High above the Umbrian countryside, atop a chunk of tufo, sits the town of Orvieto. Located less than 90 minutes from Rome and 2 hours from Florence, Orvieto is absolutely a point of interest and don’t-miss destination. Umbria is a region that’s rich in history and Orvieto is a fine example of that.
Orvieto’s location above fields of cypress, olive groves and vineyards below, was certainly beneficial in ancient times. With the observational edge Orvieto could easily defend itself against approaching troublemakers. But, without the advantage of space the growth of the town was a bit impaired.
How Orvieto Grew
Orvieto’s earliest settlers, the Etruscans, realized the city was virtually impenetrable, except for one not-so-small detail; the water source was located on the plains below. Not to worry, these ancient innovators sunk wells into their perch and built cisterns to collect the rainfall.
As Orvieto grew in importance, its underground construction continued. The people of Orvieto designed shelters, and grottoes, spaces for storage, galleries, quarries and cellars with natural temperature control, thanks to the stone. By the onset of the Middle Ages Orvieto was thriving.
The Village Beneath
Underground building went on, with each space more elaborate, each subterranean structure more extensive than the next. Underground Orvieto bustled with village life, more so than above on that volcanic bluff. There were olive presses with millstones, kilns for making pottery, furnaces and even troughs for the laboring animals. Pigeons, or piccione, raised for food (still a popular local ingredient), roosted in hollowed out cubbies. There were even elaborate escape tunnels forged beneath the village so nobility could be secreted away in the event of an attack.
All in all there were some 12,000 structures dug into the volcanic rock underneath Orvieto. Due to the fact that the village beneath the village was mostly private property, and used for strategic purposes, the underground village remained relatively ‘undiscovered’ until a landslide in the 1970’s exposed the labyrinthian town.
The Village Above
The underground village is a fascinating landmark, to be sure. But there is much more to see above the ground as well. Orvieto is a medieval city with cobblestone streets and stone houses. Orvieto is also home to one of the most stunning Gothic cathedrals in Italy.
Orvieto’s cathedral sports a unique facade. With stained glass, sculpture and beautiful mosaics, the cathedral’s exterior is said to be one of the most colorful in Italy.
Inside the cathedral is even more fascinating. Use of space and dimension creates somewhat of an optical illusion, making the interior appear deeper than it actually is. The Chapel of San Brizio features frescoes “The Day of Judgement” and “Life After Death” by Luca Signorelli.
A side note: Luca Signorelli’s style of depicting a scene through action and not symbolism was a source of inspiration to his younger contemporary, Michelangelo.
Cars are few and far between in Orvieto so you can stroll the streets and wander without fear of jockeying for the right-of-way. There are some excellent places to stop for a meal and, if you’re lucky enough, try some piccione, a favorite in Orvieto!