‘Dying town’ of Italy sees salvation in pending UNESCO World Heritage status

Apr 8, 2021

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Perched precariously on a hill about 75 miles north of Rome sits the picturesque village of Civita Di Bagnoregio — known as Italy’s “dying town.”

The residents there — a dozen, give or take a few — are hoping their beloved home gets a new lease on life by earning a World Heritage Site designation from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It isn’t just because they want the prestige from the status, although that certainly is nice. For Civita, the tourism boost that likely comes with it could literally make the difference in whether the 3,000-year-old town actually survives, or disappears.

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The reason it’s called “the dying town” is because Civita has been eroding for centuries, thanks to earthquakes and landslides that have stripped away much of the volcanic rock from the cliff. Today, all that remains of Civita is the town square and a few streets. It’s just 500 feet long and 300 feet wide, and only accessible by way of a footbridge.

Situated in the Central Italian valley known as the “badlands,” the town is in perpetual danger of collapse. What’s helping to keep it together are underground “structural wells” around the town perimeter, which have hundreds of steel rods attached to the hillside rock.

“All this mass of rock, which is more or less all broken and tends to collapse on the edges, is kept together by these wells,” Geologist Luca Constanti tells Reuters. “And by these steel rods which, exactly like plugs stuck in a wall, hold everything back.”

Tourism has been immensely helpful in keeping Civita from disappearing. Visitors to the town went from 40,000 in 2009 to a million in 2019, as the stunning views attracted travelers going between Rome and Florence. There is a five euro fee to cross the pedestrian bridge and enter Civita, and the financial boost from tourists helped create jobs and pay for the structural monitoring system that literally keeps the town standing. The pandemic and international travel restrictions have sharply reduced the money coming into the town, which is essential for its survival.

Related: From Venice to Rome: 6 cities you can easily visit on Italy’s high-speed train

That’s why the UNESCO World Heritage designation is so important. Places that are declared a World Heritage site almost always see a surge in tourism as people come to see what makes it a landmark. Getting more visitors to come to see Civita, once normal travel resumes, is expected to help the town replenish its coffers to be able to maintain efforts and keep it from disappearing into history.

Italy, which along with China has the most sites on the list with 55, nominated Civita and the surrounding badlands area in January. A final decision isn’t expected until June 2022. Until then, Italy’s “dying town” will continue to do what it’s done for three millennia: Hang on just a bit longer.

Featured photo by Smartshots International/Getty Images.

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