I’d seen Orvieto in my dreams before. Floating, a castle village resting on stormclouds. Close up it was a town of gallant knights and minstrels, pomp and power, madness and frivolity, a big bite of full-flavoured life. In reality, the clouds are stone, but it rests on its pedestal no less grandly than I had hoped.
|Photo by Byron Roe Photography (see note*)|
Anyone who has never seen it before will have the same reaction upon watching it loom over the Roman Campagnia as if it was lord of Lazio, not the princeling of Umbria that it is. You will gape. It truly is the image of legends – a Latin Valhalla. And you will need to visit.
Either take the Funicular from the railway station, or the escalators from Campo della Fiera, or do as we did – drive the heavenly windy road to Via Roma, park and follow the stragglers past the funicular station and through the outer until the bitumen gives way to cobbles and you pass through the invisible walls into history.
This is no rambling village. Although the complete lack of cars may lead you to think this is a town for a simple stroll – it is not so. As each step takes you closer to the centre, and past stone buildings each more wrinkled by time than the last, you will realise that one day is not going to be enough. You will head for the Duomo – everybody does. You might stop for coffee in the shady Corso Cavour, nibble on tozzetti alle mandorle, then continue past the brick-a-brac and gourmet stores slowly. By the time you reach the piazza del duomo, you will be in need of lunch, and the discovery will hit you – you’ve misjudged the tourist merit of this town. My family alotted only a day to beautiful Orvieto, and I fear we missed the best parts. Ah well such is life. An excuse to return I suppose. But the day was by no mean wasted.
We ambled, allowing ourselves to stumble onto tourist attractions like the lazy folk we are. We missed the underground Orvieto, because that would have required organization, booking on a guided tour. Now I regret it. The Etruscan past and the love this region seems to have with mystery and intrigue has filled the tufa rock that Orvieto rests on with a warren of escape routes and subterranean art.
We saw the Cathedral – a pied monolith of such grandeur, again, I found Orvieto had physically taken the breath from me. It’s not just the outside – perfect geometry in travertine and basalt, and lacy sculpture and mocaic. Inside it is sheathed in works both delicate and grotesque by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli and a hush and cool that even the hottest rowdiest bunch of summer tourists cannot seem to penetrate. It’s possibly the most jaw-dropping cathedral I’ve seen behind Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
We dined at the kooky Hostaria Nonnamelia a clean and soulful restaurant with clever modern take on Umbria rustic, attitude-fueled staff and reasonable food. I partook of some homemade umbricelli – wiggly fat worms of buttery pasta with summer truffle. We did not get a chance to sample the more traditional fare of Orvieto, in particular the potatoes cooked in ashes (Patate cotte sotto la cenere) and braised rabbit with fennel. Perhaps if we had dined at the more rustic La Palomba or Duca Orvieto we may have.
We did however drink our fair share of Orvieto wine. I’m no stranger to this perfect drop of white that is simply a mouthful of summer. It’s dry, very dry, defying it’s sweet and viscous origins, when it was a nectar made for visiting popes. Now it is light, ranging from neutral with the scent of apple seeds when cheap to the better versions which can be perfumed like an Umbrian summer courtyard – rockmelon, honeysuckle and lemon rind mixed with crisping grass of the dried fields and a dewy whisper of summer rain.
As with all Italian lunches, we finished with a roll to the nearest Gelato supplier, which turned out to be the best we had tried in Italy (Gelateria Pasqualetti)
Fortunately, as with many towns in Umbria, Orvieto welcomes the stranger just to walk its streets in peace. Sometimes the greatest sights are not the grandest, the most famous. If you like that kind of thing, then of course you must visit the Torre del Morro, St Patrick’s Well, The Albernoz Fortress, The Pozzo della Cava and one or more of the many palazzi or museums.
But you may well find that you miss all the little things that make Orvieto what it is today. You won’t discover the restoration of a tiny chapel on Via Santo Stefano, so old and forgotten it’s not even on the map anymore. You probably won’t have time to play with the legs of a Pinnochio puppet with your four-year-old, or rummage through old maps in dusty stores in side alleys. You won’t have time to touch the thousand-year old walls lining the streets, and practice your burgeoning Italian with a curious nonna at her post box. I guess it’s all a matter of priorities, but if I went again, I’d make sure I had at least two days so I could do a bit of both…
Orvieto (map) is one of the major sights of Umbria, but often missed in preferance of other towns such as Assisi, Spoleto, Todi, Perugia and Gubbio. It is an easy train journey from Rome, and so many will take it up in a day, but as I have mentioned, something will have to give.
In town on a budget: La Casa di Tufo
In town mid-budget: Hotel Duomo
In town with no budget: Hotel Piccolomini
out of town ooh la la: La Badia
Or where we did in a holiday rental an hour’s drive away: Tartagli Bassi
Some useful links:
*Byron Roe Photography are a US based team who have the enviable job of traveling around the world to photograph weddings in exotic locations. They have kindly allowed me to use their photo, which was the only one I could find that justified the beauty of this town on the rock. You will have to ask Byron where he was when he took it.