Orvieto is a little hill town in Umbria, situated high atop a tufa (volcanic rock). It’s on the Rick Steves 21-day Italy itinerary, so I was somewhat apprehensive about crowds. But my fears were unfounded. Our time in this charming little hill town was relaxed, yet very fulfilling…the quintessential Italian small town experience we were seeking to round out our introductory trip to Italy. Our plan was to spend one night, en route from Siena to Rome. Orvieto also makes for an excellent day trip out of Rome: it’s only an hour away by train.
We traveled by train from Siena to Orvieto, changing at Chiusi-Chianciano. The train ride through the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside is beautiful. Just across from the train station at Orvieto is the funicular that takes you up to the town at the top of the hill. From the funicular station at the top, we caught a bus to the Piazza del Duomo.
Shopping for Ceramics
Exploring the Duomo di Orvieto: The Exterior
We had a quick light lunch at one of the restaurants just off the Piazza, and then it was time to tour the magnificent Duomo di Orvieto. A mix of styles, including Gothic and Romanesque, this Duomo is one of the prettiest in Italy. Construction on the Duomo began in the late 1200s, and it was not completed until the second half of the 1500s. It was the work of multiple builders and artists, but the result is harmonious and pleasing. Sadly, much of the ornate facade was behind scaffolding when we visited (a reason to go back, right?), but what little was visible was stunning, with lovely gold and jewel-colored mosaics and intricate borders. The mosaics on the facade tell the story of the Virgin Mary. The bas reliefs on the pillars show stories from the Old Testament and the New Testament. Even the door pulls were lovely!
Exploring the Duomo di Orvieto: The Interior
The interior of the Duomo is just as beautiful, with frescoes begun by Fra Angelico and eventually completed by Luca Signorelli in the San Brizio Chapel, and the Pieta by sculptor Ippolito Scalza. It always amazes me how the pigments on the frescoes have remained bright and fresh after all these years. Signorelli’s depiction of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment are masterpieces, with stunning interpretation of the nude human form and the use of foreshortening. Michelangelo is supposed to have borrowed from Signorelli for his own work on the Sistine Chapel.
The dark subject matter of Signorelli’s fresco cycle and his authoritarian depiction seems jarring for a benign sleepy little hill town until you discover that the Orvieto of the time Signorelli created these frescoes was much different: the town was in grip of plague, and the inhabitants included two warring clans with members always looking for a fight! To Signorelli, his work must have seemed very appropriate.
The Torre di Maurizio: A Quick Look
Near the Duomo is the Torre di Maurizio, where the bronze figure still strikes the hour with a hammer.
Walking to the Torre del Moro (Clock Tower)
From the Duomo we walked along the Via del Duomo, a charming street with little shops and beautiful doorways, to our next stop, the Torre del Moro. I was stopping every few seconds to take a photo of yet another doorway. To view my photo essay on the beautiful doorways of Orvieto, click here
Most of the folks on the street were locals going about their business, and we felt like we were getting a taste of everyday life in Orvieto!
The Torre del Moro (Clock Tower)
The clock tower is located at the intersection of the Via del Duomo, Via della Costiuente and the Corso Cavour. The mechanical clock was installed in the 1800s. You can climb the 200+ steps to the top (there’s a lift that can take you part of the way up), for beautiful views of the rooftops. Even though it was a little misty when we visited, the views were gorgeous. We had the whole deck to ourselves…a first in Italy!
Walking to the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well)
Our next stop was the Pozzo di San Patrizio, St. Patrick’s Well, located clear across town near the funicular station. You might want to visit the well before heading into town, especially if you are visiting for the day and time is precious. We chose to walk along the outer wall of the town, coming upon more beautiful views of the valley down below as we approached the well.
The Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well)
The Pozzo di Patrizio is a sixteenth century underground well. It was built at the behest of Pope Clement VII to provide water supply to Orvieto, when he took refuge in the little hill town after he failed to maintain good relations with the emperor of Rome and had to flee Rome. The well is an engineering marvel, with a circular shaft 175 feet deep. There are two staircases, one to allow mule-carts to descend to the bottom to access water, and the second to carry water back up the shaft without colliding with traffic going the other way. It’s not in use any more, but it provided the people of Orvieto with water for many years after it was completed.
It was very cool to climb all the way down to the bottom and then back up again!
We had planned to next do the underground tour of Orvieto. Under the above-ground city, the people of Orvieto dug a vast labyrinth of cavities and structures over a period of 2,500 years to form an underground city. It’s a guided one-hour tour and supposed to be fascinating. But we were having such a wonderful time wandering the above-ground Orvieto and taking in the beautiful architecture everywhere that we decided to just continue doing that until it was time for dinner.
Wandering around Orvieto
The street lights were on as it was a gray evening, and the cobblestone streets had a lovely sheen in the warm light of the lamps.
I loved the facade of the Palazzo del Popolo (Palace of the People). It used to be the residence of the Captain of the People in the Middle Ages. Today it functions as a conference center and is not open for tourist visits.
The church of Sant’Andrea in the Piazza della Repubblica contains the remains of Etruscan buildings in its basement, which can be viewed by appointment. I thought the facade was really gorgeous. Next to the church is a twelve-sided tower.
The Chiesa di Sant Angelo was also built on the ruins of an ancient temple.
And this is the Via del Duomo, with the clock face in the clock tower lit for the evening.
We had reserved a table at Trattoria la Palomba, a well-known and highly-rated Orvieto restaurant. We both had the local umbrichelli pasta with shavings of truffle on top. Our meals were delicious!
As we walked along to find a taxi back to our hotel, we came upon a Madonna and Child in a square. We saw many many versions of Madonna and Child in Italy, many of them ornate and created by celebrated sculptors and painters, but somehow this simple little version in this unpretentious little town touched me deeply.
It had been a wonderful day, and this was a very special ending.
Where we stayed
We stayed at an absolute gem of a place called Misia Resort, which is in a little village called Rocca Ripesena, six kilometers from Orvieto. We took taxis back and forth, since we didn’t have a car. Our room had a stunning view of the Umbrian countryside and the furnishings were rustic chic…really gorgeous. I would recommend you consider this place, particularly if you have a car.
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