Daily Dose of Europe: Civita di Bagnoregio — Italy’s Dead Town

Of all the Italian hill towns, Civita di Bagnoregio was my favorite. But then it died.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I recently published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this is just one of its 100 travel tales.

During 30 years of visits, I watched Civita wither. Its young people left, lured away by the dazzle of the city. Its elderly grew frail and moved into apartments in nearby Bagnoregio. Today, Civita (dubbed “La città che muore“) is being bought up by rich, big-city Italians for their country escapes. And, just like I had a lemonade stand when I was little, their kids sell bruschetta to a steady stream of gawking tourists.

As I enjoy the picture-perfect panorama of Civita from across the canyon, I get nostalgic recalling this precious chip of Italy when it was a traffic-free community with a grow-it-in-the-valley economy.

Civita teeters atop a pinnacle in a vast canyon ruled by wind and erosion. The saddle that once connected Civita to its bigger and busier sister town, Bagnoregio, eroded away, replaced by only a narrow bridge. On my early visits, a man with a donkey ferried the town’s goods up and down this umbilical cord connecting Civita with the rest of Italy. His son inherited the responsibility, doing the same thing, using a Vespa rather than a donkey.

Entering the town through a cut in the rock made by Etruscans 2,500 years ago and heading under a 12th-century Romanesque arch, I feel like I’m walking into history on the smooth, hubcap-sized cobblestones under my feet. This was once the main Etruscan road leading to the Tiber Valley and Rome, just 60 miles to the south, which feel a world away. Those searching for arcade tourism won’t find it here: There are no lists of attractions, orientation tours, or museum hours.

The charms of Civita are subtle. It’s just a lovingly crafted stone shell, a corpse of a town. Yet it’s also an artist’s dream. Each lane and footpath holds a surprise. The warm stone walls glow, and each stairway is dessert to a sketchpad or camera.

The basic grid street plan of the ancient town survives — but its centerpiece, a holy place of worship, rotated with the cultures: first an Etruscan temple, then a Roman temple, and today a church. The round tops of ancient pillars that stand like bar stools in the square once decorated the pre-Christian temple.

I step into the humble church, the heartbeat and pride of the village for centuries. This was where festivals and processions started. Sitting for a cool, quiet moment in a pew, I see faded paintings by students of famous artists, relics of the hometown-boy Saint Bonaventure, and a dried floral decoration spread across the floor.

Just around the corner from the church, on the main street, is Bruschette con Prodotti Locali, Rossana and Antonio’s cool and friendly wine cellar. I pull up a stump and let them serve me panini, bruschetta, fresh white wine, and a cake called ciambella. After eating, I ask to see the cellar with its traditional winemaking gear and provisions for rolling huge kegs up the stairs. Grabbing the stick, I tap on the kegs…thimp, thimp, thomp…to measure their fullness.

The ground below Civita is honeycombed with ancient cellars like this one (for keeping wine at the same temperature all year) and cisterns (for collecting rainwater, since there was no well in town). Many of these date from Etruscan times.

Behind the church, at Antico Frantoio Bruschetteria, an olive press — the latest in a 2,000-year line of olive presses — fills an ancient Etruscan cave. Brothers Sandro and Felice sell bruschetta to visitors. Bread is toasted on an open fire, drizzled with the finest oil, rubbed with garlic, and topped with chopped tomatoes. These edible souvenirs stay on my breath for hours and in my memory forever.

As I walk back to my car to re-enter the modern world, I stop under a lamp on the donkey path and just listen. I listen to the canyon…distant voices…animals on humble farms…fortissimo crickets…the same sounds villagers heard here when their town was still alive.

Do you have any favorite places that have changed greatly over time?

This story appears in my newest book, “For the Love of Europe” — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Civita.