Italy’s City Of The Dead: Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio is a mystical, magical city.  Inhabited by only 14 full time residents, it is located deep in the Umbrian hill country. The city rises from the Canyon below almost totally isolated from the civilization around it.  The last bridge to the city was bombed in World War II.  A single narrow foot path was built after the war to reconnect the town to its neighbor, Bagnoregio.

Civita di Bagnoregio was constructed in the 8th century by Etruscans and was, for a time, part of the Etruscan’s principle route to Rome.  Entry into the town is accomplished by climbing the steep roadway on foot, or relying on a motorcycle or motor scooter.  It is a tourist destination only for the adventurous and the strong.  The trek is almost impossible for the frail or those with small children. For visitors willing and able to climb to Civita, the journey ends by walking through the city gate, carved from the stone over 2500 years ago.SAM_0197

The isolation of Civita results from the ongoing erosion of the rock on which the town was built so many centuries ago.  Because there are so few remaining residents in a town large enough to a far larger population, it is sometimes identified as the “City of the Dead”.  But for those of us who visit, Civita offers a rare opportunity to experience a lifestyle that is, almost literally, from an ancient time.  Only the few tourists, and the occasional motorcycle, give us any clue that we are living in the 21st century instead of the middle ages.

The inaccessibility of this destination is a testament to the tenacity of its residents.  There are more restaurants than residents. Visitors are few, but those who enter Civita are fortunate to visit a town almost totally untouched by the outside world.  Restaurants serve food that is hearty and filling.  It is cooked from simple ingredients over the heat of small, open fires.  Cold drinks are in short supply. The architecture of the town is truly unique, even in a country of ancient buildings.

If you want an experience of a lifetime, visit Civita di Bagnoregio.  You won’t be sorry.


Cathedral at Orvieto, Italy

The Duomo at Orvieto is considered one of central Italy’s most beautiful cathedrals.  The construction of the massive structure extended for more than 3 centuries.  The cornerstone of  this magnificent cathedral was laid in 1290 A.D. by Pope Nicolas IV. He wanted a place to house a “miracle”, the Corporal of Bolsena.

It is strikingly beautiful.  Colorful murals and statues cover the exterior of the building are by many of the finest artists of the day, including Lorenzo Maitani.  The interior of the cathedral has frescoes by such artists as Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli.  The cathedral, completed in the early 1600s, is considered to be a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.

The design and intricate detail of the cathedral flow together as the works of art–sculptures, mosaics, frescoes,windows, the carved stone and even the gables–are filled with Biblical scenes.  It is truly a work of art.

Unexpected Beauty While Strolling “Somewhere Else”

I love Italy.  Our trip to Northern Italy was filled with wonderful sights and smells and sounds.  In the presence of the massive buildings dating back hundreds of years, it was easy to be oblivious to the beauty of simple things.  On my return home, I realized that many of my favorite photographs are along the streets and neighborhoods we passed through on our way “somewhere else”.

The towns through which we travelled are ancient.  Civita di Banoregio, for example, was founded by Etruscans over twenty-five hundred years ago.  There are Etruscan and Roman ruins everywhere.  But for this post, just look at the construction of this wall.  You can see the seemingly primitive, but obviously durable, methods of erecting these walls and this archway.  Raw, enduring, but beautiful, nonetheless.

Houses and streets are built primarily of stone, concrete, stucco nd mortar.  There is evidence of generations of foot traffic. We walked by this hallway in an area of private residences. Like many neighborhoods in Northern Italy, heavy exterior doors open into hallways and common courtyards with plants, bicycles–a favorite method of transportation–and concrete benches.  I love the muted colors leading up to the splash of red.

The path on which Terry is standing goes nowhere.  Throughout the area, towns stand atop hills that plunge almost straight down to the valleys below.  Here the stone wall and wrought iron fence protect travelers from the edge of one of Umbria’s many cliffs.

I love the flags and banners that line this street.  They add just enough color to be fun to the stone and stucco buildings. The banners are important to the culture of many communities, are important in celebration and festivals.  There is even a sport/art requiring the tossing of the banners high into the air and–hopefully–catching them before they fall.

The red and green flowers follow the road from the first door on the right through to the turn in the road.  The massive walls dwarf the red door and the color simply disappears in a vee running through the middle of the photograph encourages the explorer to follow the bend in the road to the next adventure.  It is evident these streets are used primarily by pedestrians, bicycles and motor scooters rather than automobiles and trucks.

Many of the towns through which we walked were older than we could ever find in the States.  It is often difficult to assess whether the residents lived affluent or simple lives, the exteriors of the buildings were uniquely appealing, made more so by the profusion of geraniums of every hue.

Locals described to us that some families lived in homes that had been in their families for generations.  This home appeared to be quite luxurious with elegant touches in the arches, doors, crest on the wall and what appears to be a private garden through the stairway and door in the left corner of the wall.  The ivy softens the harsh stone and balances the shades of muted reds, yellows and greens that harmonize with the lavender on the doors and windows.

For me these photographs bring back memories of a great trip.  I hope they convey some sense of the simple beauty of the hill country.

How We Spent Our Summer Vacation–Umbria

Umbria is not a place I had ever thought of going. Tuscany, of course; Umbria, why? But then again, why not? Having no real expectations when we began planning this trip, we became more and more excited about what we would find. Now that we have visited, I can definitely say that it was worth the trip.

We were in Umbria at what must be one of the most beautiful times of year. The landscape is often routine but coupled with hill towns that are anything but. We visited too many towns to describe them all, but our overall experience is enough to recommend to anyone that they include it on their travel list.

We began our first full day in Todi. Like Monticello where we stayed, Todi rises out of the ground with breathtaking beauty. While accessible by car, it is easier to park at the bottom of the hill and take the “funicular” to the top of the hill, ie. the edge of Todi.  A funicular is most effectively described as an outdoor escalator. Two churches were visible at the peak of the hill. There were so many churches in the small towns and cities we visited that I finally decided that building a small church was the best way for a family of affluence to be confident they could be buried in a prestigious building. Throughout the town, stone buildings clung to the hill as though they could literally slide down to the valley below. The residents seemed to be perpetually walking up and down–but never on flat ground. While open to traffic, the stone and brick streets are most used by walkers and a few motor scooters. Tourists were present but did not dominate the town.  The walls of Todi seem to have been built and rebuilt through the centuries as evidenced by the patchwork of brick and stone in the walls. Maybe the walls have, in fact, slid down to the valley as they have weakened. I don’t know. We ate lunch at the Umbria Restaurant, where the view was wonderful and the food quite good. We finished eating at 2:30, at which time the shops, churches and museums closed, not to reopen until 3:30. We immediately realized we would have to alter our travel schedules to adjust to the Italians. They certainly would have no reason to adjust to ours!

Every day seemed to be the best day of our trip. We visited Orvietto and Civita Di Bagnoriego our second day. Two hours in Orvietto was barely enough time to scratch the surface. Again we arrived by funicular. It is a quick way up these steep hills. It was lovely and seemed to be a place where people lived, rather than toured.  There was no funicular at Civita di Bagnoregio. This ancient city is separated from the land around it by a deep valley. It is accessible only by a long walking bridge. The route began with a hike from the car park followed by a steep and extended trek down the hill via a stone stairway, followed by an extended walk to the bridge. The bridge itself begins with a gentle slope before rising more steeply up to the wall of the city. We were told only nine people live here full-time. One of the residents said that their property had been in the family for hundreds of years. There are more restaurants than residents. I never quite figured that out! The food was quite simple but tasty. It was cooked in hot earthen ovens with hot coals continuously placed behind the cooking area. The simplicity of the food did not minimize the obvious challenge required to provide food and cold drinks to those physically fit enough to desire them. The simple church was lovingly tended. Instead of a center rug, decorative cut flowers had been painstaking spread in a pattern over the center aisle. The lives of the inhabitants were also simple. Some living quarters were behind gates and appeared to be carved out of the stone from the hill itself, with only iron fences between the residents and the steep slopes. Not a place for the frail or fearful. Certainly not ADA compliant!

Monday was devoted to St. Francis. I’m not Catholic, but he is my favorite Saint. The Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli is at the foot of Assisi. It is there that St. Francis is said to have discovered his vocation and where he founded his first small church. This original church sits within the Basilica. During our visit, religious services were actually being conducted in the tiny interior church. St. Claire is buried in the Basilica.  After touring the Basilica we drove the few miles to Assisi. It is more beautiful than I had anticipated, although the tourism seemed incompatible with St. Francis’ humble message. I wondered how he would feel about it all.  More important, as things progressed, I wondered how he would feel about Assisi’s neighbor, Narni.

Narni is another walled town on a hill. A lovely little town, it is famous, if at all, as the location of an inquisition court where trials were held from about 1600 to 1880 A.D. Only fairly recently have the court and the adjacent cell been discovered. It sits immediately below a small church were, presumably the messages of Christ were preached from the pulpit. Below, the court and adjacent cell, where prisoners were held, are small, dark and completely under ground. They appear to have been intentionally hidden. Our guidebook advised us that records concerning this court were found in the Vatican archives sometime after 1970. The instruments of torture depicted in drawings at the site were cruel and barbaric, capable of inflicting horrible pain and humiliation on alleged heretics within a few feet of where others worshipped a loving God. What would St. Francis say?

On Wednesday we traveled to Montefalco, with architecture reminiscent of Latin America, and then to Bevsagna. Interesting towns, the first devoted to wines and linens. Lovely but we declined to buy.

There must be dozens of similar walled cities in Umbria, I have mentioned only a few. While it was a wonderful adventure, we were ready to return to K.C. Of course, we both knew that we will become restless to visit more beautiful and amazing places.  But without question if someone asks about my favorite vacations, I will tell them about Umbria.