During my short winter trip through Italy in January, the city of Orvieto was the only one destination I knew I wanted to see from the outset. Another majestic destination in Umbria, I was thrilled by the concept of visiting another mostly overlooked spot. Sometimes overlooked places are overlooked for a reason, but that definitely isn’t true for Orvieto. The city has an essence that is shared with many of Italy’s best destinations.
Best of all, it’s only an hour on the train from the Italian capital, making it a perfect day trip from Rome. If you choose to stay in Orvieto, you can also easily use it as a base to visit Civita di Bagnoregio, as I did. I’m going to show you why Orvieto should be on your radar and all its sights to see. Hopefully after, you’ll be adding another stop on your next Italian holiday.
1. The Way Up
What makes Orvieto so striking initially is that it sits atop imposing cliffs on all sides. As if the natural barriers weren’t enough it’s surrounded by great big stone fortifications that make it seem wholly inaccessible. In a moment I’ll talk about the fortress but for now I want to share actually reaching Orvieto’s old town.
The historic town may be atop the cliffs, but the modern part of Orvieto including the bus and train station sit below it. To get between the two you have several options. One is to take a bus that drives right around the far side of town to drive up into the old town. Another is to take the funicular opposite the train station and ride it up, if it’s not too busy.
The third and my favourite is to simply walk up, although I guess with steep paths like that, it’s far from simple. From the bottom to the top is probably 15-20 minutes, and it takes you through fields of olive trees and up under the city’s historic gates. In my opinion, walking up gives you an extra appreciation for just removed Orvieto is from its surroundings.
2. Albornoz Fortress
An imposing sight from above and below, the Albornoz Fortress has protected the city of Orvieto since the 15th century. Originally started in the mid-13th century, it took over a hundred years to build as it was nearly completely destroyed in 1395. The huge stone defences sit above the eastern entrances and gates to the city.
After its original military purpose evaporated, it was successfully converted into a nice big public park and gardens. Sections of the fortress walls are open to the public and offer awesome views across the lower parts of the city and the countryside.
3. Pozzo di San Patrizio Well
Built between 1527 and 1537, the Pozzo di San Patrizio Well was constructed under order of Pope Clement VII who had recently fled to Orvieto after the sack of Rome. The Pope feared Orvieto’s water supplies would be insufficient if it too suffered an attack. While it’s no longer needed for sustenance, the well does prove to be quite a remarkable place to visit.
Descending down into the well, I was immediately reminded of the Inverted Tower of Sintra. Both have twin spiralling staircases that take you from the surface and slowly bring you down into the darkest reaches of the well. In Sintra, you were left mostly in darkness as you went down, but the staircases here in Orvieto are lit too, producing an equally striking visual to that seen from the very bottom looking up.
4. Streets and Alleys
Walking through the streets of Orvieto could easily be my points 4-11. Even in winter, I was more than happy to wear down the cobblestones as I tried to explore every nook and cranny. To be clear, Orvieto’s not a bright, happy-go-lucky kind of place (especially in winter). But its narrow streets and alleys between its big stone houses invites you in nonetheless. I’m a big fan of historic cities (clearly) but I especially enjoy them when they’re lived in, like Orvieto is.
When you walk about, you’re mostly passing people’s homes or small businesses. Away from the main thoroughfares you’ll likely lose most of the visitors and find it’s just you and the locals. With all its stone, Orvieto could have a cold, uninviting feel to it, but it doesn’t. Perhaps that is thanks to the flower pots under many window sills, allowing a burst of life to come in.
5. Orvieto Duomo
Despite Italy’s many wonderful duomos, the Orvieto Duomo still stands out as interestingly different and keenly memorable. For starters, as soon as you see the cathedral’s front facade, you know it’s important. With an immense cathedral you need an immense facade, and Orvieto’s happens to be decorated with exquisite golden mosaics surrounding statues and a rose window. Built in the late 13th century to replace two older churches and to house a relic of a local holy miracle.
While the outside is dazzling, the interior is not too shabby either. Like churches the duomos of Siena and Florence, it features alternating white and black stone for miraculous effect. However it was the really unusual wooden rafters just below the ceiling that stole my attention. Very atypical for such a grand cathedral, but I liked it. Inside there are several chapels adorned with masterfully painted frescos. Overall, it’s well worth the price of admission of 4€.
6. Piazza del Duomo
The centre of this square (and fair to say the city) may be the Duomo, but it’s not the only sight to be found there. Piazza del Duomo steals your attention with the Duomo and then keeps it with all its other curiosities. For starters there’s the Torre di Maurizio, the small clock tower above, that has a bronze figure that strikes the bell on the hour. Next door you’ll find some of the most picturesque restaurants in Orvieto, although I can’t vouch for their quality or price.
The piazza is also the home to the city’s underground tunnel tours, that explore the caves, tunnels and cisterns of the old city. I opted not to go due to my claustrophobia but it certainly adds another level to the city. I did however find something quite interesting nearby, this alley off the piazza covered by several archways and creepers.
7. Views to the Countryside
One of the benefits of being up high is always the views that you can get and Orvieto is no exception. There’s plenty of spots scattered along the edge of the cliffs, but I am quite partial to the above view from the lookout at the end of the Via del Duomo. Make sure to not just wander the inner streets but follow the outer roads as looking out over that Umbrian countryside is something you should not miss. On the northern side of the town, you can also look down to the Etruscan necropolis, remains of millennia old tombs.
8. Western end of Town
Just like Albornoz Fortress on Orvieto’s eastern face, the western end of the city is quite a striking sight to behold. Here, instead of a fortress, you have city walls that run higher than the rooftops through the Olmo and Serancia quarters. This means spectacular views both out to the surrounding region, but also back over this part of Orvieto. It also happens to be the city’s most uneven section, with streets sloping quick down to the roads leading out of town.
9. Town Hall Square
It’s surprising that for a European city, I haven’t gotten to the Town Hall sooner. I think that’s because in true Italian (and Catholic) style, the Duomo takes precedence. That’s not to say it isn’t a nice town hall, a dignified Romanesque style building. The small tower, wedged in between it and the Chiesa S. Andrea, is also a pleasant addition. The building’s current appearance dates from the 16th century, although various important civic buildings have rested on the spot many centuries prior.
The square it sits on, Piazza della Republica, has always been an important spot in the city, although less-so after the construction of the Duomo. Visiting in January, there were still festive stalls set up in the square, selling artisanal produce and handicrafts.
10. Churches and Museums
As with any city of some cultural pedigree in Europe, there are plenty of churches and museums to visit in Orvieto. Firstly, there’s the Church of Saint Agostino that features some remarkable marble sculptures within the church’s hall.
Then there’s the Museo Emilio Greco, a gallery of bronze sculptures and drawings by Emilio Greco, a modern sculptor who crafted the doors of the Duomo. The gallery is set inside the Palazzo Soliano from the 14th century on Via del Duomo.
Another choice is the Museum Dell’Opera del Duomo Orvieto, which features a great range of religious artefacts and works of art. A small chamber featuring ornate paintwork is definitely worth the visit alone. The museum also includes the chambers below the Duomo which are kind of cool, all on their own.
11. Abbey of Saint Severo and Martirio
There are several sights in Orvieto to be found outside the high city walls. One of the most curious has to be the Abbey of Saint Severo and Martirio. Now a hotel, there’s actually quite a bit left of the abbey that remains untouched. Particularly eye-catching is its tower which – especially in winter – looks like a haunted tower pulled from a tale by the Brothers Grimm. The views from the abbey’s grounds back to Orvieto are pretty special too.
Where would you start with a visit to the historic hilltop city of Orvieto? Have you visited before and have other sights you’d recommend? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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