A hill town is generally a town that covers the crest of a hill much like snow might cover the top of a mountain in the winter. Often the cathedral or the cathedral bell-tower is the highest point in the town. For obvious geological reasons, Italian hill towns tend to be smaller than valley towns like Florence and Milan, but their homes, shops and churches are generally clustered very closely together and surrounded by an old city wall. The centers of these towns are often now restricted largely to pedestrians, making them mostly traffic free and helping to create a strong sense of community. In America even smaller towns tend to be built in valleys, where water is more plentiful and transportation more convenient, and the houses in the hills tend to be scattered and not clustered. Towns in Italy were built long before American towns, during times when security was much more important than convenience. The two dozen or so hill towns I’ll mention here are mainly those that we’ve visited on this trip. This is a very small sample of what can be found all over Italy.
The part of Italy that is most famous for its hill towns is Tuscany. One of the most famous is San Gimignano, a town that did not destroy or renovate its old buildings and towers because its powerful neighbor Florence had worked very hard to undermine its economic base, causing San Gimignano to decline into a state of arrested development (which makes it so historically charming in the present day). Florence’s neighbors in Tuscany still have not forgotten the way Florence has thrown its weight around historically, and folks from towns like Siena, Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano do not seem especially fond of their larger Tuscan neighbor.
Looking down on Florence from Fiesole
In the Divine Comedy Dante makes it clear how proud he is to be from a city that traces its origins to the glory of Rome. Fiesole goes back much farther — at least to Etruscan times
We’ve also visited the beautiful Tuscan hill town of Volterra, made famous in America because it is the alleged setting of the film “New Moon,” a sequel to “Twilight.” I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s part of the current cinematic fascination with good-looking and young, yet highly sympathetic blood-sucking fiends. Apparently, the ‘Volterra’ scenes in “New Moon” were not actually filmed in Volterra…..which looks like this from the fields below.
The scenes were filmed in Montepulciano, a town that produces a very reasonably priced red wine that Lois and I have grown very fond of. Apparently the wine is not the only red in this town.
Vampires notwithstanding, it’s a lovely hill-town.
And then there is Volterra’s tiny southern neighbor, Montecerboli, where an Italian friend very generously let us stay in her hilltop castle apartment.
I hesitate to say this – for risk of reprisals from the Tuscan Tourist Board, but Tuscany has no monopoly on hill towns. Nonetheless, tourists are mostly unaware that there are equally charming, and (dare I say it) far more spectacular hill towns that lie outside of Tuscany. We spoke with someone from Umbria (a region in Italy that lies just southeast of Tuscany) who said that the hill towns in Umbria are at least as scenic as Tuscany’s except greener and less inhabited by tourists. He added that with a bit of expert marketing, Umbria could easily be the new Tuscany. I’m hoping the marketing doesn’t happen.
Assisi is one of the most charming hill towns I’ve seen. It’s a gorgeous medieval Umbrian town whose homes, stores, cave-like stone restaurants and spectacular churches and cathedral are cobbled together with pink-hued stones.
Orvieto is an Umbrian town perched on a cliff and topped by one of the most spectacular cathedrals in all of Italy (including Florence).
Then there is the neighboring hill-hamlet of Civita di Bagnoreggio, where currently less than ten people reside. No one in the U.S. would ever think to build a town here.
The Appenines is a mountain range that runs down the spine of Italy from near Parma (quite a ways northwest of Florence), curving southeast through Le Marche and Umbria, extending all the way down to Basilicata in extreme southern Italy. It consists of spectacular mountains that reach nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, yet are unpublicized due to competition from their higher northern Italian neighbors – the Alps. Lois and I skied in the Appenines this past winter. Toward the extreme eastern border of Umbria lies a tiny town in the midst of the Appenines – Castelluccio, at the head of the Piano Grande (the great plain). It is a spectacular setting for a hill town.
Farther north in the region of Lombardy there is Bergamo Alto (I suppose “Bergamo Heights” is the best translation). We recently spent a rainy day there in early September and were captivated by the place despite the weather.
All of this notwithstanding, it’s been in extreme southern Italy that we have encountered our favorite hill towns. This part of Italy is often neglected by the guide books, Lonely Planet being one of the few exceptions. Rick Steves says nothing about this part of Italy. It may be because things are a bit more raw down here…. not so clean, not so accommodating to foreign tourists. Very little English is spoken here, even by shop clerks and apartment managers. Tourists worry that in this part of Italy they will be set upon by Mafiosi– a bit like when traveling through New Jersey. Consequently, tourists here are either from elsewhere in Italy or from Germany (Germans travel everywhere). Our Italian has gotten quite a bit better in southern Italy. The way Lois words it is that we now speak bad Italian more fluently.
The region of Puglia lies in the heel of the ‘boot’ of Italy. Rising from the Murgian Plateau between the coastal towns of Taranto on the Ionian Sea and Monopoli on the Adriatic is a cluster of gorgeous hill towns. The largest and most elegant is old-town Martini Franca, which is graced by white homes and stylish Baroque palazzos and churches with elaborate wrought-iron balconies.
Not far down the road from Martina Franca lies Locorotondo, a small, gleaming town rising from the Murgian Plateau. Whitewashed buildings with unique, steep-pitched roofs rise from white, stone-paved piazzas and streets in old-town Locorotondo, giving the town an almost Greek feel, which is no coincidence given that so much of this region of Italy was part of Magna Grecia (greater Greece) in ancient times. If my comprehension of Italian can be trusted, the Tourist Information office explained that, for hundreds of years Locorotondo has required its residents and businesses to paint their buildings white. (Imagine the outrage this would cause in an American city.) The effect, however, is stunning, particularly with bright red geraniums cascading down the walls from windows and balconies.
If the town of Locorotondo has a Greek feel to it, the town of Alberobello feels downright extra-terrestrial. We encountered cute, stone-roofed dwellings throughout the countryside as we traveled between the Murgian hill towns. (Fortunately we’d read about them; otherwise we would have been suspicious about the “shrooms” they’d served us in Martina Franca). The dwellings are called “trulli.” They are a bit like the stone ‘beehive’ huts we encountered in Ireland, although more elaborate.
The authentic trulli houses actually have dry stone roofs (no mortar is used for the stones), although contemporary trulli houses often add mortar and even add brick to the interiors of the ceilings. The old town of Alberobello is a sort of “trulli” hill-town cascade, creating an effect of such utter cuteness that Disney would envy it. Lonely Planet describes Alberobello as a sort of delightful habitat for gnomes. Lois remarked that if you simply painted the Alberobello trulli village blue, the result would be “Smurfsville.” As a natural consequence, Alberobello has been the only place in our travels in southern Italy where we encountered throngs of Asian and American tourists, although thankfully we were able to find a smaller, more authentic part of town where the trulli hadn’t been converted into souvenir/trinket shops. We are now considering spending a night or two in one of the trulli later this month. It’s one of those places you’ve just got to see. It makes you smile.
Lois and I recently spent four days in Pollino National Park in the region of southern Italy called Basilicata (in the arch of the “boot” of Italy). This park includes the southernmost reach of the Appenines. It’s the largest national park in all of Italy (one of only two habitats on earth for the magnificent loricate pine, AKA the Bosnian pine).
Lois and I had been amazed and delighted by the northern Appenines on our trip to Italy in 2009 and were just as surprised to find the Appenines here in extreme southern Italy this time around. Beautiful hill towns are scattered throughout the foothills of the southern Appenines, towns like Mormanno, Rotondo, and Morano Calabro.
Residents of these towns are so unaccustomed to tourists that when they enter a restaurant, they greet each diner individually, as though each has lived there since birth. The presence of strangers is not simply unusual; it sometimes seems baffling to them.
A drive through these towns generally involves vehicular navigation through piazzas that are populated almost entirely by street gangs consisting of several dozen shiftless octogenarian homey males milling about and refusing to yield to cars that have the audacity to trespass upon their turf, eyeing the drivers and passengers with suspicion and, in Lois’ case, apparent lust. Italy is, unfortunately with some justification, reputed to be a country in which males consider it their God-given right to leer lasciviously at nice looking women. Accordingly, I’ve developed the habit of being prepared to stare down those men who seem to be looking at Lois in inappropriate ways, but I have to admit that I was astonished to hear Lois’ report that as I was taking this photo of her standing next to Pasquale, the octogenarian church employee who had given us a personal tour of the sacred mysteries of the Church of Mary Magdelene, he was groping her behind.
Basilicata spans a region bordering on the Ionian Sea in the east (in the arch of the Italian boot) to the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast of Italy south of the Amalfi coast. The most dramatic Basilicata town on the Tyrrhenian is Maratea. It is a lovely coastal town with breathtaking views of the coastal mountains as they plunge into the sea. What most people know as Maratea would not really qualify as a hill town, but there are several Marateas. What is called Maratea Superiore is certainly a hill town….an amazing one. It is nestled just below Jesus on the crest of this mountain. (This particular statue of Jesus is 72 feet tall, the tallest in Europe, and one of the two tallest in the world, second only to Corcovado in Brazil.)
Maratea Superiore is an ancient town, now a ruin, built in the 8th Century BC as an ancient Greek colony.
Normally one doesn’t find many hill towns on the high-mountain peaks in the Alps, the Dolomites or the Appenines in Italy because the mountains there are simply too craggy and inaccessible. Inaccessibility doesn’t seem to be a deterrent in southern Italy, however. Outside of Italy few folks are aware that there are high alpine mountains called the Lucanian Dolomites in northern Basilicata.
Chiseled into two of these jagged mountaintops are the towns of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano. Looking up from the base of these mountains, the towns simply seem to defy all laws of physics and common sense, but the construction of the city dates back to the Saracens in the 9th Century.
The views from the towns (including the views of approaching enemies) are incredible. The highest peak in the town of Pietrapertosa is both a mountain pinnacle and a Norman fortress; the two cannot really be distinguished from one another.
As we were admiring the views on a roadside turnout below one of the peaks of Pietrapertosa, Lois and I heard a strange whirring sound above us. Apparently some enterprising soul had conceived the idea of stringing a cable from the top of one of the peaks in Pietrapertosa to the top of the peak at Castelmezzano, attaching a sling to the cable and offering thrill seekers the opportunity to zing across the valley on a zipline in a harness suspended nearly 2000 feet above the floor of the valley below. It’s the longest zipline in Europe. It’s called ‘Volo d’Angelo’ (flight of the angel) – which, God willing, is what one would become after dying of fright on this contraption. Lois and I were both tempted…she more than I, but we had a very busy day ahead of us, and agreed to resist the temptation (translation: we chickened out).
From there we drove south through a gorgeous forested valley in the Parco Nazionale dell’Appenino Lucano to the eerily beautiful hill town of Aliano, made famous by Carlo Levi in his book entitled “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Levi’s fictional name for the town was Gagliano. He was exiled to Aliano (Gagliano) by the fascists in WWII, and his book described the harsh living conditions and the spirituality in this region that, even as late as the late 1930’s, Catholicism had showed little interest in. Levi describes a town of poverty and desperation. It has been revived to some extent, but there are still remnants of the town Levi describes in such grim detail.
The geology changes dramatically in the region of Aliano. The valleys that surround the town are starkly spectacular, looking much more like something one would find in the American canyon country of northern Arizona or southern Utah than anywhere else in Italy.
Countryside near Aliano
The slopes below the current town of Aliano, where the built environment gives way to the hill that supports the town, are dotted with caves that have been bored into the barren hillside. These caves were reminiscent of what we had encountered a few days earlier in Matera – the town in eastern Basilicata that Lois and I consider the most fascinating of all Italian hill towns.
Matera is a haunting town, perhaps the most ancient on the very ancient Italian peninsula. Its settlements were established so long ago in pre-history that Matera makes the early days of Rome and Pompeii seem recent. It is a town embedded into stone hillsides.
Many of its dwellings and churches are called sassi (the Italian term for stones) because at least parts of them were literally carved into rock. Many are no more than caves.
For at least 5,000 years (through the 1950’s) people lived in these sassi in conditions which, until exposed by Carlo Levi and others, were so difficult that the infant mortality rate was still close to 50% in the 1950’s. After a government-mandated evacuation and rehabilitation of the sassi, the community has been made habitable and healthy, and many of the sassi businesses, churches and dwellings are in use once again. For me, Matera is the place on earth where the sense of continuity between the earliest and most recent civilizations is strongest, but there is still something unsettling about being there. When I walk along the streets of Matera and step into the sassi, it feels as though there are ghosts all around me.