Today the picturesque northern Italian town of Cividale del Fruili is an ideal place to meander among the narrow cobbled streets and wander the peaceful banks of the sparkling Natisone River. This relaxed ambiance masks a town rich in history and importance dating from settlement in Julius Caesar’s time (with evidence of earlier Celtic habitation) and a number of fascinating tales and mysteries lost in the mists of time.
Along with the region, the town is named from a mangled version of the original Roman name of Forum Julii (Fruili). From the central Piazza Paolo Diacono with its cafes selling local wines and coffee and fountain with four lions heads, head towards the river and the famed 15th century Devil’s Bridge (Ponte del Diavolo). Crossing the bridge, sit and enjoy the panoramic town views, thousands of years of history perched on rock cliffs, the meandering emerald green waters of the Natisone below and a clutch of church towers and steeples reaching upwards across a backdrop of rolling green hills.
The Devil arrived with his mother carrying large stones to help complete the structure in exchange for the soul of the first living creature that crossed the bridge. Desperate for the bridge’s completion to ease the crossing of the ravine, the townsfolk agreed to this dodgy proposition. Craftily on the opening of the bridge, kids tossed a stick over the bridge and a mangy stray dog galloped across to collect it, saving the town folks and causing the Devil and his mother to disappear forever, tricked by the sneaky children. Nothing is said for the fate of the dog.
Grab a free key (though a tip is suggested) from the bar near the bridge to a mysterious set of underground caves. In a tiny side street near the bar is an unremarkable door which leads into a roughly hewn stone staircase and entry to Ipogeo Celtico (Celtic Hypogeum). A series of strange rock caverns and rooms connected by passages intertwine underneath the town.
Stories abound as to their origins but no-one seems certain as to when they were dug, who dug them and why the extensive subterranean rock chambers exist at all. There is a strong belief among historians that it is a Celtic (pre-dating Roman times) site for burials, sacrifices or religious rites. Were they used to store food or possibly a Roman prison? One theory suggests Jewish ritual baths. Don’t miss the three spooky leering stone faces observing your every move as you wander Ipogeo Celtico.
Wander back towards the centre of town from the Ipogeo towards the Tempietto Longobardo (Lombard Temple). UNESCO heritage-listed, this tiny chapel over 1200 years old is part of a large convent complex (built several centuries later) complete with fine colonnaded cloisters encompassing a serene verdant garden. The temple has tiny arched windows, intricate stucco works and fine frescoed walls and ceiling, some badly faded from the ravages of light, earthquakes and time.
The cathedral (duomo) is fairly typical but includes an exceptional gilded silver altarpiece. With two archangels surrounding Mary, holding a young Jesus, the artwork includes inscribed individually punched or stamped Latin letters some 250 years before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing (see Wikipedia’s detailed photo. The neighbouring museum helps unmask some of Cividale del Fruili’s rich history.
With any remaining time, stroll alongside the ravine imagining the centuries of people who’ve traversed the path before as Cividale gives way to farms and market gardens. Don’t miss the Italian gem of Cividale del Fruili and explore the town’s mysteries of the Devil’s Bridge, the underground rock halls of Ipogeo Celtico and the 950 year old printed letters on the glistening altarpiece in the cathedral.