Hill towns, also referred to as citadel towns, are towns, particularly in Italy, which were built upon a hill for defensive purposes, usually surrounded by thick defensive walls, steep embankments, or cliffs. The hilltop settlements, which provided natural defenses for their earliest inhabitants, were fortified in the Middle Ages when earthworks and stone and wooden palisades were supplemented or replaced with massive stone and masonry walls, sturdy gates, and watch towers. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, even some of the smallest and most remote hill towns were adorned with churches housing works of art and impressive noble residences.
Italy’s hill towns have been studied for the communities that inhabited them, as repositories of Medieval and Renaissance art, and for their architecture.
In the second half of the 20th century, many of Italy’s lesser-known hill towns, especially those located outside Tuscany and Umbria, experienced steep population declines as their residents left for urban centres. In recent years, this trend has reversed with a deepening appreciation of Italian hill towns and interest in their preservation.
“Today, the obsession is with hill towns. Partly this is because so many of us have already visited the major cities and seen their renowned sites. It is also probably because there were no such things as the motorbike or the Fiat one hundred years ago. In those days, Italy’s great cities were relatively calm, the broad streets were impressive rather than nervewracking, and the populations were far smaller. All that has changed since World War Two, and as a result we now find ourselves longing to get out of the cities, out into the country, to visit the small towns, eat real food, meet real people, experience the “real Italy”.
Of course, if you stop to think about it, there’s nothing to support the claim that small-town residents are any more “real” than big city denizens. What is likely, however, is that you will have more opportunity to chat with them for a few moments while you sip caffè or scoop up gelato. If you are on the street in the late afternoon, you will not only witness but actually become a part of la passeggiata, the ritual arm-in-arm stroll that brings entire hill town populations out of their houses. On the surface, it would seem la passeggiata serves no other purpose than to stretch one’s legs and exchange the latest gossip. In reality it is also a much more subtle experience, a reassurance that one is indeed an integral part of the town’s human fabric, and that one’s place in that arrangement is exactly what it was yesterday and the day before and, for that matter, on any given day in one’s local family history. During la passeggiata it becomes very clear to everyone that the main difference between small-town residents and big city denizens is that the latter are usually immigrants, whereas the former most likely live in the house their great-great grandfather once converted from a stall.
Of course, the other reason we are so enchanted by hill towns is that they look so great. Most of them have kept faithful to their original character, because their hilltop locations made it impossible for them to expand. The “new towns” had to be built in the valley, sometimes a mile or two away. This meant that as families expanded, especially in the past 100 years, the second-, third-, and fourth-born children would move down the hill and build new homes there. The child who remained in the hill town might make adjustments such as adding plumbing and electricity, but he would generally keep the building’s exterior intact, giving us the quaint winding alleys, colorful flower boxes and impeccable shutters we see beckoning to us in posters and pictures.
…(There is a) wide selection of hill towns. Most of them are rarely visited by foreigners, so you are less likely to find crowds, congestion or calloused local residents. Do try to peep into the tiny churches and ancient buildings while you’re there, but remember that the most important experience in a hill town is to share in the life of the village. We suggest you carefully review the items on your “must-see” agenda, throw out at least half of them and replace the time you’d have spent there by just sitting at an outdoor cafe or trattoria, watching the people and making local friends. It’s easy as pie in Italy’s “unknown” hill towns.”
– Taken From In Italy Online , where you can read about Hill Towns in every region if Italy!
There really are so many undiscovered Hill Town gems in Southern Italy! Explore and find you’re own favorite! There are WAY too many to try and list here…but…here are a few you may not have heard of to get you started:
“Unknown” Hill Towns in Campania
Gesualdo – hilltop town dominated by a story-book castle. Directions from Calitri to Gesualdo.
Teggiano – see Roman ruins, several well-preserved medieval buildings, a 12th-century cathedral and of course, a 14th-century castle. Directions from Calitri to Teggiano.
Benevento – lots of Roman antiquities. It has a 2nd-century BC theatre, a towering triumphant arch, and a well-preserved gate, and almost every house in town has bits and pieces of the ancient monuments plastered into its façade. Directions from Calitri to Benevento.
“Unknown” Hill Towns in Basilicata
Melfi‘s imposing Norman castle’s eight towers can be seen for miles around, standing on the hilltop surrounded by a host of pre-Roman graves. The town gate dates back to Norman days. Directions from Calitri to Melfi.
Acerenza‘s rooftops seem to have been neatly shaven to form a perfect round profile. Its 11th-century cathedral is one of the finest in the region, and its crypt is particularly worth a visit. Directions from Calitri to Acerenza.
Rivello looks almost alpine, sprawled along the side of a densely wooded hill caught between Mounts Coccovello and Sirino. There are loads of ornate balconies, two nice churches and a beautifully frescoed convent, but the town’s most charming feature is its authenticity and simplicity. Directions from Calitri to Rivello.
Montescaglioso‘s location is similar to Orvieto’s: it occupies the entire top of a broad flat plateau. The graceful cloisters of the Sant’Angelo Abbey are especially worth a visit. Directions from Calitri to Montescaglioso.
“Unknown” Hill Towns in Apulia
Minervino Murge has been nicknamed the balcony of Apulia, because it makes a perfect lookout across the Murge Valley below. It has a Norman cathedral, a 12th-century castle, andmany pretty sandstone façades. Directions from Calitri to Minervino Murge.
A Special Thanks to In Italy Online, where I got much of this information.