Attempting to describe a place like Civita simply defies the English language, just as catching the first glimpse of this place– magnificent medieval stone structures suddenly rising far above us from its perch atop a steep, high pinnacle in the Tuscan landscape– defies any concept you might have created in your mind after having seen (as we had) a photograph of this place– truly beautiful, but flat without that breathtaking depth or height. We Americans simply have no point of reference that can help us grasp a place this beautiful and this real– we have nothing outside of “fantasy.” Gazing on it before we started our ascent, I found myself choking up, wondering if this could possibly be what the New Jerusalem might be like– a breathtaking, beautiful, modern and yet ancient city “coming down out of the heavens…”
Painstakingly built by the Etruscans in 720 B.C., Civita (translated simply, ‘City’) was built at the top of a steep, tall, rugged hill, as many other hilltop cities were in Tuscany, surrounded by walls for fortification. Just imagine those ancient folks hauling huge stone blocks up those cliffs! It’s staggering!The city almost died before being slowly revived by tourism in recent years, and although there are not many residents anymore, there are now a few restaurants, some souvenir shops (selling local ceramics, fresh-pressed olive oil, lemoncello, local wines…) and about a dozen B&B rooms to rent– all built into the original stone structures. In recent years, Civita has been a set for some movies, and the rich and famous (or rich, at least) are finding this to be a perfect location to create their unique vacation homes in some of these stunning old stone dwellings.
The original saddle that connected Civita with nearby, more-modern Bagnoregio eroded over time, and was replaced with a very long, narrow pedestrian bridge– which is the only way to enter the city. Small motorized carts carrying supplies from Bagnoregio are the only ‘vehicles’ that can enter. So we parked our rented car in Bagnoregio, and after involuntarily standing frozen in amazement at the sight of this place in the distance, Dan and I along with our friends Dave and Roxanne finally started the hike up the long, narrow bridge, anticipating spending our morning exploring the streets of Civita before heading off in the afternoon to another hilltop city, Orvieto, a half-hour away.
The Romanesque gate to the city was beautiful! As we stood agog, trying to grasp the sight of the city up close, an attractive middle-aged American couple offered to take a photo of the four of us in the city gate, even as a old Italian man filled the air with his beautiful violin music at the entrance. Surreal, right? But it gets even better…
Almost in a daze of amazement, we wandered the ancient streets, trying to comprehend homes and buildings older than anything we had ever imagined– stone staircases lined with pots of flowers; some doors and windows opening to thin air, where centuries ago, erosion had torn away whole sections of houses and sent them crashing down the cliff; apartments tucked here and there, creating a strange mix of modern with the ancient… And tucked within these stone structures, we found “Alma Civita,” a little restaurant owned and run by young Italian man, Maurizio, and his sister Alessandra whose family have been residents in this city for over 400 years.Sitting in the tiny restaurant with rustic stone walls and stone stairs leading down to a wine cellar that was once an Etruscan tomb, we were enjoying bruschetta and began chatting with the couple seated beside us in the tiny restaurant– the same couple that had taken our photo at the entrance. They enthusiastically told us about their overnight stay in Orvieto, the hilltop city we planned on visiting next. And they spoke of their love for travel, telling us that it was ignited after their daughter died not long ago at age 25. (I didn’t ask how she died, and she didn’t tell us, but I suspect it was a serous illness.) Instinctively, Roxanne and I both expressed a heartfelt, “I’m so sorry!” but the wife immediately responded, “Thank you– but it’s okay! It really is! It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever known– but she had fulfilled God’s purpose for her life, and it was God’s time for her to go home! So it’s okay, it really is…”
She went on to tell us that there were two significant things that resulted from their daughter’s death: one was that it defined her own– the mother’s– purpose in life when she went on to become a nurse of the critically ill. And secondly, it gave the couple a determination to travel– to see and experience God’s vast creation while they are able to do it, and not to put it off, thinking that there will be a more ideal time for travel sometime later… because ‘sometime later’ may never come, as they found out. Life is so short. “Now” is the time to pursue the things you’ve been dreaming of pursuing…
My mind was spinning! I felt immediately convicted that for far too long, I had been one of those annoying people who regarded travel as valid only if it had a “purpose”– a missions trip, a conference, a trip to visit family… Consequently, for too long I had not only put off travel, but even found myself feeling critical of others who traveled for no other reason than to “see and experience God’s vast creation!”
How blind I was, not seeing that God was glorified in our joy of experiencing the world He had spoken into existence… the great big world that He still holds ultimate authority over! In truth, travel broadens and truly expands our understanding of God and the world He created! Seeing the amazing differences and individuality of other countries has a way of producing a more humble perspective of the way things ought to be. I truly feel richer, having met people from all over the world– having shared many conversations (because my husband is notorious for constantly striking up conversations with strangers) about their countries and cultures, hearing about their political climates and economic woes, their policies and ideas of government, their beliefs and theology– even hearing about their personal trials and triumphs! It’s a great big world. There are so many experiences we will miss by putting them off, waiting for the illusive “ideal” future. And ultimately, “life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away…” Right?Even as these thoughts were still going on in my mind, Dan and Dave were already formulating our next “adventure.” Instead of leaving Civita so quickly, they spontaneously decided to scout out rooms to see if we could stay overnight– with just the clothes on our backs! No toothbrushes, no curling iron…! And surprisingly– they found two available rooms, right on the town square– the “piazza”! So, we headed back over the pedestrian bridge and drove into Bagnoregio to find a supermarket where we could get toothbrushes and a few necessities, then headed back to experience life in a medieval Italian hilltop city.
Our rooms were very rustic– but clean and comfortable. It didn’t take much to “settle in,”so we headed off to continue exploring the town. Gathering clouds suggested rain, but we continued on, wandering the streets, ducking into little shops, amazed at the huge stone wheel where blinded donkeys had been used to press vats of olives into oil right up until the 1960’s… when suddenly a huge double rainbow appeared across the full sky! It was gorgeous! Could anything possibly have been more perfectly scripted!? As we stood gazing at how it graced the sky, an older Italian man walked by, stopped, looked at me, gestured to the rainbow and commented, “Arcobelano!” –and I learned a new Italian word as I repeated it back to him.
Alessandra and Maurizio usually close their restaurant on weeknights because there are just not enough people in town. But that night they happened to be open, hosting four Japanese ladies in Alma Civita’s two Bed and Breakfast rooms, so they suggested we come back for dinner in their restaurant –which was a good thing, because there were no other places in the city to eat that evening! Just as we set out for dinner, rain very suddenly pelted down in a sudden burst, soaking us as we ran the short distance to the restaurant! The only clothes we had– and they were soaked!
But soaked or not, for the next 2 1/2 hours, we experienced the most perfect Italian dinner experience that we could ever have hoped for! Course after course, Alessandra kept the food coming, describing each item and suggesting menu items she was sure we would like. It’s been said that in Italy, dinner is the entertainment for the evening– and that was exactly true! By the end of the evening, we truly felt that we had made new friends through the conversation, the laughter, the stories, the outstanding, delicious and beautifully presented bruschetta, fresh mozzarella, soups, salads, pastas, desserts…
By then, the rain, of course, had stopped, and the four of us slowly and contentedly made our way through the quiet, abandoned streets to our rooms, where after a good night of restful sleep, we were wakened in the morning by the loud clang of the bell in the big church opposite us in the town square. The morning sun shone on the quiet city where probably less than a dozen people had spent the night– such beautiful quiet, before the tourists began to amble through the gate to the city and marvel at this amazing place.
After coffee and fresh Italian croissants at Maurizio’s, we knew we had to finally break away from one of the most peaceful and breathtaking places on earth. Without a doubt, the more time you spend in Italy– or anywhere– the more you realize you just didn’t spend enough time there. So we said good-bye to this beautiful little place, and headed off to Orvieto… and on to many more adventures. I’m so grateful that we hadn’t put it off waiting for another, more “ideal time” (when we had toothbrushes, curling irons and a dry change of clothes) to stay overnight in a tiny medieval city… because we’d just experienced an adventure that we will never forget. Never.
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