Along the busy Autostrada A1, about halfway between Rome and Florence, Orvieto rises like a dreamy apparition — one of those places in Italy you've read about or seen in photos, but whose splendor can only be confirmed in person.
Located in west-central Umbria, Orvieto sits — looms, really — on a plateau of volcanic tufa that overlooks the valley formed by the winding Paglia River. Its sheer rock cliffs provided a natural means of defense for the Etruscans — among the pre-Roman tribes who controlled central Italy into the fourth century B.C.E. They lived on "the rock," as Orvieto is known to locals, for centuries before finally capitulating to the Romans, who razed the city.
Orvieto lay abandoned until the Middle Ages, when it became a Catholic stronghold and frequent hideout for popes during periods of plague, pestilence, and sackings in Rome. Its magnificent cathedral, or duomo, took 300 years to build and is one of Europe's greatest examples of Romanesque Gothic architecture. The old city, or centro storico, is only a mile long from end to end, and covered with an enthralling grid of narrow streets and alleys named after noble families of the medieval era. Hotels occupy grand old palaces, or palazzi, and restaurants, wine bars, and shops are tucked into centuries-old houses and storefronts.
Under street level, Orvieto becomes even more enigmatic. The city is built over a vast honeycomb of caves, tunnels, and cellars, some of which date to Etruscan times. The area was once used for cold storage, or as hideouts and escape hatches from the city when it was under siege, and they've turned up a wealth of archaeological artifacts and information about medieval life. Some are now open for tours, and a trip into Orvieto's underground world should be part of any visit here.
There is a long list of must-visit attractions in Orvieto, including its aforementioned duomo and underground attractions, plus art and archaeological museums and Etruscan and medieval archaeological sites. Here are just a few of our favorites, run by Orvietani who were born and raised on "the rock."
Marco Sciarra and his family own and operate Pozzo della Cava, a tourist attraction that includes an extensive series of underground caves, former pottery kilns, and a 36-meter (118 feet) well, or pozzo, from the 1500s. The latter, which was built into a smaller Etruscan well from the sixth century B.C.E., provided water for the city when it was under siege. The family also runs a bar and trattoria, gift shop, and ceramics studio.
When asked what about Orvieto enchants visitors, Sciarra naturally refers to the history of the city, but also something more. "Orvieto has a mythic sense about it, that's in a way bigger than the city itself," he says. "It once played such an important role in the history of Rome, of Europe, of Italy, of the church, and that history is evident everywhere." But the real magic, says Sciarra, is that Orvieto, despite its storied past, is still a city that's very much lived-in. And visitors can easily get a taste of that. "If you spend a few nights up on the rupe (or the cliff, as Orvieto is also called), you can buy groceries at a little store where locals shop, participate in a neighborhood festival, or take a walk in the evening as residents are out strolling or walking their dogs." That, for him, is what makes Orvieto unique, both to residents and visitors. "Yes, tourism is our life," he says, "but we also live here."
That "lived-in" quality, according to Cristian Manca, is what differentiates Orvieto from other more touristy destinations in neighboring Tuscany. Manca and his wife, Luana, run two family restaurants — longstanding Trattoria del Moro and the more casual Gastronomia Aronne, which also has a deli counter. Both eateries are informal and, Manca says, try to impart in guests the feeling that they're dining in the home of friends. "Even if visitors don't speak the same language, we hope that the relaxed atmosphere, the home cooking, and the sense of place make them feel welcomed."
That same hominess permeates Orvieto, says Manca, and tourists notice. "There are not many places left in Italy where you can eat in a restaurant while the owner's kids (and maybe your own) play soccer in the street outside, or where anziani (old folks) still walk about with their canes. In a big city, you live and die and no one notices." But not in Orvieto, he says. "We are a tourist center, but we're essentially a village."
A few blocks from Manca's restaurants, Lamberto Bernardini cooks up another type of recipe — a cure-all elixir once widespread in medieval Europe. Through tireless research in archives all over the continent, Bernardini resurrected the ancient formula and now sells it as a an amaro, or digestif, from his shop, L'Orvietan, which sits nearly in the shadow of the mighty duomo.
Bernardini says that for Orvietani, the city's history is practically part of their DNA. "To live in the city where you were born, to decide to remain, it's just something that's instinctual," he says. He adds that Orvieto's "geological and cultural stratification" provide him with a sense of comfort, which he believes visitors can absorb as well. "We're high on a rock, like a protected island. The palaces, the churches, the caves…there's a history here that we are all a part of, and there's a feeling of security in that."
For Orvieto tourist information in English, check the OrvietoViva website.
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