I promise pictures at the end, if you bear with me.
Yesterday a group of the girls and I day-tripped to the little town of Orvieto. Little – population around 5,000 Orvietans. Some logistics: Orvieto is located between Rome and Florence, about an hour train ride from Rome’s Termini station. We took the service train for a cool 7 euro each way. (N.B. service trains leave from a secondary track at Termini. This we did not know, so we started off the morning with a brisk sprint to catch the leaving train. In my seat by 8:56, train leaving at 8:58am. You can call me punctual.)
We had a loose plan of attack going into the day – basically, to take refuge in the city as Pope Clement VII did during the sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Doing things a la old popes is usually a good game plan.
Upon arrival in Orvieto, you walk across a street to the lift station. This lift takes you up the side of the cliff that the town is built atop. Waiting at the top is a bus. You jump on said bus and take a 2 minute ride to the Duomo (this is how Italian cities refer to their main basilica). At this point, you’re feeling like a master of public transit, and applauding Orvieto’s organization – but it gets better. The bus lets you off right in front of A) THE HUGE DUOMO and B) the tourist office. You stand and gawk at the first for a minute (taking copious pictures), and then you enter the second. There you buy the 15 euro Orvieto pass, which allows you into all 10-ish key sites for one fee. It’s one-stop-shopping.
Orvieto is famous for its extensive Etruscan caves. Built on a hill of soft rock, Orvieto is situated over a system of caves built by the Etruscans in centuries B.C. Now you can tour them. I like underground things, (ex. catacombs), and so this was a point of intrigue. We started our sightseeing with an English tour down into the caves. The Etruscans utilized their caves in all sorts of ways. We saw a room for olive oil production and an extensive system of pigeon-raising rooms. Yes, pigeon rearing. If you didn’t know, pigeon is a specialty in Orvieto, dating back to the Etruscans. So, the pigeon caves had holes lining the walls of the room where the pigeons nested. There was also an open window, so that the pigeons could fly out, feed themselves, and then return “home.” This self-sufficiency makes pigeons the perfect cash-crop of sorts. By the end of the tour I found myself questioning why people ever go through the trouble of running Ponzi schemes, when they could just raise pigeons and sleep well at night.
Emerging from the underground, we find Orvieto still surrounding us, topped with slightly grey skies. It’s 12:15 and time for lunch. We follow our guide book to a restaurant where it promises we will eat in a cave. More caves are always a good thing. After winding through Medieval Orvieto and asking 3 locals, we locate Le Grotte dei Funaro – situated in a cave once used for rope making. I order Black Orvieto Truffle pasta and am already sipping on Orvieto Classico wine, as the names denote – local specialties. Let me stress two things here: black truffles. Look at the pictures, you’ll understand. A fantastic long lunch in a cave, surrounded by friends, truffles, and wine. Orvieto, you made me happy.
When all truffle is inhaled, we walk back to the clock/bell tower. Being a small town, walking from one end to the other takes approximately 15 minutes by windy, cobblestone streets. At the top of the bell tower, we find gale-force winds and a stunning view over the town and countryside. I am struck by the scale of the town in comparison to the massive Duomo. Completely disproportionate, the Duomo is the sole figure of outlandish lavishness here.
We descend and decide to keep descending, this time into a well. Il Pozzo di San Patrizio (the well of St. Patrick) is a massive, double-helix-staircased well comissioned by the Pope to be a secure water source for the town in case of siege. The well is dark and damp, and I reach the bottom to stand atop a bridge inches above the water level. It’s now drizzling outside, so rain is falling even here at the bottom of the well. I am at the bottom of a well, standing above the water, under my umbrella. The ironies.
We ascend and take the bus again to the Duomo, as the pozzo is right next to the lift station. Now we finally enter the church. It is a white and black striped giant. I have come to prefer churches of this zebra striped stone – I’m reminiscing of Siena’s beautiful Duomo. Orvieto boasts a rather impressive relic, a blood stained cloth from the 1260s when the bread began to bleed while a priest was saying the eucharist in the church. The church also boasts the Chapel of San Brizio, filled with crazy Revelation frescos – decomposing bodies, devils fighting men, Satan shooting what look like laser beams – and paintings of literary figures (Dante, Virgil, Lucretius, etc.). Really, a very interesting and unusual Catholic chapel.
We then visit the Etruscan museum opposite the Duomo, see vase after Etruscan vase, and decide it is time to shop. Orvieto is filled with quaint, little, specialized shops, flanking the winding stone streets. I’m obsessed with a paper store with hand-done embossing. Next, gelato at the best place in town, Pasqualetti. Let me recommend, fior di latte. It tastes like frozen milk, but better.
Now, we are tired, and a train is calling, so we saunter down to the lift, and down to the train, and journey home to Rome. (“Home to Rome” still gives me tingles.)
I was stunned by Orvieto, the beauty and the small scale. I was impressed by the quaintness, magnified by visiting in the off-season. No one was on the streets in the afternoon, all home taking the afternoon nap. Sites closed at 5pm. Restaurants were relatively empty, the shopkeepers friendly. Children played with cans of shaving cream on the streets. It felt like everyone knew everyone. Well, probably because they did. There was a consciousness to the slowness. A deliberateness in care. I don’t know quite how to explain it. It is the place where you live. Slowly. Quietly. From the bell tower the streets appeared empty, as if the wind had gestured everyone indoors. Orvieto was secretly ours, giving us a private look. We became a small part of a small town, above it, below it, inside it, without it. Eating it, and drinking it. After Rome, the atmosphere was almost like mediation. The town is spiritual in its beauty, even besides the key Duomo. I know why the pigeons would fly back to their nests here. To me, it’s commonsense. Orvieto is a place of small nesting in cozy holes.