Ten years ago I visited Orvieto with some friends. I was so moved by the town, the views and the incredible Duomo. For ten years it has been important to me to take J. there to experience what I did because sometimes words just aren’t enough, even as a writer. Orvieto would be my second choice for a place to live in Italy. This medieval city sits atop a volcanic cliff, watching over Umbria below. Its history is varied, people are warm and the winding streets filled with wonder. For me Orvieto is magic, it is romance and it is peace, far enough away it feels like there is no other world, yet close enough to everything you never feel out of touch. Perhaps it is this separation which makes the city feel miles apart from reality, and encourages the locals to be more artistic, creative and welcoming.
As with almost all of our European travel we arrived by train and then rode up to the top of Orvieto. You can also take a funicular, or buses from the newer part of the city which is below the medieval center. The ride up is similar to Assisi, full of anticipation of what lies above. As with Assisi entering into the town is like going back into time, a beautiful slower paced life where social connections are still face to face and not screen to screen.
We stayed in a newly remodeled AirBnb which was absolutely perfect. On our first afternoon it was a bit overcast but it didn’t stop us from heading out to find some delicious pasta and local wine (something Orvieto is famous for). A lot of the restaurants in Orvieto are either indoors or have only a few tables set outside along the small and quiet streets. There aren’t restaurant filled Piazzas as in many other towns in Italy. I found this created a more romantic and intimate experience than the people watching in the Piazzas. I couldn’t wait to show J. the town so we walked through the streets discovering craftsman making shoes by hand and ceramicists painting their wares which recently emerged from their kilns. There are tiny little markets, clothing stores, jewelry stores, and adorable kids stores scattered along the streets each one showing off the incredible display abilities of the staff. It is easy to cover most of the town in an afternoon if you are only looking at the surface. So this is what we did on the first day, just wandered and admired, working up an appetite for some of the best pizza I have ever eaten. (Seriously I still dream of that amazing pizza, eaten outdoors in a quiet little street by candlelight.)
Our second day in Orvieto we headed to the Duomo. The Duomo (cathedral) in Orivieto is incredibly special. The facade is an incredible display of mosaics, carved alabaster, bronze statuary and stone. The gold mosaics glimmer in the sun as it moves across the sky. The duomo is majestic against the countryside, almost showing off its incredible design. As we entered the massive doors I could tell J. thought I was crazy for going on and on about this church, especially after many of them we have seen in the world. Yes, he was blown away by the exterior but the interior was a bit disappointing at first glance. The striped stone work which make up the structure is nice but hardly worth talking about for ten years. Then, as we wandered further in to the church he understood what I meant as we walked into the room painted from top to bottom with the stories of the bible including the damnation of revelations, and heaven and hell. It is an incredibly symbolic and overwhelming experience to take in this artwork which surrounds you as you enter the space.
After touring the duomo we spent time in the archaeology museum checking out their amazing finds from local archaeology digs. The quiet and unassuming atmosphere is the perfect place to enjoy the discoveries made over the last 100 years. It tells an incredible story not only of Orvieto but also the country surrounding it. When we were done in the museum we took the short walk to one of the edges of town and sat in the little park looking at the amazing countryside of Umbria and an incredible castle close by.
We spent another day in Orvieto wandering the streets, shopping in the little stores, enjoying coffee in a great cafe filled with wood sculptures carved by a local genius (we are talking life size giraffes, monkeys, and architectural pieces carved from a lighthearted and unique perspective). We popped into an antique show set up in a six hundred year old chapel, headed to the edges of the town up and down hills, and then made our way back for a tour of underground Orvieto. In all honesty I wasn’t that excited about this tour, but when in Rome right? So, we bought tickets and headed under the city with a great guide. It turns out that the incredible of skill of the locals 2500 years ago when they started carving under the city was incredible. The citizens of Orvieto realized if there was a long war going on where they became stranded in their town protecting themselves they could run out of water. This started a digging campaign which lasted until the 20th century. What started as wells barely big enough to fit a human turned into tunnels storing wine and other things, including pigeons who nested there and provided food for the locals. Last century the citizens of Orvieto realized they couldn’t keep digging or else they would compromise the foundation of the town. We were both surprised at how cool the tour was, and I have to admit everyone on the tour got a laugh watching 6’4″ J. grapple with the small spaces.
Our last evening in Orvieto we ate in a restaurant where we could sit outside in a grape vine covered patio, with only a large Italian family next to us, celebrating. The candlelit patio was the perfect atmosphere to enjoy more wine and get lost in the quiet and romantic space. Followed with a walk through the town where children played in the Piazzas while parents and Grandparents caught up on conversation in the cool evening air, the night couldn’t have been more perfect.
I think people really miss out when they only take a day trip to Orvieto. There is so much to see in the surrounding area and to enjoy in the historical town. To miss it is to miss the true Italy.