It's Wednesday, May 22nd, and today we'll be taking a day trip from Rome to the nearby town of Orvieto. Orvieto is about an hour by train from central Rome, in the Umbrian hillside, so we start our day with a bus ride to Termini Station. There, we catch a Regionale train to Orvieto.
As we roll through the Umbrian countryside, we pass by many other towns, perched high on hilltops. Orvieto itself is built atop a tall plug of porous volcanic stone, called "tufa". This high location, completed encircled by steep cliffs, made this spot an ideal defensive position, and it's been continuously occupied since before 500 BC. The native Etruscans were the first to occupy the site, carving warrens of tunnels and underground rooms and work spaces through the soft tufa stone, many of which are still in use today.
Hilltop towns dot the Umbrian landscape
Once we reach the railway station at Orvieto, the first order of business is to get to the town, high above. This is accomplished by means of a funicular railway that pulls you up the steep terrain.
The Funiculare at Orvieto
At the top of the railway, we exit into Piazza Cahen, where we board the small shuttle bus that will bring us into the Piazza del Duomo in the historic center. At the main Piazza is a tourist information office, where we're able to purchase an Orvieto Pass, a single ticket that allows admission to all the sites that Orvieto has to offer. It's well worth the money.
Dominating the square is the massive Orvieto Cathedral, a soaring Gothic masterwork.
Inside, the cathedral is airy and full of light. While there are many significant pieces of art inside, the centerpiece is found the Chapel of San Brizio. There we find the vivid cycle of frescoes by Luca Signorelli, depicting the events surrounding the Final Judgement, including the Antichrist, the Resurrection of the Dead, and torments of the condemned. The fresco looks as fresh as though it were just painted, striking and terrifying. Some say it inspired Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, a strict policy forbids photography, but you can get a sampling of the Last Judgement here.
Leaving the Cathedral, we wander through the twisty, turny passages of the city, stopping by Il Negozzietto for a custom made sandwich of (what else?) porchetta and a sweet local cheese.
While we enjoy our lunch, we wander to the ramparts, and take in the view of the surrounding countryside. Far below, a walkway encircles the hillside, allowing those with younger legs to circumnavigate the town.
One of the included sites on our pass is the Torre del Moro, the clock tower. There's an elevator to the second floor, but once you're there, it's foot power the rest of the way to the top.
We're rewarded for our efforts with some simply breathtaking views.
Legs wobbling, we descend and head for some "deeper" experiences. There are a number of points throughout the town where you have the opportunity to descend into the tunnels and caves that honeycomb the tufa. We're headed to Pozzo della Cava, the "Well of the Cave".
This is a network of caves and rooms that have acted over the past 2000 years as kilns, fulling mills, and workshops.
Fulling mill, for making felt
In order to maintain a defensive position, yet still have access to water, residents were forced to build wells that drilled down through the tufa to the water table, far below. This is one of those wells. The translation of a nearby inscription reads:
Remember citizens that here there is a spring water well, dug with public money and not destined to anybody's private employ. But its use, for will of the town council, is interrupted for just reasons in the year of salvation, 1646.
Apparently, while being an excellent source of water, the well was also a convenient method for brigands to dispose of murdered citizens. The well became polluted by the multitude of corpses, and needed to be shut down.
As we emerge into the modern gift shop, the proprietor motions us over, and positions us just so. Then he gestures that we should look down. We find that we are standing on a slab of glass, suspended high above the caves below. He chuckles and claps his hands at our reaction.
Outside of the gift shop, we find a diminutive tortoise fountain. We can't resist a photo.
We decide to stop into Bar Clandestino, a coffee shop that turns into a restaurant at night. It gives the impression of a place trying too hard to be hip. It's covered with bold, black, white, & red graphics in an attempt to give some kind of an "urban" impression. I'd swear the staff wears combat boots. We order what we think is going to be Orvieto Classico, the famous regional wine, but we're served an insipid generic white instead. We also order a slice of delicious-looking cake...in a land of great food, this cake is fresh from the freezer case.
It's nearing 4pm, time for our scheduled tour of Orvieto Underground. This is a guided tour of some of the larger underground areas, around the perimeter of the city. Our guide escorts us down a ramp along the ramparts, and unlocks the door. We will be viewing two sets of caves and tunnels.
Because of the constant temperatures within the tufa, some of these rooms were very useful for storage of perishable goods, like grain and olive oil. Other rooms were used as mangers for livestock. We view an ancient grain mill, along with its mill wheel. This was once turned by donkeys treading a circular path.
Nearby are the remains of an ancient olive oil press.
The rooms and passages seem to go on forever. In fact, some of these areas were used as air-raid shelters during World War II. Many of the passages are blocked by rockfalls caused by landslides or earthquakes. These areas have not been cleared of rubble, as the blocked passages help stabilize the honeycombed rock.
Entering another cave system, we find dovecotes. These cubbyholes carved by the hundreds into the rock once housed pigeons, a food staple of the earlier inhabitants, and still a popular item on Orvieto menus. We begin to see the stairs and corridors that connect upward, to the homes above. Nearly every home in Orvieto has access to the warren of tunnels beneath the town.
Emerging into the open air again, we get some spectacular views from our perch on the side of the tufa plug.
We're inclined to have an early dinner, but that's pretty hard to do in Orvieto. Most of the shops and restaurants here seem to follow the "siesta plan", closing down in mid-afternoon, and re-opening around 6:30pm. Instead, we make our way back to Piazza Cahen. Although there are quite a few museums to see here in Orvieto, the last stop on our itinerary is "St. Patrick's Well". Dug at the behest of Pope Clement VII in 1527, it was intended to provide the town with a reliable source of water in the event it was besieged by hostile forces.
The well is 174 feet deep, and uses an ingenious double helix spiral stairway design, allowing donkeys to carry water up and empty buckets down without ever meeting each other. We enter and begin to descend, but the 248 steps are daunting after a long day of touring.
It's nearly 9pm by the time we return to Termini Station in Rome. We take the bus to Largo Argentina, and grab the #8 tram back to our neighborhood. We want to stop at Al Fontanone for dinner again tonight, but the tram is so full, we're unable to push our way to the door at stop on the far side of Ponte Sisto, so we're trapped until the next stop. It's raining heavily, we're not sure where we are, and we only have one mini umbrella between the two of us, but we start making our way toward the Tiber River, passing many wonderful restaurants along the way. Dripping wet, we arrive at Al Fontanone, only to find that it's closed today. Guess we'll have gelato for dinner tonight.
Orvieto has gained a special spot in our memories. It has turned out to be a wonderful experience, and a town I'd like to visit again.
Tomorrow is our last day in Rome. Expect to see saints, turtles, and flying donkeys!