Posted by Cheryl Alexander with Alison Kurke-Berry for Italian Excursion
It’s a crystal clear and balmy morning in Civita Castellana, in the province of Viterbo, about forty miles north of Rome. The town is quiet. Walking to the post office, I see a pair of women, clearly non-Italian, walking. Lost, clearly. Then I hear them speaking English. I approach them and ask if they’re lost or need directions. “Is this Civita di Bagnoregio?” one asks. “No, I reply, it’s another Civita entirely, Civita Castellana”. They look at each other, confused, and on the point of being gravely disappointed. “Let me show you around!”
Here in Northern Lazio, tourists are a relative rarity. In fact, the locals often ask foreigners – ”Come mai, Civita Castellana??”, which could loosely be translated: How the heck did you wind up here?? Suffice it to say that Italian Excursion knows a fascinating little town when it finds one.
Locals are seemingly immune to or unaware of some of the town’s charms or maybe just immune after long-familiarity. The town’s Duomo, for example, unique in having a Cosmatesque façade as well as Cosmati floors inside. The façade bears their names and the date of completion: 1210. The town held a conference last year to celebrate its 800th birthday. The Civitonici, as they are called, are a proud and singular bunch, not descended from the Etruscans, but from a race apart: the Faliscans. The present-day citizens still bear a grudge against the Romans for subduing them in 241 BC after three hundred odd years of holding them off. That means that these days, the residents support the Lazio football team and not the Rome team.
Six kilometers from the ancient center, is the town of Faleri Novi, where the ancient residents were forced to live, once vanquished. Reached by car or by following the ancient Via Amerina, over the original basalt slabs, through fields, by way of Roman bridges and passing more ancient tombs, Faleri is now the site of a restored Romanesque church, massive tufa city walls and tranquil farm and pasture lands.
In the old town of Civita, aside from the Duomo, there’s a stunning view of Monte Soratte from Via del Tiratore, a good 4-star hotel (Relais Falisco – where Italian Excursion’s guests always stay), a large central Piazza with the town hall and a Renaissance dragon fountain, and reused Roman fragments in many building facades. Recent efforts to allow tourists to appreciate the town’s charms include a guidebook in Italian and English with coordinated plaques that let us wander and discover the town’s many medieval towers (all cut down in Napoleonic times and mostly now dwellings) and her noble palaces. The crowning glory, though, is the Sangallo Fortress that now houses a modest museum of Faliscan and Etruscan artifacts. The most important ancient treasures from this town and its surroundings, sadly, are now at the Villa Giulia in Rome, but the fort is a grand, imposing and romantic structure that was fortress, palace, jail and refuge over the past five centuries. The courtyard, stunning in its simplicity and serene, is the site of a modest local music festival every July, and outside the steep ramparts, the local contrade compete in a miniature palio every mid-September as part of the town’s patron saints’ festival. This festival marks the real end to summer in town, and nothing much can restart after the summer heat until it’s finished.
Also worth seeing is the annual Infiorata in early June. Groups of residents assemble and cooperate to decorate the alleys with colorful flower-petal creations marking Corpus Domini. In the winter, the Civitonici really push the boat out for Carnival. Groups compete fiercely for the prizes awarded for best float and costumes and participation is huge. The town’s men like to don wigs, heels, breasts, and (of course) sunglasses and abandon themselves to the festivities.
From the fort and the Via del Tiratore you get a real sense of the narrow spit of wonderfully defensible land that was this ancient town, and we can see the true glory of this entire territory – fabulous river valleys, gorges and nature. The Faliscans controlled the many small rivers in the area, most of which ran east-west, while the Romans controlled the Tiber which has a north-south orientation. These waterways provided food, communication, and trade. Today they are a remarkable natural resource for exploring the surrounding territory to appreciate the rugged landscape and a history stretching back many centuries. Local guides will happily take tourists to explore the local gorges, roads, and natural wonders. Stop in to see Mastro Cencio, Vincenzo Dobbolini (Via SS. Giovanni e Marciano 14), a local potter who makes splendid reproductions of ancient vessels, and who also has a passion for these local walks. He can help you organize a leisurely walk or a more challenging hike down to the river and back up to the Castellaccio. This is the even narrower spit of land you see from the Ponte Clementino that served as a settlement point, lookout and burial ground since prehistoric times. Though privately-owned, it’s still easily accessible and worth a visit. The local tour and trail guides make themselves available to our Italian Excursion groups out a sense of pride about where they live and the hidden treasures that surround them.
No need to go hungry. The local establishment for good, solid, filling and moderately priced food is Mignolo’ – a family place where the menu is verbal and meat on the grill is a specialty. Close by is Pane e Pomodoro, recently opened, modern, spacious, but pleasantly chaotic. The owners are locals who used to work in one of the ceramics factories. La Giaretta, opposite Mignolo’, is also dependable, if a bit cavernous. Outside of town a few miles (you really need a vehicle to get around, but roads are uncrowded and non-threatening) is La Campagnola, family-run, kitsch, but with excellent pizza and people-watching in summer. In the historic center, La Scuderia serves more fanciful meals at somewhat higher prices in the glorious atmosphere of a re-done Renaissance stable block.
Civita Castellana is one of the many extraordinary ordinary little towns in the little-known zone north of Rome. This may never be the “next Tuscany”, but for the slow traveler, it’s a worthy and fascinating destination and a useful base for the wonders of a province of Viterbo – full of delights and real life.
Cheryl has been traveling to Europe, particularly Italy, for more than fourteen years. Her interest in Italy, its history, art and rich culture led her to purchase property near Orvieto, allowing her to spend more time there. Cheryl’s exploration of Italy include the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, as well as the areas around Venice and south towards Sorrento. She continues to travel into Italy’s less traveled regions, and enjoys sharing her discoveries with others. Relaxed, leisurely tours are her specialty with an emphasis on the comfort of her guests.
Cheryl spends the rest of her time near the beach in San Diego, cavorting with her two small grandchildren. She’s an avid reader, health advocate and community volunteer. Her career as a social worker brings an understanding of people’s needs to the tour business.