ITALY brims with ancient hilltop towns, all of them charming, but Civita di Bagnoregio about 100 kilometres north of Rome near Umbria is a stand-out.
It sits atop a pedestal of cliff looking like a higgledy top hat, surrounded by moon-like landscape, separated from the main town of Bagnoregio by a long walkway faintly reminiscent of a section of the Great Wall of China.
The only way into Civita di Bagnoregio is by foot along the walkway’s one kilometre length over an abyss, and its steepness has you puffing before leading you beneath a 12th Century Romanesque arch into a traffic-free preserved city of antique splendour.
There is a pensive stillness here, as though the rest of the world has no significance. It seems time has remained frozen for more than 2,000 years in Civita di Bagnoregio.
The stone walls hold ancient secrets; the cobblestone alleys are worn smooth from the tread of countless footsteps since the Etruscans built the city 2,500 years ago. The narrow alleys are flanked by stone stairways stepping up to intriguing doors; arched iron gates offer tantalising glimpses into small flowered courtyards; tapered lanes reveal charismatic architecture.
There is no mass tourism here as there is in most of Italy’s hilltop towns. There are only a few residents remaining, all old people, the young ones having long been lured away by the vibrancy of Italy’s large towns and cities.
Civita di Bagnoregio, built on flimsy ground so very long ago, is gradually crumbling away and falling into the canyon, but that has not deterred wealthy city Italians buying most of the properties for tranquil weekend escapes – understandable when you consider there are few hilltop towns left in Italy not overrun by enthusiastic tourists.
Civita di Bagnoregio is used by brides and grooms as a wedding backdrop in the spring and summer and its breathtaking beauty has been the film set for many movies including the popular Italian-Brazilian telenovela, Terra Nostra.
Within the city walls, it is tranquil, quiet...hushed.
Without being conscious of it, we were compelled to slow down, shed cares.
After several leisurely circuits in less than an hour, paying our respects to the church and the belltower, stopping to sit in the piazza, looking up to shuttered windows, snapping photos of red geraniums blazing in pots on every step and window sill, we were ready for refreshment.
Several small trattorie quietly beckoned with blackboard suggestions; we liked the look of Antico Frantoio Bruschetteria and its offering of nothing but bruschetta.
We had to bend our heads and step cautiously down steep and winding stone steps, ducking further beneath low arches to step right into history: the bruschetteria was once an old mill. A few wooden tables were scattered around a 1500 year old olive press, where until the 1960s, poor blindfolded donkeys lumbered in an endless circle to turn the mill to crush the olives to make the oil.
We learnt this from our host, a cheerful bald man monitoring a small coal fire in one of many nooks. He pointed out old mill equipment on the walls as he presented his menu of bruschetta specialities.
“Bring us them all,’’ we told him, for the list was small and our appetites large. We watched as he grilled thick slices of bread over his modest fire.
“Traditional is best,’’ he said as he proffered the first bruschetta, simply rubbed with garlic and doused with local olive oil. As we greedily ate it he hurried off to make further offerings: an artichoke version, then eggplant and cheese varieties. He poured us a carafe of red wine from one of the surrounding wine barrels and we sat, peeking through stone arches into tiny alcoves with space for just a single table and a couple of chairs. Later, when our stomachs were full and we were as content as we’d ever been on our travels, he showed us photos of Civita di Bagnoregio in the winter covered in a white carpet of snow. It looked like icing sugar had been gently sifted over a roughly made cake. We promised to come back one winter. Once visited, Civita di Banoregio is a place to return to in all seasons.
If you go:
Civita di Bagnoregio is about a two hour drive north west of Rome, near the medieval city of Montefiascone.
Car parking is available in Bagnoregio, but a reasonable level of fitness is required to walk the steep walkway.
Emirates flies to Rome via Dubai out of Brisbane.
For more information on Emirates visit the Emirates website.
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