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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Nature’s Spikes and Spires: The Calanchi Valley, Umbria

Written by Diana G Armstrong
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Out of my window, in the close distance, the hill-top town of Civita di Bagnoregio floats on a soft sea of mist, as if cast off from the valley below.  Umbria the green heart of Italy lies to the north and Rome and the Lazio to the south.  This town of Civita, in front of me, is something of an enigma as it sails away from its past and into its uncertain future. It is called The Dying City as it is gradually shedding parts of itself into the valley 


“Beware of these mists!” my neighbor, a Lubriano villager, warns me as an aside.

These mists do clear usually by noon and reveal an astonishing sight:

 A valley more steeped in mystery than the ancient hill-top town of Civita di Bagnoregio itself.  Civita is a town that the odd tourist will stop by to see on their way from Rome to Tuscany, but few take time to look at the Calanchi Valley in which it stands as a sentinel and a rock of reminder of its ancient past.

The odd Etruscan tunnel wends its way down from Civita towards the valley floor and towards a beautiful natural outcrop called Monte Leone which looks like a barbican(which it is not) to protect Civita.  

The Calanchi Valley sometimes called The Route of the Gullies is something of a paradox set in the beautiful rolling hills of southern Umbria and very close to Tuscany with is vineyards, olive groves and starched to attention cypress trees welcoming us to villas and to verdant fields laced with flocks of sheep.  Here is the Calanchi, a harsh unsettling valley carved with chalky cliffs. The whole topography looks like it would wash away with one good rainfall, but in fact these cliffs have stood firm since Roman times.  The valley lies between the huge Bagnoregio basaltina quarries which provided the Romans with black stone for monuments in Rome, and the Tiber River. Even today Roman footbridges and ancient Roman paths may be seen in what at first glance appears a wasteland. But these paths will eventually take you to the rich Tiber Valley and the Tiber River, which in Roman times was navigable up to this point.


Two small streams, the Turbido and the Lubriano trickle down the valley and eventually into the Tiber River some ten miles further down the valley below.  “There are excellent soft shell crabs in the small pale green chalky rivers” my Italian friend tells me. The pale green color of these streams is in fact the same green color of the Tiber as it flows through Rome.


Once a year the nearby town of Lubriano, perched above the Calanchi and looking over onto Civita, sponsors a hike down into this valley.  In true Italian fashion, it is no small “bring along your own sandwich” kind of hike. A full blown five course lunch is cooked up over large wood fires. Plate size bisteccas are charred over giant wood fires with rosemary, and potatoes and onions are wedged into ashes and then drizzled with olive oil.  Bunches of grapes from neighboring vineyards are pulled out of backpacks. Soft sweet yesterday’s ricotta is served up with freshly made apricot preserve and espresso is brewed in machinettas in the coals too. We sight a boar cinghiale and her piglets. She has, except for today, the full run of an undiscovered hinterland.



Apart from this rare “gita”: outing, the Calanchi Valley goes pretty well unnoticed by the entire universe. A small botanical museum in village of Lubriano displays the different types of flora that flourish only there in the valley below and nowhere else in Italy.

Here is a mini Grand Canyon set in the heart of Italy.  It is an ever changing landscape and with each sunrise and sunset and with each season, it becomes a beautiful vista full of misty purples, pinks, and oranges and silver too as the sun and the moon shine on it turning it into a constantly changing and breathtaking vista.  Sometimes one could swear, amongst its craggy spikes, you can see the spires of Milan Cathedral floating there in the distance.

Trains and automobiles fly by not ten miles away from here on their way from Rome to Florence and the raw beauty of this valley goes untouched and unnoticed.


Tourist information:

Closest city: Orvieto, Umbria

Closest large town: Bagnoregio, Lazio

To hike into to the Calanchi Valley: A) Park your car at the entrance to the town of Lubriano (on the road from Orvieto to Bagnoregio) and follow the well-posted signs into the valley below. Or B) Visit the hill-top town of Civita di Bagnoregio and walk to the Etruscan tunnel at the far end of Civita which will give you access to the foot paths of the Calanchi Valley and to the sentinel of Monte Leone.

For one of the finest meals in all Italy: Stop for lunch at the restaurant Hosteria del Ponte which is at the foot of the bridge leading up to Civita di Bagnoregio and an excellent fueling stop on your way in or out of the valley.

©Diana G Armstrong


Diana G Armstrong is a Food and Travel writer and the author of Somewhere South of Tuscany.  Diana divides her time between her home near Orvieto, Umbria, Italy and Denver, Colorado.

Last modified on Friday, 28 February 2014