When I went to Florence for a week last year, I knew I wanted to explore some of the surrounding towns. High on the list was Orvieto, a small hill town about an hour train ride from Florence, in the state of Umbria. I had seen pictures of the town and the architecture before I went. Italy is famous for its hill towns, and Orvieto is one of the best and most photographed. I’m not sure February is the best time to visit, but I certainly had some of the sights all to myself.
Orvieto is about halfway between Florence and Rome. On the main railway line between the two cities, it is easy to get there and even easier to explore on foot and find those great photo opps. And gelato. Gelateria Pasqualetti, specifically. Try the ricotta and canella (cinnamon). I had to resist going back for seconds. When I travel, there are two things that are very difficult for me to pass up. Gelato is one. Coffee is another.
The main attraction in Orvieto Italy is the Duomo. Wait, isn’t that the main attraction in most Italian cities? Yes, but Orvieto is a town of about 20,000, not a city. Most people take the funicular up the rather steep hillside to the edge of town and walk the Corso Cavour to the Duomo. That’s what I did, except I stopped along the way to take pictures and make many detours to take more pictures. As I was leaving Orvieto, I realized that the real main attraction is the town of Orvieto itself.
Orvieto is built on top of what was once an Etruscan city built into the soft Tufa rock. Much of the Roman architecture is gone, but the current city, which I believe was built in the 1800’s, is extraordinary. I haven’t seen a more picturesque and charming town, except maybe in Santorini. One of the most charming features is the doorways, one of my favorite things to photograph when I travel.
I would be remiss if I didn’t write something about the extraordinary Orvieto Duomo. It’s most famous feature is its facade, featured at the top of this post. One of the biggest advantages to traveling in Italy in winter is that many sights are not crowded. I was the only person in the Duomo for the first ten minutes of my visit. Felt a bit surreal to stand in this cavernous cathedral started in 1290 that took three centuries to complete.
The reliefs decorating the front of the Duomo were the most detailed I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t stop looking at them. This close up of the bottom of the relief depicts what happens in the depths of hell. There are four of these huge bas-reliefs on the facade of the cathedral depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments. The detail is just incredible. And graphic. Especially at the bottom which is covered in plexiglass to prevent people from touching it.
Inside the Duomo
The reliefs on the outside of the church are no less graphic – or famous – than Signorelli’s The Last Judgement, which is inside the cathedral in the Cappella di San Brizio, which I had all to myself while admiring this masterpiece. You can put ‘disturbing’ in front of “this masterpiece” if you like, but my first impression was more like fantastic. Heaven is depicted on the other side of the chapel.
To visit the Duomo and the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo is only 5 euros. I gave the Museum a quick once over and from there I somehow managed to wander inside the National Archaeological Museum even though I don’t think I had a ticket. There was no one in there, even at the ticket counter. So I wandered through it more interested in the architecture than the exhibit.
My next excursion was the Orvieto Underground at 4:00PM, but the tour was only in Italian. I’ve done other underground tours, including Naples, but I’m not convinced this one was worth the one hour of Italian, although it’s probably worth the 6 euros I paid. It wasn’t really much to see, especially compared to Cappadocia in central Turkey, so my advice is if you’ve been to other underground tours of cave cities carved into tufa rock, you might give this one a miss.
There are lots of restaurants and cafes and shops, but many were closed on this day, but it didn’t matter. The streets, the sights, and the gelato were enough. It’s a very romantic place. The next time I have a chance to visit Orvieto, I hope to experience it in summer when it is more lively and more restaurants are open. But I think this is a town worth visiting any time of year.