Italy's 'dying' hilltop town seeks Unesco heritage nod

Civita has resisted definitive death from landslides, erosion over many centuries

Civita di Bagnoregio, known as "The Dying Town" due to its susceptibility to erosion and landslides, is accessible only via a long and steep ramp.
Civita di Bagnoregio, known as "The Dying Town" due to its susceptibility to erosion and landslides, is accessible only via a long and steep ramp. PHOTO: REUTERS

CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO (Italy) • Calling itself "The Dying Town" may not sound like the best way to attract visitors, but a hilltop town in central Italy has learnt to make a living out of dying.

And it has resisted definitive death for so long that Italy has nominated the town, called Civita, and the surrounding area of stark cliffs and valleys known as "badlands" to be a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Centuries ago, the town was much larger and connected by road to other settlements. But landslides, earthquakes, cracks and erosion have reduced its size dramatically and left it sitting spectacularly alone at the top of a spur.

When winter clouds are low, Civita looks like a floating castle in the air. On a clear day, the rock on which it rests looks like a slice of a multi-layered cake.

Clay from an inland sea a million years ago supports strata of compacted ash and magma from subsequent volcanic eruptions.

Civita's past, present and future are the stuff of a geologist's dream, with a major landslide that took place in 1114 still under study today.

"During three millennia, regressive erosion has practically reduced Civita to a nucleus, leaving the square and a few streets around it," said geologist Luca Costantini, who is part of a project to monitor and slow down the erosion.

In underground caverns cut out of soft volcanic rock known as tufo, steel bars hold walls together.

"Our motto is 'resilience' because Civita was founded by the Etruscans, passed through the Roman era and the entire mediaeval period to reach the present day," said Mr Luca Profili, the mayor of Bagnoregio, of which Civita is a part. "This place is so fragile."

That fragility is measured in part by an "extensometer", an external telescopic rod that detects movement.

The Civita that remains today is mostly from the mediaeval period and measures about 152m by 91m, less than two soccer pitches. Its main square is about the size of a basketball court.

Once spread out on a hill about three times its current size, entire neighbourhoods collapsed in landslides over the centuries. Today, the town is accessible via a long and steep ramp for pedestrians or golf carts.

The number of permanent residents fluctuates between 10 and 14 depending on the season. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Civita was a draw for tourists travelling between Rome and Florence.

Road signs direct visitors to "Civita - The Dying Town".

Mr Stefano Lucarini, 29, bought a restaurant in Civita in March last year, just days before a Covid-19 lockdown. "The timing was not great," he said.

But he is optimistic that after the pandemic, the town can get back on its feet. "The environmental risk is worrying (but) we hope that for many years everyone will be able to enjoy the town," he said.

The mayor's spokesman, Mr Roberto Pomi, said Italy submitted the heritage site proposal in January and expects Unesco, the cultural protection agency of the United Nations, to decide in June next year.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2021, with the headline Italy's 'dying' hilltop town seeks Unesco heritage nod. Subscribe