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A town in Italy found a way to sell the story of its own decline. The town was built on unstable ground, which turned out to be good for business when the shifting earth became an attraction for tourists. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli paid a visit and found she was far from the only one.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Our destination is 75 miles north of Rome. The sign posts say Civita, the town that is dying.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: At 10 a.m. Sunday, visitors line up at a booth and pay a $6 entry fee.
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POGGIOLI: The tiny town is isolated atop a rocky mount. To reach it requires a tough trek across a long and very steep footbridge. At the top, a fairy tale hamlet floats in the clouds; below it, a stunning landscape of clay-colored canyons. But it wasn't always this isolated. First stop, the geological museum. Maps show Civita's gradual shrinkage since the ancient Etruscans founded it on volcanic rock. Its big decline, says geologist Luca Costantini, began with a strong earthquake in 1695 when 3,000 people lived here.
LUCA COSTANTINI: And little by little, they go away. Now the number of the people who lives in Civita are 10 person. In the future, the city can disappear.
POGGIOLI: The cause is erosion. The mountainsides are melting away, plummeting to the canyons below. In Italian - the calanchi.
THOMAS ALLSOP: The landscape of the calanchi, those cliffs, is a lunar landscape.
POGGIOLI: Landscape architect Thomas Allsop says Civita's fragility is due to a soft clay layer giving way under the hard, volcanic tufa rock.
ALLSOP: That's really the major problem is what it's, the tufa, is built on is what's really unstable, especially when it rains really hard. And then they have what they call the franes, the slides.
POGGIOLI: Landslides leave Civita perching precariously above a crumbling precipice. Today, the town is 500 feet long and 300 wide. Mayor Francesco Bigiotti says locals want to keep the town alive, but that requires constant restoration. To fund that, the town introduced a tourist toll.
FRANCESCO BIGIOTTI: (Through interpreter) Four years ago before the entry fee, annual visitors were 40,000. At the end of this year, we forecast 850,000.
POGGIOLI: The fresh funds allowed scrapping of local taxes, and there's close to zero unemployment thanks to 200 new startups in the region.
POGGIOLI: It's 3 p.m. Sunday, and with some 6,000 visitors on this day alone, the narrow cobblestone streets are jammed. On holidays, daytrippers can reach 10,000 to 15,000. The town can't keep up with its few cafes and restaurants and only two public toilets.
TONY HEYWOOD: The masses of people that come on weekends and the noise and the confusion.
POGGIOLI: American architect Tony Heywood first came in the 1960s. One of the 10 permanent residents, he acknowledges tourism has been good for some townspeople.
HEYWOOD: Some of them are profiting from it but not everybody. And the very reason that some of the people came here was to get away from this.
POGGIOLI: Civita now faces a new challenge. It's a candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage site, but with UNESCO promoting sustainable tourism, Civita may now have to limit the number of its daily visitors. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Civita.
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