My first home in Italy 20 years ago was a 13th-century medieval house with walls 4 feet thick and views as far away as 70 miles. But one of the best things about living there was how close it was to the ancient Etruscan town of Orvieto. A very special hilltop town, Orvieto was my neighbors’ favorite place to go for dinner. Upon arrival, they would first indulge in a gigantic ice cream and then enjoy a passeggiata, or a “stroll,” through the town’s picturesque streets.
Built on top of a volcanic tuffaceous cliff that acts as a natural defense, Orvieto has fantastic views of the Paglia valley which runs along the Tiber River. Writers and painters, including Henry James, Edith Warton, and J.M.W. Turner, equally noted how the town, from any distant approach, appears as a rock island floating over the valley.
Archeological remains show that the elliptic plateau was settled as early as the late Bronze Age — about 2000 B.C. In 265 A.D., the Romans seized the town including more than 2,000 bronze statues and deported the inhabitants to the nearby shores of Lake Bolsena. By the 6th century, the town was called Urbs Vetus (or “Old City”), which eventually turned into its name of Orvieto.
Known even in the 1600s for its wines, ceramics, and hospitality, the city today hosts a winter jazz festival, five museums, and the chance to tour underground complexes dug into the tuffaceous rock that once served as cisterns and cellars. And, of course, there is the unforgettable Gothic Cathedral of Orvieto.
Arriving To The Hilltop Town
But perhaps one of the more unique things about this town is the number of ways that you can arrive here. Of course, you can simply drive up the winding road to the clifftop city. Or, you can drive behind the city to the large Campo della Fiera parking area and take the escalators, elevator, or stairs up through the cliff walls. The young at heart can always catch the inexpensive and fast funicular into town from the railway station, which also includes a bus ride into the center. And finally, for those with strong legs and lungs, you can actually climb an old path from behind the railway station up 1,000 feet into Orvieto. The path leads you past olive groves and vineyards to the imposing city gate of Porta Rocca.
Despite its great height, Orvieto is a good place to visit for those who are challenged when walking. Once you are at the town’s plateau, most of the streets are flat without much incline or traffic, and there are convenient buses that stop at all the major tourist sites.
While you really can’t go awry in Orvieto, below are three of my favorite places to visit.
An Inspiring And Breathtaking Cathedral
A symbol of the city itself, the Duomo of Orvieto is one of the most fascinatingly beautiful structures of its kind in Italy. I like spending time sitting on the stone benches across from its façade to simply soak in its splendor and indulge in people watching.
The cathedral’s construction began in 1290 at the height of the city’s political and institutional development. However, it took nearly 300 years to finish due to almost everything imaginable! Money difficulties, structural problems, a “generational crisis,” and political and social upheaval all kept the building under construction for more than 3 centuries.
You will be immediately struck by the façade and exterior of the cathedral, including its 14th-century rose window, glittering mosaics, and modern brass doors by Emilio Greco (1964–1970). Inside and out, the number of famous sculptors, architects, and painters who contributed to the splendor of the Duomo is impressive.
The cathedral’s most famous frescoes are by Luca Signorelli, who in 1500 was known to be the “most famous painter in all of Italy.” His masterpieces, The End of the World and The Last Judgment, have greatly influenced many, including Michelangelo and even Sigmund Freud, who came to Orvieto twice to study the paintings. Afterward, Freud discovered that while he could remember many of the frescoes’ detail, he could not recall the name of the painter. Based on this experience, he wrote one of his classic papers in 1898, The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness, on the causes of memory loss.
One thing that I will never forget is the beauty of the afternoon light streaming through the cathedral’s translucent alabaster windows. While an organist started to practice for Sunday mass, the music descended over us like the voices of angels.
Tickets to the cathedral are €5 ($4.90) and children up to 10 years old are free. You can visit the cathedral during the following hours:
- November–February: 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. (Sundays 1 p.m.–4:30 p.m.)
- April–September: 9:30 a.m.–7 p.m. (Sundays 1 p.m.–5:30 p.m.)
- March and October: 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m. (Sundays 1:30 p.m.–6 p.m.)
For more information, you can go to the official website (in Italian only).
Discover Underground History At Pozzo Della Cava
If you walk across town towards the Church of San Giovenale, you will come to one of my favorite places to visit in Orvieto. Pozzo della Cava is a family-run museum, restaurant, and bar that offers a unique underground experience. Curated with great love and attention to detail, this unique place allows you to tour Etruscan caves and learn more about Orvieto’s medieval pottery trade.
The father-and-son team who run Pozzo della Cava are especially gracious as they invite you to enjoy a fascinating mix of kilns, cantinas, Etruscan tombs, medieval shafts that were once garbage dumps for pottery shards, and a quarry. Of course, you cannot miss the “well in the cave” (the name of their establishment), a 118-foot-deep shaft that was also a murder site! In 1820, five French officers were thrown in after trying to rape a woman who lived on the street.
If you are lucky enough to be in Orvieto during Christmas, you should not miss their artistic and creative interpretation of the Christmas creche. Lifesize figures are placed throughout the caves, providing evocative scenes that mix sacred texts and traditions, and historical truths and timeless myths. The last time I was able to visit, I stood spellbound by the immense angel of Raziel that greeted me from one of the dark caverns.
Pozzo della Cava is open most days from 9 a.m.–8 p.m., except for Mondays and the last weeks of January. For exact dates, see their calendar. Admission is €4 ($3.92) and children up to 5 years old are free. No reservation is necessary.
A Circle Of Medieval Frescoes At The Church Of San Giovenale
My very favorite place in the entire city, however, is the oldest church in Orvieto, the Church of San Giovenale. When you walk into this Romanesque church, which was built in 1004 on the ruins of an ancient Etruscan temple, you can feel the centuries of prayer still held within its stones.
Despite the solemnity and sober church interior, the frescoes circling the entire church are a feast of color, light, and movement. Recently restored in 2014, these frescoes appear nearly on top of each other, representing artwork from the 13th and 14th centuries. Most unusual is the Tree of Life where you can see branches that give birth to holiness and hope. Look to your right of this fresco to see The Good Thief. Almost at the beginning of the right aisle is a very delicate Madonna del latte (or “Nursing Madonna”), to whom mothers once appealed for sustenance for their children.
One evening in late autumn when my husband and I entered the church, we were alone in the dim light admiring its frescoes. Suddenly, an elderly lady appeared and started chatting with us. She was the priest’s mother, what Italians call la perpetua — the person who takes care of the priest’s daily needs. She joined us as we slowly moved around the church from fresco to fresco and, to our surprise and delight, gave us a private tour. The best part was how she knew where every strategic light switch was located, allowing us to easily view each fresco’s details!
Another time, upon leaving the church in late September, we caught sight of an open cantina right across the narrow lane. Inside was a contadina (or “farming woman”) busy hanging her tomatoes and peppers from lines to store them for the winter. It was another sublime touch that makes Italy so special!
Upon leaving the church, don’t miss the great panorama of the Umbrian hills from the small piazza in front of the main entrance. Entrance is free and the church is open most days in the morning and late afternoon.
There’s so much more to do and experience in Orvieto — from its fine shops, wine bars, and restaurants that serve wild boar. Not to mention a climb up one of the last towers left in town, the Torre del Moro, to oversee a 360-degree panorama and a climb down 200 steps into St. Patrick’s Well. No matter how you spend your time in Orvieto, you are bound to fall in love with this hilltop town full of culture, city life, history, art, and spectacular views.
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