Umbria's ghost villages
Ellen Himelfarb is moved by central Italy’s ethereal villages, where just a handful of people reside amid crumbling splendour
A slender road winds between hills dense with woodland that could sustain us for weeks. Shooting downward, the terrain suddenly opens up and we emerge into undulating green, fading to blue on the misty horizon. On distant hilltops, a medieval village, or two.
With barely another soul on these roads, just 90 minutes from Rome, the car lurches into top gear. Something about all that open space means the girls in the back seat, normally hunched over barf bags or fixed nervously to the road straight ahead, are gazing out at the olive groves, having thrown caution to the wind.
As we cross the Tiber Valley into Umbria, I wish I could say I hadn’t expected this. But from postcards and Pinterest and years of marketing, I knew exactly what to expect. I just hadn’t believed it.
The region is just as green and quietly quaint as they say. And empty. In August.
We need groceries to stock up our villa, so I pull off the exit for Montecchio and ease onto an upward spiral of tarmac – not so much a road as the incidental space between buildings from the Middle Ages. Some way back, a sign has promised a supermercato, but before it gets to that I manage to wedge us awkwardly between low stone walls and iron barriers, at the dead end of a one-way route. In the great tradition of tourists getting into tight spots, three elderly men in flat caps watch from a bench, barely amused. Soon enough, though, I’m in the shop, running back and forth to the cash with zucchini, tomatoes, produce, milk jugs, cereal and rounds of focaccia, there being no means of carrying it around with me. The grocer weighs and scribbles his tally. His wife comes out of the back to watch. Nobody, it seems, has ever bought so many groceries.
Hello, is anybody there?
The next afternoon we’re following an untethered donkey around Parco dei Mostri, a jungle-knotted dale cut back to reveal stone sculptures carved in grotesque animal forms, mouths agog, eyes gaping. Commissioned by a grieving nobleman in the 1500s, it was restored only in the last 40 years – a sort of Angkor Wat in pastoral Lazio. So spectacularly creepy, it could be the most universally alluring attraction in the Tiber Valley. And yet next door, in the elegantly peeling hilltop village of Bomarzo, life barely holds on. Searching for a shop, a café, a single bench, we find nothing. Our footsteps actually echo. Finally, a resident. My husband, competent in Italian, strikes up a conversation. She wants to know why we’ve come, as if one requires justification for visiting the living history of 1,000 years, nearly 1,000 feet in the air. “Nobody comes here,” she tells him. Looking out from Bomarzo’s only stop sign, over a gorge combed with vineyards, I think: incomprehensible.
What will happen to the towns of central Italy when the seniors are gone, when the abbey is vacant and the swaddled grandchildren, shown off at the morning market by nonna, have moved to Bologna or Milan? How will their children hold together family businesses, the oils and liqueurs produced by small holdings? I felt, suddenly, as if I was standing on the edge – not of a gorge but of an era.
A vanishing world
When my kids were younger, flat pavements and wall-to-wall novelties were good; remote hinterland, bad. We had forsaken Italy. It’s not going anywhere; we’ll get there - eventually. I’m glad we didn’t wait long. Another day, another village. This time it’s Civita di Bagnoregio; its population: 10. In fact, it’s two villages. We park in Bagnoregio, then walk along a brick road flanked by butchers with striped awnings and cafés out of Fellini. At the edge of town we purchase tickets to cross a vertiginous bridge, ending at a cliff topped with Renaissance towers and cottages built by the Etruscans. But the volcanic-ash foundations are prone to landslides, and most of Civita has decamped next door. It has yet to be awarded UNESCO status, despite a fervent local campaign. All people have to help save this place at death’s door are the tickets and homemade banners screaming for more funds.
Every morning, merchants creep over to Civita to sell souvenirs and wine, to play music in the little square. But is anybody buying? From the empty chairs on the terraces and the echo from inside the medieval church, it didn’t appear so. At last count, there were 20,000 so-called “ghost villages” across Italy.
Bucking - and setting - the trend
The rise of volcanic tufo (tuff) is firmer beneath Orvieto, one of the most vibrant towns in Umbria. We begin our exploration from its base, where a 175-foot-deep well, or pozzo, draws us deep into the cool earth via a double-helix staircase. It is barely signed from the road, and thus mostly ours for a damp half-hour. Climbing back out is our warm-up for the route cutting through Orvieto’s almost healthy town centre, selling designer clothes and antiques. As the yellowed-stone villas close in to narrow the path, it lurches upward to a piazza acres wide and, at its centre, a cathedral of striking black and white stripes, almost on trend in its bold, monochrome motif. The Gothic façade is coated in gold mosaic, so in late afternoon it shimmers against richly painted ecclesiastical scenes.
If so many of its neighbours are dying, Orvieto is the opposite. It’s near impossible to get a clear shot of the church, or even a seat on the curb opposite. Masses come out of nowhere to line up at Gelato di Pasqualetti, an all-natural ice-cream parlour around the side. In the queue is a couple from San Francisco who decided to move to town with their son after a single visit last spring. All the vast distances and Italian classes are worth it, they say, to experience the culture first-hand, before all that remains are big-box olive oils and frozen meatballs. But they’ve taken early retirement. Who else could afford to make a life here?
Chasing the light
Back at our villa, I am rushing inside every hour to grab my camera. The sun’s movement has an enchanting effect on the hillsides, filtering them with yellow, orange, green, blue. In the distance is Civitella del Lago, vaulted up over Lake Corbara, on the path of the Tiber. After a gentle warning from our landlord not to attempt the journey on the poor back roads, my husband and I brazenly take the bait.
We’re a minority, for sure. Pushing our feeble engine up the steep approach, we idle behind gnarled old men, hunched from the effort of climbing, like exiles from the Thriller video. Eventually, we pass, park in a communal lot outside the car-free zone, and wander in. At Trippini Market, past the medieval church tower, we buy a tin of olive oil named for the shop. The Trippini family owns the groves down below – not to mention the B&B next door. At midday, labourers in coveralls are sitting outside Bar Pazzi and filing into a two-storey tavern with views over the lake – called, unsurprisingly, Trippini. It sits next to a municipal lookout, all new bricks and shiny iron lampposts, and someone has had the idea to place three picnic tables out on the edge of the precipice, in the shade of an old olive tree. If there were glass between us, we’d be pressing our noses against it. We should sit down for fettucine with the local truffles, washed down with the area’s exceptional Grechetto wine. Alas, lunch is waiting for us at home.
We head to the car through a scrum by the main road. A pair of roller trucks have managed the climb, however impossibly, to repair the old blacktop, and the entire village has come to watch – probably a Trippini or two, and the hunched old men. “At least they made it,” we said to each other. Then we bumped on down the road home.
Where to stay
- Castelonchio. A beautiful home above the shores of Lake Trasimeno with a lavender surrounded pool. Sleeps 6
- Casa Umbra. A house for 6 close to Todi, tucked away in a secret valley
Where to eat
- Il Fontanile
Kids play on beanbag chairs out by the bank of the Tiber; adults clink glasses of Montepulciano and debate toppings for the wood-fired pizza. The owners make their own salume, sausage and fettucine. Via Teverina 3, Montecchio
- La Pergola A sweet stone room with colourful bistro tables looks onto a private courtyard out back. It’s refreshingly modern for village-Umbria, but the food is traditional: ragu pastas, grilled meats and creamy desserts. Via dei Magoni 9, Orvieto
- I Gelsi Fresh steamed greens come with simple cuts of meat that seep into wooden boards. But seafood – clams, prawns and calamari – is the thing here, piled on pastas or chopped into salads. Localita Madonna Del Porto 53, Guardea
The pool at Castelonchio: