Medieval Orvieto

A reader recently asked us to say more about why we go to the places we visit and what we like about them. So here goes:

After our housesit in Rome, we had four days until the beginning of our housesit in Switzerland. We decided to spend that time in Italy rather than Switzerland because it’s a much cheaper country. Since we usually have more time than money, we generally travel by train or bus instead of by plane or rental car. So we looked for two interesting-sounding towns on the train routes between Rome and central Switzerland.

When we choose a place to visit, we usually consider a bunch of factors: Have we heard good things about it (from travel articles, guidebooks, podcasts, other travelers)? Can we afford to stay there? Can we get there fairly easily by public transit? Is the scenery pretty? Is the food good and not too expensive? Does the place feature interesting architecture, museums, or historical sites? Is there good hiking or swimming near by? Is the weather likely to be decent? Is the place different from where we’ve been lately? How crowded is it likely it be? (As you can imagine, we spend a fair bit of time doing online research of possible destinations.)

Based on those sorts of criteria, we decided to stay in two Italian towns on our way to Switzerland: Orvieto and Mantua. They were very different and we liked them both, but Orvieto was our favorite.

Orvieto is a small, very picturesque, medieval hill town midway between Rome and Florence in the region of Umbria. It sits on a mesa of beige volcanic rock, and many of its old houses, churches, and bell towers are built from the same beige stone, which gives Orvieto are very unified appearance. The town is full of narrow pedestrian-only streets, so it’s fairly quiet, which was a welcome change after crowded, bustling Rome.

One of my favorite things to do in Europe is just walk around absorbing the look and feel of a place. I absolutely adore wandering through narrow cobbled streets—especially ones that have a mountain or valley view at the end—looking at old buildings, catching glimpses of residents’ everyday life, finding little restaurants to eat in, and walking home afterward. Bonus points if it’s somewhere, like Orvieto, that many people visit on day trips from nearby cities. When the tourists leave at the end of the day, you feel like the place is yours.

Extra bonus points if, like Orvieto, the town is full of cats, prowling the alleys or sunning themselves on walls. Both mornings there, when I looked out the curtains of our ground-floor hotel window, the first thing I saw was a cat looking back at me (a different cat each time).

Orvieto’s heyday was in the 1200s and 1300s, when it frequently hosted the Pope and his court. As a result, it has an amazing cathedral from that period.

The people who designed the front of the cathedral apparently believed that if some decoration was good, then more was better.

The main facade sports bas-relief carvings, gold mosaics, bronze statues, stone statues, curving arched doorways, triangular pediments, rectangular spires, Gothic decorative trim, and giant carved doors. There’s so much to look at that your eye doesn’t know where to rest, and you get a crick in your neck from craning upward to see every detail. I carry a pair of small binoculars when I travel; they’re useful not only for bird watching but also for making out details high on the walls of churches and old-fashioned art museums (the kind that hang their paintings in rows three or four high). Boy, was I glad to have them at the Orvieto cathedral.

The inside of the cathedral is large and very tall, but much plainer: mainly columns in stripes of alternating dark and light stone. The plainness ends at the front of the cathedral, where the area around the main altar and two side chapels are richly painted with frescos from the 14th and 15th centuries. More neck cricks as we studied the painted walls and ceilings and the high stained-glass windows. After we left, I had to stare at my feet for five minutes to get my neck back in alignment.

We only had one full day in Orvieto, but there’s enough there to keep visitors busy for two days: hikes around the base of the cliffs on which the town sits, tours of underground Orvieto (a network of crypts and tunnels dug into the rock, beginning in the 6th century BC), museums of Etruscan and Roman artifacts and of local religious art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance (some of it quite good), and 200-foot wells that were engineering marvels of their day.

As a cool, quiet escape from the summer bustle of Florence or Rome, Orvieto has a lot to recommend it. Those medieval popes knew a good thing when they saw it.

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