Civita di Bagnoregio: Race on to save ‘dying town’ of 12 people

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From her balcony, Rossana Medori watches as tourists swarm into her tiny Italian town every day eager to capture a unique piece of history with their cameras and mobile phones.

Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Tiber Valley, 130km north of Rome, Civita di Bagnoregio looks like something from a children’s fable or a Medieval painting.

“This is a magical place, it’s like a fairy-tale,” 70-year-old Medori tells Al Jazeera.

Despite its spectacular setting, Civita is known as “the dying town” because it has fewer than a dozen permanent residents and earthquakes and landslides are now threatening to send it toppling over the edge.

Geologists, artists, authors and politicians are seeking UNESCO World Heritage protection to save it.

During Easter holidays, more than 20,000 people pass through the town [Josephine McKenna/Al Jazeera]

Medori, a grandmother, was born in Civita and can trace her family roots back hundreds of years. She remembers when her town was filled with folk who survived with no electricity or running water and used donkeys to get around.

“It was beautiful when I was growing up, life was much simpler,” says Medori. “I lived in another Civita, but it’s gone.”

The town was founded more than 2,500 years ago by the Etruscan civilisation and has survived invasions by the Romans, the Lombards and the Nazis.

Today its narrow streets are filled with charming Medieval buildings and flowers line the terraces of its stone houses.

Arches are covered in leafy vines and every alley seems to lead to another panoramic vista across the valley.

Rossana Medori, a 70 year old resident, said the town is a ‘magical place’ [Josephine McKenna/Al Jazeera]

“In the early morning or the evening, when there is no one around, it is so peaceful here,” Medori says.

Her daughter, Arianna Bastoni, 41, runs a restaurant beneath the home where she grew up. But she lives across the valley in modern Bagnoregio and travels back and forth every day.

“It is like stepping back in time, every stone tells a story,” she says.

Giuseppe Medori, 84, is a distant relative of Rossana. 

A retired school teacher, he too was born in Civita and moved to the town of Viterbo, 30km away, when he got married. 

“We were poor but we were so happy because we didn’t know any different,” he recalls.

He often returns to the family home he left behind in Civita and has written books about his birthplace. He believes the town must be protected from self-destruction.

“There’s no doubt that very little remains,” he says. “But it is a special place and those in Civita are looking to save it at all costs.”

In 1944, retreating German troops blew up the only bridge that connected Civita to residents across the valley [Josephine McKenna/Al Jazeera]

Guest houses, apartments, restaurants and souvenir stores cater to tourists from the US, Asia and elsewhere in Europe.

Cats laze in the sun and church bells chime as visitors roam through the piazza in front of the Church of St Donato, founded in the 7th century on the remains of an ancient Roman temple.

In September, thousands pack the small square to see donkeys and riders compete in La Tonna, a popular race with ancient origins.

“This is an extraordinary treasure at the crossroads of culture,” says Francesco Bigiotti, the local mayor.

“You feel like you are breathing history in the walls and along the streets of this amazing town that dates back to the Etruscans.”

Civita is no longer a well-kept secret. The number of annual visitors has exploded in the past decade rising from 40,000 in 2010 to more than 850,000 in 2017.

While half the visitors come from Italy, a growing number are from Japan, China and other parts of Asia. Of the 160,000 Asian tourists who visited Civita last year, half were Chinese.

During Easter holidays, more than 20,000 people pass through the town.

“A few years ago this spectacular place was unknown,” says Bigiotti, the mayor. “Now it’s recognised around the world.”

Earthquakes and Nazi violence

There are no cars, post offices or supermarkets, and the only school closed its doors more than 50 years ago.

Food, wine and other essentials are transported in tiny vans across the narrow pedestrian footbridge that links the hilltop town with modern Bagnoregio and the rubbish is removed in the same way.

Local authorities charge tourists to visit the town – 3 euro ($3.68) on weekdays and 5 euro ($6.13) on Sundays – and parking is restricted. 

“We need to spread the flow of tourists so there are not so many at the weekends,” says Bigiotti.

St Bonaventure, an Italian medieval Franciscan, died here in 1274 but his home has since fallen off the cliff.

Other residents were forced to move away when a major earthquake struck towards the end of the 17th century.

In 1944, retreating German troops blew up the only bridge that connected Civita to residents across the valley and more landslides followed.

Over the years, buildings collapsed or slid down the side of the steep cliffs with cracks and chasms in the volcanic tuff and soft clay ridges.

Geologists say the landslides are getting worse – there are dozens every year – and worry that Civita could simply slide off the cliff one day and disappear.

The heavy rains of the past month have provoked more flooding and landslides in Civita. There have been more collapses, the number is set to increase.

Luca Costantini, geologist

Luca Costantini, geologist from the Geological and Landslides Museum, is concerned.

“The heavy rains of the past month have provoked more flooding and landslides in Civita,” he says. “There have been more collapses, the number is set to increase.”

Costantini and other experts have joined politicians, writers and artists to press for a UNESCO World Heritage listing in a last ditch bid to save the town.

Former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Academy Award-winning film director Bernardo Bertolucci, and author Andrea Camilleri are among those who have joined the town’s push for World Heritage status.

“It would be a great asset but also a great responsibility,” says Costantini. “A heritage listing would give us even more visibility and access to dedicated funding.”

Costantini is also worried that the growing influx of tourists is creating more pressure on the environment and threatening the town’s survival.

“The numbers are constantly increasing and sooner or later we will have to impose a limit on the numbers and not go beyond that limit,” he says. 

“The future is up to us.”

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