This piece is dedicated to the late Maria (pictured), the heart and soul of Civita di Bagnoregio.
A modern footbridge is all that connects the sleepy island in the mist to civilization, to reality. Perched on a pinnacle high above the clouds, il paese che muore, the dying town of Civita di Bagnoregio stands as still as a Canaletto as dawn’s veil dances against its promontory. Guided by the iPhones and eBooks of a distant world, two American brothers approach from the narrow footbridge with faces full of wonder. With each step, the mist dissipates and the fairy tale world of Civita comes into focus. The proud remains of a single, ivy-concealed archway await them at the end. Before them stands Etruria.
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A narrow cobblestone road weaves back and forth, towered over by walls of tufa rock and yellow brick on either side. Shuttered windows stare down at the foreigners from every angle, but the only sign of life is the wilting flowers hanging from the windowsills. Crows nest in an ancient tower, and an open door creaks in the distance.
There is little to hint at the town’s former prominence, but the ghosts of Civita linger on. Carvings of twin lions gnawing on human heads recall visions of the land’s bloody history. The savory aroma of bruschetta and pancetta escape an open window. The shrill shrieks of playing children emanate from an open courtyard. Ruins of giant pagan columns stand before what is now a Christian church, a single candle forever burning on its altar. The timeless serenity of the tiny town is as beautiful and terrible as the flickering embers of an extinguished fire.
Benvenuti. The faint whisper of another ghost advances from the mist as the foreigners wander the lonely alleys. Benvenuti. A shuttered window slams closed in a sudden breeze as the strangers look for the source of the noise. Benvenuti. Turning around, they see her, an elderly woman in a floral-patterned dress peering on from beneath a crocus-covered archway. Her aquamarine eyes sparkle with life while her blemished skin betrays her age. The two brothers approach her as she humbly covers up an arthritis-infected hand with her sleeve. She does not speak a word of English, but the visitors are able to introduce themselves and make out her name, Maria, in their feeble Italian. And yet, it does not matter – her smile says it all.
Without another word, Maria slowly pulls herself up and signals for the two to follow. The visitors exchange a curious glance before following the old woman as she hobbles back the way she came. She leads them to a small field overlooking a panoramic view of the countryside, motioning to a rickety bench near the edge before turning back toward the archway. The brothers approach and take a seat, silently contemplating this strange woman. But their concerns slowly disappear as they take in their surroundings. The midday sun washes away the mist, and the valley comes to life with the lush greens, yellows, and reds of Umbria. An ibis soars just out of reach, and the visitors lose themselves in the view. Everything they once knew blows past with the summer breeze, until all that is left is this moment.
Completely awed by the beauty of Umbria, the guests have no comprehension of how much time passes as they gaze into the rolling plains before them. They lose all awareness of their precious itinerary. For once, they have nowhere to be, nothing to do. Maria reappears at their side, beaming and holding a tray with three cups of tea in her shaking hands, and the three of them sit in perfect silence, sipping the hot herbal tea and enjoying the view in the cool summer breeze.
It was not until the next day that a panetteria waitress on the other side of the footbridge told the Americans who Maria is: the last native-born resident of a dying town. Every day since her husband’s death, she sits outside her garden, waiting to share her famous view with new friends, waiting to welcome strangers and foreigners as family.
The two American backpackers came to Civita di Bagnoregio expecting to get a few good pictures on their way from the vespa-packed streets of Firenze to the chaos of Roma, but left having experienced la vita bella, the beautiful life, a lifestyle as endangered as Maria and her garden. They came expecting history and adventure, but left with a lesson in appreciating the little things. Are we really any better off because of our technology and busy schedules, they left wondering. Are we any happier than Maria and her husband who found everything they needed in themselves and an old garden?
More information on Civita can be found here: http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/italy/civitabd.htm. May your travels be as rewarding as mine!
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