Perched high on a massive volcanic rock, Umbria's Orvieto is a fine mediaeval city with enormous charm. It may be best known for its brilliant wines but many delights await the enterprising traveller
If you only have a couple of days to spare in central Italy, or a whole week to spend in a lovely hill-top town, then Orvieto is for you. It is easy to get to; less than a couple of hours from Rome’s Termini Railway Station, or a comfortable drive from Tuscany. Orvieto is a mediaeval city perched high on a massive outcrop of volcanic rock called tufa. This stronghold was first colonised by the Etruscans around 900 BC. Nowadays the narrow streets and piazzas attract those discerning travellers who seek a less crowded environment than the usual tourist towns.
Where to stay
Orvieto has plenty of places to stay, from hotels to modest guest houses. Among the most charming is the B&B Palazzo del Cardinale in Via Malabranda. We chose the panoramic apartment, good value from 75 euros a day, smaller rooms are available from 60 euros, including breakfast. The owner, Valeria, is helpful and friendly and will happily give sightseeing advice and help with restaurant bookings. For breakfast we were offered scrambled eggs, croissants, rolls and a choice of delicious home-made marmalade and jams. This feast was all served in a beautiful Renaissance dining room which has been in Valeria’s family for over 300 years!
Where to eat
You will certainly eat and drink well in Orvieto, as befits the town which houses the headquarters of Italy’s Slow-Food movement, in the Palazzo del Gusto (www.cittaslow.net). Started in 1999 by a former Mayor of Greve in Chianti, Cittaslow is now an international organisation. Dedicated to the promotion of local, traditional and seasonal foods it encourages respect for good food and healthy eating through local members and associations.
Whilst rough taverns with plank tables and local wine served in pitchers accompanied by bread and sheep’s cheese are, sadly, long gone, the tradition is kept alive by wine shops such as Il Vinicaffe in Via Fillipeschi (www.ilvincaffe.it) or Enoteca La Loggia in Corso Cavour www.enotecalaloggia.it). If you are in Corso Cavour don't miss the Gelateria Pasqualetti, where you can sit at a tiny outside table and eat the most delicious ice-cream.
For an excellent dinner try the Ristorante Al San Giovenale in the piazza of the same name (www.alsangiovenalediorvieto.com). This lovely restaurant has been cleverly built inside an ancient church. Dishes include breast of guinea fowl with truffle stuffing, marinated roast ‘galetto’ (young cockerel). It is worth the trip for the zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and taleggio alone. Good wine advice can be had from the waiter, the choice of local Orvieto wines is excellent and prices are reasonable; antipasti 5 to 6 euros, second courses 10 to 14 euros, Orvieto Classico 12 to 28 euros. We couldn't resist a second visit and were not disappointed.
The Trattoria La Palomba, in Via Manente, is frequently recommended but I was disappointed to be served one of the worst meals I have had in Italy. Other, better, places include the splendid I Sette Consoli in Piazza Sant’Angelo (www.isetteconsoli.it ). Lunch here can be had for 25 euros, dinner for 42 euros for six courses. Ristorante Zeppelin, close to Piazza Della Repubblica, offers good Umbrian dishes (www.ristorantezeppelin.it/) A meal here will cost around 25-30 euros each.
What to see
The richly decorated façade of the thirteenth century gothic cathedral is one of the most beautiful in the whole of Italy and the interior contains an equally extraordinary masterpiece. Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement is a cycle of frescos depicting the end of the world. This breathtaking work, in the Cappella di San Brizio, shows an orgy of suffering with the wicked being caught by devils and consigned to Hell whilst the good souls are summoned by angels with celestial trumpets to join their maker in Heaven. As you enter the cathedral turn and look at the most beautiful stained-glass Rose-Window you have ever seen.
Opposite the cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, along with a couple of bars and a gelateria, you will find the tourist office where you can book, and join, the Orvieto Underground tour (several tours daily, 5.50 euros, about 45mins duration). The guided tour takes you round a spectacular labyrinth of man-made caves and grottoes started by the Etruscans almost 3,000 years ago and continued by subsequent generations. This maze of caves, stairs, wells and cellars has since been used as workshops, places of refuge and, of course, wine cellars. The Bella Umbria website charmingly describes this as the "Suggestive Underground City." You will need to be reasonably active for this trip, and also for St. Patrick's Well, described below.
Take a pleasant ten-minute stroll along the Corso Cavour to the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St Patrick’s Well); a masterpiece of sixteenth century engineering. A trip down a well may not sound too enticing but, believe me, this one’s a gem and well worth the 4.50 euros entrance charge. There are 248 steps, each wide enough for a donkey, down, and 248 steps back up in a double helix spiral stairway, you will need a pretty good camera to do full justice to the photo-opportunity and remember to hold on to it if you take a picture of the water! Fantastic.
If you feel the need to work off a good lunch, or simply want a bit more exercise, then take a walk along the Percorso Rupe to the Etruscan Necropolis at the foot of the cliff.
To sum up, if you like atmosphere, tranquillity and lots of historic charm without the large crowds encountered in the more popular Tuscan and coastal towns then Orvieto is the place for you. No wonder several Popes took refuge here in more troubled times, the city was virtually unassailable and the food and wine were pretty good too!