race around, serving the flow of tourists. But if Civita fills up by day, it empties by night, save the guests in the bed-and-breakfasts or the die-hards who call it home.

“It is very tranquil,” Ms. Bastoni said. “At around 7 p.m., all the tourists leave. Then there is an incredible silence.”

For Mr. Rocchi, 70, the revival of Civita is an unexpected delight. Generations of his family lived here until he left in the desperate 1970s. “There was a time during the 1960s and 1970s when you couldn’t find a job here,” he said. “So everybody left.”

Now his son, Maurizio, and his daughter, Alessandra, run a popular restaurant, Alma Civita. Mr. Rocchi spends his mornings in the nearby hillsides, hunting truffles, before turning up for a meal.

“I leave them truffles,” he said, “and they cook me lunch.”

Not a bad deal in a village that perhaps is not dying after all.

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