Civita di Bagnoregio

22 Mar

Hurray, I’m still in Italy!

We’re in the tiny town of Bagnoregio, on the border of Lazio, near Umbria. This place is basically the whole reason we came out here. My parents lived in this village for one year about thirty years ago, when my mom was doing field work for her PhD in anthropology. My dad mainly hung around in the central square and played basketball. Not a bad gig. I feel like I should try to get in on that. I mean, why isn’t my wife traveling abroad for research purposes and taking me with her? Huh? Honey?

Ah well, it’s enough to be here for a few days at least. Bagnoregio is a town of about two thousand people, pretty much off the map, and surrounded by villages that are equally unknown. And that’s part of what makes it so amazing. Picture an equivalent size place in the United States and then imagine the area that lies within a forty minute drive around it. And then imagine that whole area full of 13th century churches and castles and Etruscan ruins. It’s like: oh yeah, this is just a little nothing town, and then, oh yeah, and there’s our thousand year old building with a foundation dating back to pre-Roman times. Uh, yes please!

Bagnoregio translates to Bath of the King, from an old story that a king traveling to Rome stopped here to take a bath in the river. It’s a hill-town, as so many towns in this region are, built on the hard tufa rock that lies in the area. Its old section is made up of one narrow street, running the length of the plateau, with a few small streets running off of it at different points. The village looks down on the valley below, where historically everybody’s farmland lay. The Italians are an urban people — for centuries and centuries these villagers grew their crops in the ample land of the valley, and chose to live crowded in upon each other in the tiny town above. Our friends we’re staying with out here own some land, where they grow olives for oil, and they’re building a bed and breakfast on the property. When they showed us the building they’re renovating to make the B&B it turned out to be an ancient church. “Yes,” our friend Dante said, in typically casually fashion, “this is from the 6th century.” And I’m like, holy shit Dante, you’re blowing my mind over here!

This was my experience a few different times around these parts. The gem of the whole region is Civita di Bagnoregio — an ancient hill-town dating back to Etruscan times. It lies on the outskirts of Bagnoregio and it’s only accessible by a concrete footbridge, too narrow to accommodate any cars. Depending on who you talk to the town once had a population of anywhere from four to twenty thousand people. But time, erosion, and earthquakes have taken their toll — every decade or so a house is condemn for fear it will fall off the side of a cliff — and now the place has a full-time population of about ten. Some of them are Dante’s wife’s family; they run a tiny restaurant here and after lunch they showed us their basement. It basically never ended, with room after room descending deeper and deeper into the earth. The initial few narrow stairways all had ramps built into them, for rolling down casks of wine. The rooms kept getting smaller and smaller, until we reached the point we had to stop. “We’re not sure when this last one dates from,” they said. They pointed towards another stairway that led down into darkness. “We can’t go down there, because we haven’t put any lights down,” and then again, very casually, “it goes down about 20 more meters.” That’s about 60 feet people. I’m not a brave man, but I wanted very badly to walk down there anyway. Because, obviously, I want very badly to travel back in time. And in a certain sense this seemed to be my closest bet.

It wasn’t right for me entirely to refer to Bagnoregio as off the map. Civita has gotten fairly popular with tour groups, and with the wealthy looking for a second home. The population grows in summer, with people from Rome coming up to stay, and other places too, as far away as Boston, or California. That’s the way it goes now. In the basements we have the past, and up here we have the future. Is it a bad thing, the future? I don’t know. But it makes me think, everything happens in this world because people speak to each other — they communicate, in different mediums, and the life we lead changes because of it. It all comes down to talking. Though maybe I’m just saying that because my family won’t ever shut up. And all these Italian people as well. Mangia, mangia, they all yell at me. Yeah, all right, I’ll mangia. Pass the cinghiale.

(Originally posted Mar. 27th, 2009 on


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