Orvieto: Italy’s fascinating city on a hill

  • By Rick Steves Herald Columnist
  • Monday, October 21, 2013 10:51am
  • Life

Orvieto is one of the most striking, memorable and enjoyable hill towns in central Italy.

Less than 90 minutes from Rome, Orvieto sits majestically high above the valley floor atop a big chunk of “tufo” volcanic stone, overlooking cypress-dotted umbrian plains.

A visit here will reward you with a delightful, perfectly preserved and virtually traffic-free world highlighted by a colorful-inside-and-out cathedral and some of Italy’s best wine.

Orvieto has two distinct parts: the old-town hilltop and the dull new town below. All travelers start at the bottom, where train passengers disembark and drivers can leave their cars for free.

Visitors can then drive or take an elevator or escalator to the medieval upper town. But my preferred mode is joining the locals to climb the town’s natural fortress hill on the slick funicular, which deposits riders about a 10-minute walk from the heart of town.

Orvieto’s cathedral gets my vote for Italy’s liveliest facade. This colorful, prickly, Gothic facade, divided by four pillars, has been compared to a medieval altarpiece — a gleaming mass of mosaics, stained glass and sculpture.

It’s a circa 1330 class in world history, back when no one dared question “intelligent design.” Things start with Creation and end with the Last Judgment.

Inside, the nave feels spacious and less cluttered than those in most Italian churches. It used to be filled with statues and fancy chapels until 1877, when the people decided they wanted to “un-Baroque” their church.

The nave is also an optical illusion; the architect designed it to be wider at the back and narrower at the altar, making it appear longer than it is. Windows of thin sliced alabaster bathe the interior in a soft light.

The cathedral’s highlight is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly lit frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life after Death. Although the frescoes refer to themes of resurrection and salvation, they also reflect the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s.

Signorelli’s ability to tell stories through human actions and gestures, rather than symbols, inspired his younger contemporary, Michelangelo, who meticulously studied Signorelli’s work.

Behind the Duomo, a complex of medieval palaces called Palazzi Papali shows off the city’s best devotional art. Not to be missed is the marble Mary and Child, who sit beneath a bronze canopy, attended by exquisite angels.

This proto-Renaissance ensemble, dating from about 1300, once filled the niche in the center of the cathedral’s facade (where a replica sits today).

Orvieto also boasts a rich underground world. The town sits atop a vast underground network of Etruscan-era caves, wells and tunnels. Guided tours of the medieval caves offer a glimpse into how these ancient Italians lived, from the remains of an old olive press to a pigeon coop where the birds were reared for roasting.

Even now, you’ll still see pigeon (“piccione”) dishes featured on many Orvieto menus.

St. Patrick’s Well — 175 feet deep, 45 feet wide, and 496 steps down — impresses modern engineers to this day. Thanks to its natural hilltop fortification, Orvieto served as a 16th-century place of refuge for the pope.

Wanting to ensure he had water during a time of siege, he built this extravagant well, with two spiral stairways leading down to a bridge from which people could scoop up water. Digging this was a huge project. Even today, when faced with a difficult task, Italians say, “It’s like digging St. Patrick’s Well.”

Of course, no visit to Orvieto is complete without trying its famous Classico wine. One of my favorite places to do this is at the Tenuta Le Velette winery, just outside Orvieto, where Cecilia and Corrado Bottai welcome visitors who make an appointment.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

&Copy; 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

More in Life

Mukilteo’s Hani Hani scores with the police chief

The Japanese restaurant serves dishes (poke, ramen, grill) inspired by the Hawaiian islands.

‘Coco’ is another eye-popping home run for Pixar/Disney

The animated movie’s a lively, touching tale of honoring family, following dreams.

Beer of the Week: Scuttlebutt’s Barrel-aged Belgian Winter

Made in 2013, the dark strong ale was stowed away in barrels. The brewery tests one each year.

‘Love, Chaos and Dinner’ an Teatro ZinZanni’s original show

The “Parsian cabaret” is a superb circus dinner theater operation in Marymoor Park through April 29.

Heavy Hollywood headlines: Robert Horton’s movies preview

In the midst of all the sexual-misconduct allegations, the holiday film season offers some relief.

Denzel Washington’s remarkable performance isn’t helped by plot

The actor is convincing as an awkward, eccentric lawyer, but unconvincing contrivances pile up.

‘The Breadwinner’ animation is strong, but its story is stilted

The Cartoon Saloon film never lets you forget that you’re here to learn an important lesson.

Pianist Kaitlyn Gia Lee, 10, of Mill Creek, will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major on Nov. 26 with the Everett Philharmonic Orchestra.
Young pianist to perform Mozart with Everett Philharmonic

Kaitlyn Gia Lee, 10, of Mill Creek, will play the piano at the Music for the Imagination concert.

Liz Oyama as Belle, Jimmi Cook as Gaston and John Han as Lefou star in the Edmonds Driftwood Players production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” opening Nov. 24. Magic Photo
In Driftwood’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Belle has girl-power bend

Edmonds Driftwood Players presents Disney’s adaptation of the fair tale Nov. 24 through Dec. 17.

Most Read