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8 Precariously Placed Cliff Towns

Around the World — By Rachel Greenberg on March 1, 2010 at 5:49 pm
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These quaint towns have it all – remote location, rich history, a ton of classic architecture and last but not least, incredibly breathtaking views. Nestled into cliffs, above gorges, and on top of ancient lava flows, it’s pretty amazing these cities have survived for so long.

1. Bonifacio, France

The ancient city of Bonifacio is located on the southern most tip of Corsica, France and is built onto limestone cliffs 230 feet above the harbor below. Because limestone is such a soft stone, over the years ocean water has eroded the base of the cliffs, making the old buildings hang directly over the ocean.


Image: Paul-in-London

It’s no wonder Bonifacio has seen some wear and tear since the city has been around for a pretty long time. Skeletal remains of a woman dating back to 6570 BC (aptly named “Dame de Bonifacio”) were found in a cave in the northern region of the city. In addition, scholars argue there is a reference to Bonifacio in Homer’s “Odyssey,” when he describes a race of giant cannibals, called Laestrygonians, who live in a harbor very similar to Bonifacio’s.

Today Bonifacio has around 400 residents (none of whom are confirmed cannibal giants) and is a popular resort town for French and Italians.

Image: Matgen4

2. Ronda, Spain

Ronda is located in a mountainous area 2,500 above sea-level in the Andalusian region of Spain. The city was initially settled by Celts and was subsequently ruled by Romans, Moors and finally Catholic Spain in 1485. Ronda is built on the two peaks above the El Tajo canyon that has been shaped by the Guadalevin River that runs 330 feet below.  Since the town is split on two hilltops, Ronda is connected by three bridges, one Moorish, one Arab, and the “newest,” Puente Nuevo, which was completed in 1793.

Image: Hotel Bandolero

Both Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles fell passionately in love with Ronda and spent summers in the old town quarter called La Ciudad, writing about the city’s famous bull fighting and troubled political history. Welles even chose the city as his final resting place – his ashes were scattered underneath his favorite tree just outside Ronda.

Image: karynsig


Image: About

3. Santorini, Greece

The geography of Santorini was created by a volcanic eruption in 1600 BCE when a large island that existed there before was blown to bits and a small archipelago of islands surrounding a central lagoon was created. The islands of Santorini are located southeast of the main Greek islands in the Aegean sea. Although each small island is shaped differently, most of the hillsides of Santorini rise up over 950 feet from the lagoon below.

Many architectural elements of Santorini come from its history as an erupted volcano. The white washed, low-lying homes of the main island are often colored with volcanic ash and are usually constructed sideways or down into the earth in order to utilize the cool, volcanic pumice stone the city is built on.


Image: Wolfgang Staudt


Image: Wallpaper

4. Castellfollit de la Roca, Spain

With an area of less then one square kilometer, Castellfollit de la Roca is located in the Catalonian region of Spain and is home to fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. The unique geography of Castellfollit was created by lava flows thousands of years ago that ran over each other and hardened, forming a basalt crag. This crag was slowly eroded by two rivers until a small stretch of land was created that rises 165 feet from the rivers that still run below.


Image: aldo bar acko bama

Castelfollit’s Old Town has origins in the medieval period and its dark and narrow streets haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. So it’s pretty surprising that the city was one of the first in Spain to have telephones installed in 1907. Since the town is so isolated, the mayor pushed to have telephones connecting Castellfollit and two other nearby towns. Phone lines weren’t available to the rest of  Spain for another decade or so.


Image: Spot Cool Stuff

5. Machu Picchu, Peru

The Incan people began construction on Machu Picchu in 1430, 50 miles northwest of their capital in Cusco, Peru during the height of their empire’s power. A hundred years later it was mysteriously deserted, and to this day archaeologists and historians can’t agree on why it was created or what lead to its abandonment.


Image: NeilsPhotography

Machu Picchu’s location on a mountain top 1,500 feet above a river doesn’t make it the most likely spot for agriculture, but the Incan people’s impressive use of terraced landscaping made the otherwise un-farmable land perfect for growing crops.

The city of Machu Picchu has 140 structures, including houses and temples. And since the Incas were such exceptional stone masons, many of these structures are still in good condition, surviving hundreds of years and many earthquakes.


Image: Nicole Lerner


Image: About.com

6. Rocamadour, France

Local legend says that Rocamadour, France was named after St. Amadour who fled to the 400 foot caves above the river Alzou to live a life of hermitage. Since his arrival, the city has become synonymous with spirituality and a place worthy of religious pilgrimage. In medieval times a monastic complex was built into the rocky cliffs of Rocamadour and French peasants and royalty alike flocked to the site. Today visitors can still visit the crypt of St. Amadour and pray in the Chapelle Notre Dame that contains a very famous 12th century Black Madonna.


Image: RuTemple

Other then its famous religious history, Rocamadour also produces a famed local cheese, called “Cabecou of Rocamadour”,  made from a secret medieval recipe using goat’s milk aged 6 days before serving.

Wondering when to visit Rocamadour? Try to get there in September when the city also hosts a festival called Montgolfiades where dozens of hot air balloons fly over the town. This stunning spectacle is held annually.


Image: Rocamadour Airship

7. Meteora, Greece

Meteora, meaning “suspended in air”, is one of the most sacred Eastern Orthodox cities in Greece. It is made up of six monasteries built over thousands of years on sandstone rock pillars that rise over 1,000 feet from the ground.


Image: cod gabriel

Originally, the ancient rock formations were inhabited by hermit monks in the 9th century who built their homes in caves and fissures. Over the next thousand years, the location became increasingly popular, and six monasteries were built where the most devout Eastern Orthodox priests and nuns lived.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that stairs and a bridge were built to get to the monasteries; previously people were hauled up in mesh baskets.


Image: Demetrius

8. Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca, Spain is a medieval town that has been a coveted military stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula for the Roman Empire, Arabs, and Christians (all before the 12th century) because of its placement on the top of a gorge above a rushing river. Given the varied cultures that called Cuenca their home, it’s no surprise the city has an incredible mix of architecture leftover from its former residents, including Our Lady of Grace, the first Gothic Style cathedral in Spain, and the ruins of an ancient Arab fortress.

But the city’s most famous buildings are called the “Casas Colgadas” or “Hanging Houses” that were built in the 15th century and literally hang over the cliff. One of these buildings now houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, one of the best museums of its kind in Spain.


Image: breughel


Image: Gabriel Villena

Tags: cliff towns, france, Greece, italy, mountain towns, Peru, spain

    29 Comments

  • You could add to this list San Marino, the little principality surrounded by Italy, built onto a mountain cliff (or a cliff mountain?)

  • Amy says:

    Rachel, seeing these towns makes me want to drop everything, hop a plane, and move in to one of those little French villas… yesterday. Great job, I love this post!

  • Paola says:

    Before all the recent earthquakes, I would have said that would be awesome to live in a place like that, but now… I would be a little worried.

  • Fantastic post! Like Amy said, I can’t wait to visit all of these places. I’d like to add Positano to the mix. It’s such an amazing coastal town in the Amalfi Coast.

  • “HAULED UP IN MESH BASKETS.” That’s about as clutch as it gets and is now a requirement for my future home.

    I grew up near a river, and thought the oak trees clinging to the sides of the eroded bluffs were impressive. Now I realize I had no idea.

  • In all of them Ronda is one of the best attractive place… Is like a haven of the earth with the huge mountains and lakes. Most of the important sights in Ronda can be seen in a few hours as most are located around the new bridge area and within the old part of the town over the bridge from the Parador. Begin at the bullring which is one of the oldest and most beautiful in Spain. Adjoining Ronda’s bullring is the Bullfighting Museum which displays interesting relics of Ronda’s bullfighting history.

  • rectoscopy says:

    Corsica is not surrounded by ocean

  • Sherry says:

    I only wish I had enough money to visit all these places and stay for a while….Beautiful!!!

  • Ronda says:

    It’s great to see Ronda mentioned in your article, but would you mind if I correct a couple of small errors, there is no Roman bridge in Ronda, the oldest bridge dates from Moorish times, and the bridge usually called the Roman bridge is only 400 years old, and was named the Roman bridge because it looks Roman.

    Also, Orson Welles ashes weren’t scattered around the bullring, they were actually placed under Welles’ favourite tree on Antonio Ordoñez estate just outside Ronda.

  • Imagine bringing up children in these places………

  • Rachel Greenberg says:

    Ronda- Thanks for the information the corrections have been made!

  • Rachel Greenberg says:

    David-

    I just looked up San Marino and it looks absolutely stunning! A perfect addition to this list.

    Thank you for mentioning it!!

    -Rachel

  • Fabulous idea – what a great article. Not for those with a fear of heights! :)

  • Massilia says:

    Oh my God! are they real or just the Photoshop effect ?

  • Alex Resnik says:

    There’s something cool about a city on a cliff. Great post! Thanks for giving me some new destinations to drool over.

  • Sarah says:

    How about Murren, Switzerland? One of my favorite places to visit for summer hiking, and a popular base jumping spot because of the cliffs. Maybe not right on the edge, but close like Machu Picchu..

  • Mike Rowson says:

    Eze, France could be included with these-spectacular view of the Med. I missed a chance to see Ronda 35 years ago-time to go back, I guess.

  • Bunuel, Juan Luis says:

    Who is the idiot who says Corsica is not surrounded by the sea?

  • Emma Muldoon says:

    This is a great article; makes me reminisce about nights spent in a cliff side guesthouse – Sarangkot, Nepal – literally in the centre of monsoon storms!

  • Jackie says:

    These images are simply amazing. As a Southern California resident, all I can think about is how these entire towns could be wiped out in just one earthquake. But in the mean time, they make for some fabulous photography.

  • Thanks,

    This is a great article and a great website. I liked it very much. It will help me to optimise my websites in europe. I have website in travel and that meens a lot of seo work !!

    Thanks a lot and greetings,

    Dave and Carol
    Seo and Travel Website in Europe, France

  • Great shots! Santorini for me is just amazing!

  • Berend says:

    Great list. At the traveldiamonds website we look for lists of the best spots in the world. This is definitely an interesting list of interesting places to visit!

  • Federico says:

    I’ve just seen a couple of these places…and know I’ll see more in the future!

  • Arpad says:

    you left out cinque terre in italy it’s part of unesco word heritage

  • Blair Waldorf says:

    wow, amazing places!! I must visit them in this lifetime! I already saw Santorini and it’s wonderful!! The place where white colour shines, literally! love it, we have such an amazing planet, we shoul be more carefull with it.

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