Civita Castellana is perched astride a deep ravine about 71km (44 miles) outside of Rome, in the rugged province of Viterbo. It's perhaps not your classic tourist town, but if you want to see the real Lazio, you could combine a trip here with nearby Nepi or as part of a tour up to Viterbo or Florence.
'Civita' commands stunning views over both a deep ravine and the surrounding countryside, with the only land higher than that of Civita being Monte Soratte to the south, where the small town of Sant'Oreste is based, and the towns of Ronciglione and Caprarola to the north, on the edge of volcanic Lago di Vico.
|An 1844 painting of Civita Castellana by Edward Lear (from wikitravel.org)|
Given the commanding position, it's no surprise that Civita Castellana has been fought over throughout it's existence. Settled during the Iron Age by the Italic Falisci, the original town of Falerii was lost to the Romans and the Falisci banished to the lower flatlands about 6km to the west, where the Romans could keep an eye (and more importantly control) over them.
Over time, the old town of Falerii was abandoned. However, the city was repopulated during the early Middle ages due to it's strategic position affording its inhabitants protection from marauding barbarians. The new name of Civita Castellana (roughly translated as "City of the Castle") was first mentioned in 994 AD. Since then, the city appears to have been flourishing independent commune, often contended by the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. More recently, Civita Castellana has been famous for its ceramics, with many ceramic factories surrounding the medieval town.
But what is there to do there now? Today Civita Castellana can be divided into two parts with the clementino bridge over a deep ravine acting as the divide between the new town and the historic center. Other than a new shopping mall (replacing an old ceramics factory), there is little to see in the new part of town.
However, the commanding Forte Sangallo protects the entrance to the more interesting historical half. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo for Pope Alessandro VI and completed by Julius II, it was initially built for military purposes (with an octagonal keep), but was converted into a papal residence before finally a prison for many years. Now, it's an interesting tourist attraction with guided tours and a reasonable museum.
|Cattedrale di Santa Maria Maggiore (from wikipedia)|
The Cattedrale di Santa Maria Maggiore is also worth a visit. This masterpiece was designed and built by Jacopo di Lorenzo and his son Cosma who built its facade in 1210. The cattedrale is infused with mosiac stone work, making it seem larger and brighter than it actually is. Inside, the high altar is made out of a sarcophagus of the 3rd or 4th century. The cattedrale is sat atop a fascinating crypt, which is also worth a visit. A plaque on the building's exterior commemorates the visit of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Civita Castellana on the 17th July, 1770. He allegedly played the cathedral's organ in the Sunday mass of that day.
The best way to approach Civita Castellana is from the SS3, via flaminia, as this takes you up the side of the ravine straight into the town. Civita can also be reached via SS2 (via Cassia), and then, once onto SR143 follow the signs for Nepi and then Civita Castellana (on SS311). Civita Castellana can also be reached by train from Rome by the Viterbo line that leaves from the Piazzale Flaminio, near Piazza del Popolo. There are a few good bars and restaurants in Civita. One of my favorites is i butteri, where you can find a great pappardelle al cinghiale. If you fancy staying in Civita, you couldn't do better than the Relais Falisco, right in the centre of town (friends have stayed there and thought it was fantastic).
Civita Castellana is also home to the Carnevale civitonico (named for the people of Civita Castellana, who call themselves the civitonici). This year, the carnevale started on the 17th January, with the crowning of the carnival king. The main carnevale procession however will be on the 27th February, with a further procession and party through the town on the 8th March. Civita also puts on some good Sunday markets so, all in all, if you fancy a break from Rome to see how Italy and Italians are away from the tourist sites, it's well worth a visit!