The hilltop city of Orvieto makes a delightful day trip from Rome.
Situated in the province of Terni in south-west Umbria, Orvieto stands on the summit of a large outcrop of volcanic tufa rock, roughly halfway between Rome and Florence.
A trip to this charming cathedral city is always a pleasure but those arriving by public transport are in for a double treat. A funicular cable railway takes visitors up the 157-m cliff in an exhilarating, three-minute journey.
Arrival in the historic Etruscan city is made all the more bizarre in that most first-time visitors immediately make for St Patrick’s Well, retracing their steps by descending its 54-m depths.
This murky marvel of engineering was commissioned by Pope Clement VII following his refuge in Orvieto during the sack of Rome in 1527. The Medici pope entrusted fellow Florentine Antonio da Sangallo the Younger with designing the well, to ensure a reliable water supply for this potentially-regular papal retreat.
The structure’s two concentric spiral staircases operate independently of each other, one for descending and the other for ascending, and are illuminated by 70 windows carved into the central shaft.
Modern-day visitors can still traverse the well’s 248 steps, cut large enough to accommodate the pack donkeys once used to carry water to the surface. However it is worth noting – particularly for those with children – that the majority of the windows are knee-high and bereft of barriers.
The well has even lent itself to an Italian proverb that likens its profundity to the bottomless pockets of spendthrifts. As for its name, the Pozzo di S. Patrizio was thought to resemble the chasm used by Ireland’s patron saint at the fifth-century pilgrimage site of St Patrick’s Purgatory in north-west Ireland.
Once back in daylight, people can catch their breath while enjoying the wonderful views of Umbrian countryside from the nearby Fortezza Albornoz. Commissioned by Pope Innocent VI, the fortress was built in 1364 by the Spanish cardinal and papal legate Egidio Albornoz. From here it is a 15-minute stroll or five-minute bus trip into town.
The virtually traffic-free centro storico is dominated by the enormous 14th-century cathedral whose very existence is the result of a miracle. In 1263 a Bohemian priest, doubting the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, set off on a pilgrimage to Rome.
While visiting a church in Bolsena, close to Orvieto, he is said to have witnessed blood dripping out of a consecrated host during Mass. The blood-soaked altar cloth (or corporal) is still housed in a silver-gilt reliquary in the cathedral today and venerated each year on the feast of Corpus Christi, which commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
In 1290 the cornerstone of the new duomo was laid but later its design was radically altered by the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani, inspired by the so-called Tuscan Gothic style of Siena’s cathedral which had been completed half a century earlier.
Duomo di Orvieto
Construction continued over the subsequent three decades, overseen by multiple architects who each left their mark by incorporating the changing architectural trends.
The cathedral’s interior is characterised by black and white-striped walls and columns, and includes an ornate 16thcentury organ case with 5,585 pipes as well as a remarkable Pietà, which local sculptor Ippolito Scalza spent nine years carving from a single block of marble.
The frescoes in the vaulted ceiling of the Chapel of the Madonna di S. Bizio were begun by Fra Angelico in the mid- 15th century. The work was completed some 50 years later by Luca Signorelli, whose apocalyptic scenes feature the damned fleeing flames and being tortured by devils, and the buried bodies of the elect emerging from the ground en route to heaven.
The cathedral’s three-gabled façade features a magnificent rose window as well as statues, pilasters and mosaics with gilded backgrounds. The four stone bas-reliefs flanking the doors depict biblical scenes from the Old and New Testament and are rare examples of 14th-century sculpture.
On the cathedral’s fifth centenary in 1790, a number of the original mosaics were detached and offered as a tribute to Pope Pius VI. However the only known surviving mosaic is the Natività di Maria preserved in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The central portal is dominated by splendid bronze doors which replaced the 14th-century wooden originals in 1970. The new doors were crafted by celebrated Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco (1913-1995), whose work is the subject of a museum located in nearby Palazzo Soliano.
The building also houses part of the cathedral’s art collection, and is otherwise known as the palace of the popes. Orvieto’s longstanding papal connections date back to the tenth century and the city remained a papal possession until 1860, when it was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
History of Orvieto
Delving further back into Orvieto’s history, it was first inhabited by Etruscans from the ninth century BC until 264 BC when the territory was conquered by Romans after a two-year assault.
The reason the Etruscans managed to hold out so long was due to their intricate system of tunnels, cellars, wells and escape hatches, some of which can still be visited today.
Among these is the 36m-deep Pozzo della Cava, an Etruscan well that was extended in 1527 and dug entirely by hand.
However Orvieto is far from being solely the realm of historians. Although it has only around 21,000 inhabitants the city is alive and vibrant, while its refined sense of culture tends to attract the more discerning visitor.
Festivals and pageants
The well-kept streets play host to festivals all year round, including the prestigious Umbria Winter Jazz festival which has been taking place every December for the last 40 years, and the mediaeval-style Corpus Christi pageant which generates large crowds each summer. The elegant, neoclassical Teatro Mancinelli is particularly active and its 560 seats are regularly filled with lovers of drama, comedy, dance and music.
The numerous shops selling brightly decorated ceramics do a roaring trade, helped by the steady flow of tourists, many of whom are drawn to the colourful wooden sculptures on Via Michelangeli near the duomo. This alley is home to a workshop where five generations of Michelangeli woodworkers have enlivened their environs with a series of jolly, much-photographed timber sculptures.
Orvieto surpasses itself in terms of cuisine from its surrounding region, and it regularly hosts food festivals such as Orvieto con gusto.
The city is a member of Cittaslow, the slow food movement, and is famed for its wines and local products such as caciotta and pecorino cheeses, truffles, cinghiale (wild boar), tozzetti almond biscuits and the snail shell-shaped lumachelle made from pizza dough with pancetta and cheese.
Meanwhile those with a sweet tooth can’t fail to be attracted by the aroma drifting from Cioccolateria Dolceamaro, which offers all manner of artisan chocolate delicacies including trimmings from the unexpected chocolate kebab.
By Andy Devane
This article was originally published in the March 2014 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
What to do in Orvieto
- Pozzo di S. Patrizio, Viale S. Gallo, tel. 0763343768.
- Orvieto Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo.
- Pozzo della Cava, Via della Cava 28, tel. 0763342373, www.pozzodellacava.it.
- Teatro Mancinelli, Corso Cavour 122, tel. 0763340493, www.teatromancinelli.com.
- Umbria Winter Jazz (Dec-Jan), www.umbriajazz.com.
- Corpus Christi, (the date changes each year, depending on Easter).
- Orvieto con Gusto, food festival, April and October, www.orvietocongusto.it.
Where to eat in Orvieto
- L’Oste del Re, Corso Cavour 58, tel. 0763343846, www.ostedelreorvieto.com.
- Ristorante Maurizio, Via del Duomo 78, tel. 0763341114, www.ristorantemaurizio.it.
- Cioccolateria Dolceamaro, Corso Cavour 78, www.cioccolateriaorvieto.com.
How to get to Orvieto
- By car: Orvieto is on the A1 autostrada about half way between Rome and Florence. Lots of parking outside city centre.
- By train: There are regular fast trains between Rome and Orvieto Scala. The funicular terminus up to the old hill-top town is just across the road from the station.
- Tourist office, Piazza Duomo 24, tel. 0763341772.
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Orvieto: a perfect day trip from Rome
05018 Orvieto, Province of Terni, Italy