Italy is dotted with small towns that offer sustainable and quality travel experiences, and not just in the hills of Tuscany.
Speaking of the Middle Ages in Italy, for centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the Italian peninsula was invaded by foreign populations from north and east: Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, Arabs, Normans, Lombards.
With the spread of the Christian religion, religious centers grew and became fortresses, the clergy began to acquire temporal power.
After the year 1000 were born the first “municipalities”. The communes developed mainly from rebuilt ancient Roman cities, around the fortified castles of the lords, and around monasteries. Even today, from north to south of the peninsula, you can visit small, cozy towns that have preserved intact much of their medieval architecture.
Here are 5 picturesque medieval towns in Italy to explore at your leisure.
If you love to learn more about off the beaten path destinations in Italy, read also:
5 WELL PRESERVED MEDIEVAL TOWNS IN ITALY
Civita di Bagnoregio
The town is located about 120 km north of Rome. An only pedestrian bridge 300 meters long, suspended above a limestone valley that resembles a lunar landscape, leads the visitor to the top of the flat spur of tufa rock where the village stands.
Being isolated and hardly accessible, today Civita di Bagnoregio hosts only 11 inhabitants, who manage structures related to tourism. This same characteristic, however, attracted a large number of refugees in the first centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the nearby cities were invaded and destroyed by foreign peoples.
Indeed, Civita di Bagnoregio flourished during the Middle Ages. The town layout is medieval as well as the plant of the palaces and of the main church, even if the facades have been restructured.
To access the town, you go through a single entrance door surmounted by an ogival arch and decorated with the high relief of two lions.
The Etruscans founded Civita 2500 years ago. They colonized the area between Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria known today as “Tuscia”. Under this medieval town, there are caves and tombs carved in the tuff and attributed to the Etruscans, even a tunnel that went from the center of the village to the valley, piercing the cliff.
The thing that fascinates the most about this village is the breathtaking view you can enjoy before crossing the suspension bridge that leads to the village. On foggy days, it seems that Civita is suspended in the clouds.
Before entering the village, you can visit the cave where Bonaventura da Bagnoregio (13th century), one of the greatest theologians of the Franciscan Order, sat in contemplation.
To reach the village from the parking lot where the cars and buses stop, you have to walk about a kilometer. If you visit Civita in the summer, don’t forget to bring a hat and lots of water.
How to reach Civita di Bagnoregio
To reach Civita di Bagnoregio by train, the nearest stations are those of Orvieto and Viterbo. From there, buses leave daily for Bagnoregio.
Where to stay
The B&B Locanda Della Buona Ventura is located in an ancient building overlooking the main square of the town.
Like the previous town, Calcata Vecchia, 50 km away from Rome, has the appearance of an impregnable fortress on top of a flat cliff.
In the 20th century, in order to better connect Calcata to the neighboring towns, a causeway was built across the lush Treja Valley that surrounds the town. To enter the town one has to pass through the only monumental entrance gate, part of the medieval walls that once defended the palace belonging to the Anguillara family, provided with an embattled tower.
The settlement developed around the Castle of the Anguillara family, incorporating the inhabitants of the nearby villages, which had no fortifications and were, therefore, less resistant to invading armies.
The most famous tradition concerning Calcata is the one related to the “Holy foreskin”, mentioned also in Joyce’s Ulysses.
According to the story, during the sack of Rome by the Landsknechts in the 16th century, a casket set with precious stones containing the relic, preserved since the day of Christ’s circumcision, was stolen. A Landsknecht soldier took possession of the casket and fled, taking refuge in a cave under the cliff where Calcata rises, which was a stage of the Via Flaminia, an important Roman consular road. The soldier was found and made prisoner, the relic transferred to the medieval church of the Holy Name of Jesus. The relic disappeared mysteriously in the 80s of the last century.
Calcata Vecchia is today better known as the “village of artists”. Towards the 30s of the 20th century, the government invited the inhabitants of the village to leave their houses, considered unsafe, and to move outside the cliff. Condemned to decay and abandonment, Calcata Vecchia during the ’60s was repopulated by artists from all over the world, who wanted to create in freedom, away from the impelling industrialization.
How to get there
From Monday to Friday, from the station of northern Rome Saxa Rubra, take a Cotral bus that goes to Civita Castellana and stops in Calcata. There are not many routes, so the best way to reach Calcata is to move in your own car. Public transportation is not available on Saturdays and Sundays.
Where to stay
The apartment Casa Sole Luna is located in the historical center and has two bedrooms and a balcony, which is uncommon for such ancient buildings in Calcata Vecchia.
Gradara, the best maintained medieval town in Italy
Those who are passionate about Italian literature have heard of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which is part of the Divine Comedy, a masterpiece of the Italian Middle Ages composed in the 13th century. Perhaps the most famous chapter of this work written in tercets is the Fifth Chant, dedicated to the tragic romantic story between Paolo and Francesca. It is known for certain that Paolo and Francesca really existed and it is assumed that their affair unfolded in the Castle of Gradara.
Gradara is located about 150 km southeast of Bologna, in the Marche region, just a few kilometers from the Adriatic coast.
In terms of tourism, the town has received several official awards:
Medieval Capital of Italy
Bandiera Arancione del Touring Club
Most beautiful towns in Italy
The town with the castle dominates a hill from which the view extends for miles in all directions, including the coast. The structure is perfectly preserved. It features double defensive walls, the outer one encloses the village, the inner one fortifies the castle. The external walls run for 800 meters.
The first thing to do to discover this medieval Italian town is to cross the front gate and walk through the alleys of the village. During the summer, artistic and cultural events are held in the village several times a week: concerts, performances, poetry readings, culinary workshops…
At a cost of €2, you can walk on the outer walls, while the entrance to the castle costs €8. To learn more about the history of the castle and the tale of Paolo and Francesca, as well as about the artistic treasures on display in the castle, join a guided tour that lasts about 2 hours.
How to get to Gradara
Reach Pesaro by train and then take an Adriabus number 130 to Gradara.
Accommodation in Gradara
An exclusive solution is offered by Historic Resort La Loggia. All rooms enjoy an exceptional view and guests have access, at an additional cost, to the wellness center.
Less exclusive but still refined and attractive accommodation is offered by La Pulcia B&B, which allows pets.
Let’s discover two more towns that, like Bagnoregio and Calcata, belong to the historical, geological, and archaeological area known as Tuscia, where the Etruscans flourished in central Italy. To know more about the Etruscan civilization, dive into the article about Etruscan art and artifacts.
The first of these villages is Orvieto, which is located 130 km northeast of Rome and is the perfect base from which to spend an unforgettable weekend in Umbria.
Being a settlement of Etruscan origin, Orvieto has thousands of years of history. It lies on a spur of tufa stone that dominates the surrounding countryside and represents in itself a natural defense.
The most famous historical landmarks are two masterpieces of medieval and renaissance architecture: respectively, the Duomo of Orvieto, dated 1290 and the San Patrizio Well dated 1527.
The cathedral features a breathtakingly beautiful Gothic-style facade: spires, brilliant mosaics, statues, and bas-reliefs. Inside, the massive columns in two-tone marble and the frescoes in the apse, illuminated by the magical light coming in through the high windows, are mesmerizing. The entrance ticket costs €5 and includes the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The cathedral is not the only medieval testimony of Orvieto. There is in fact a whole neighborhood called the “Medieval District“.
The Quartiere Medievale of Orvieto develops along and around Via della Cava, the Church of San Giovanni and the Church of San Giovenale. Take a stroll around and enjoy the views from this part of Orvieto which are said to be the most scenic in town!
Getting to Orvieto
Take a train from Roma Termini, the ticket costs about €9, and then get off at Orvieto-Scalo (1 and half hour trip). Then you get on the cable car (funicolare in Italian) that takes you to the top of the tufa cliff, in the historic center, a ride costs €1.30.
Accommodation in Orvieto
Agriturismo San Giorgio is located just outside Orvieto, has an outdoor pool, and produces its own olive oil and wine.
Here is a tiny, perfectly preserved medieval village in southern Tuscany, almost on the border with Lazio. Sovana reached its maximum splendor in the 13th century. Afterward, it slowly declined and depopulated, flourishing again only in the second half of the 20th century, when tourist interest stimulated the opening of cafes, restaurants, souvenir stores and B&Bs. Today Sovana has 122 inhabitants.
Before becoming Roman, it was an Etruscan city, in fact, in addition to being part of Tuscia, it is included, together with the nearby Sorano and Pitigliano, in the immense archeological park “Città del Tufo”, which includes nature trails full of Etruscan caves and tombs.
The village develops around Piazza del Pretorio, where you’ll find the Town Hall or Palazzo del Pretorio, the Palazzo dell’Archivio or PAlace of the Archives, and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The Romanesque church preserves 15th-century frescoes and a precious medieval ciborium. The Palazzo del Pretorio houses the Archeological Museum of Sovana, which exhibits the finds discovered at the Tomb of Ildebranda and inside the Necropolis of Sovana.
The most valuable monument is the Duomo of Sovana, with the external portal in marble sculpted with motives and symbols in the Byzantine style. A very similar portal is found at the entrance of the romanesque Cathedral of Castel Sant’Elia, near Nepi.
It is said that the sarcophagus in the cathedral housed the body of Saint Mamiliano, who introduced Christianity to southern Tuscany in the 5th century. The life of the saint inspired Alexandre Dumas to write his novel “The Count of Montecristo”.
Getting to Sovana
The best way to reach Sovana is by private car.
Where to stay in Sovana
The apartment “I ricordi”, is located in the heart of the village, so you can fully experience all the tranquility of life in this part of Tuscany.
A few kilometers from Sovana, there is the Organic Agriturismo Aia Del Tufo, where you can enjoy exceptional cuisine with products from the place and other local farms.
There are a lot of other incredible medieval towns in Italy worthy of being included in this list, let us know if you have visited any of them!
To get more ideas on historic places to visit in Italy, read my post about Italian landmarks.