Florence § Rome § Siena § San Gimignano § Lucca § Perugia § Orvieto § Turin
Siena's Duomo § Siena by Night § Marche § Piccolomini Library
Paris § California § Colorado § Michigan
Twilight at the top of the Torre del Moro, Orvieto/Piazza della Repubblica
Today, Orvieto is a charming town that is easy to reach on the Rome-Florence railway line. The tufa hill that it occupies has been settled for thousands of years, but its historic peak was as a major Etruscan city called Volsinii Veteres, one of the members of the Etruscan Confederation. The Etruscan cities were thriving when Rome was a small village in a marsh, and they held their own for some hundreds of years, but eventually came under Roman domination. Volsinii Veteres was attacked and destroyed by the Romans in 264 BC and its remaining inhabitants were evicted. Their new settlement was called Volsinii Novi (current-day Bolsena). The old town rose to prominence again in the Middle Ages, as Urbs Vetus, a.k.a. Orvieto. Various popes used it as a sanctuary when things were unsettled in Rome. The beautiful Duomo, started in 1290, was built to preserve a relic of the Holy Corporal (a bloodstained altar cloth that won over a priest who was inclined to doubt the doctrine of transubstantiation). It was finally finished in the early 17th century. It has long been known for a fine white wine, Orvieto Classico, pottery, and lacemaking (all readily available to contemporary tourists).
Orvieto can be reached by very frequent trains from Rome or Florence; it's also adjacent to the A1 motorway that connects those two cities. On weekdays, there is bus service (ATC) from Todi, Narni, Terni, and Civitella del Lago. [Buses are actually quite convenient for short trips in Italy, but readable and accurate online schedules are hard to find.] The simplest approach to the town for people coming in by train is the funicolare (funicular railway). It's right across the parking lot from the train station; tickets cost 90 euro cents, but for anyone who intends to see the sights, it is worth stopping at the bar or giornali by the station to purchase a "Carta Orvieto Unica." This is a cumulative round-trip ticket for the funicular and a minibus trip (or several hours of parking), the Capella della Madonna di San Brizio, the "Underground Orvieto" tour, the Museo Claudio Fina, and the Torre del Moro, all well worth doing (see below) and the ticket is a good value at 8.50 euros. The ride on the funicolare takes 3-4 minutes, with frequent service-nominally every 15 minutes but in practice more often than that. The in-town funicolare station is in Piazza Cahen, at the eastern edge of the town. Two in-town minibus lines start there; Line A goes to Piazza del Duomo, Line B to Piazza della Repubblica. Besides the Duomo, Piazza del Duomo has the Museo C. Fina, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the IAT tourist office from which the "Orvieto Underground" tours start. Most guidebooks list the tour times at 11 am and 4 pm, but I found there were four times--check the board out in front of the IAT office (which I did too late). There are manmade caves underneath much of the town; the ones on the tour are accessed from a park just a short walk from Piazza Duomo. I have read that the tour is a little too long and didactic for some people, but I have always enjoyed the tours I have taken in Italy, and I am sorry to say I missed it.
The Duomo is open from 7:30 am to dusk with a break for lunch (but practically everything in Italy except restaurants closes for lunch). Its facade is remarkably ornate, but unfortunately, it is almost completely obscured by scaffolding right now. The Capella San Brizio, with stunning frescoes by Luca Signorelli, is open from 10 am until they feel like closing it (which may be earlier than the stated hours in the winter). The Capella requires a ticket purchased at the IAT office, or the Carta Orvieto. Signorelli worked in the chapel from 1499-1504 to complete the fresco cycle of the Last Judgment, which had been started by Fra Angelico. The section on Signorelli in Vasari's "Lives of the Artists" is very respectful; as a young child, Vasari had met the elderly Signorelli, who encouraged Vasari's artistic inclinations. Signorelli's rendering of the human form influenced Michaelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel. In these frescoes, as usual, Hell seems to capture the artistic imagination more than heaven does. Photography is prohibited in the chapel, but is allowed in the Duomo otherwise; part of the chapel ceiling is visible in the pictures on the left. Professional photographs can be found at the "Web Museum of Art" site. From the posted signs, there may be quite a line to get in the chapel during the busy parts of the year, but on a fine Saturday morning in January, I had it all to myself.
The Museo C. Fina (open 10 am) contains various archeological finds and has a particularly nice collection of Etruscan artefacts. The pieces are well displayed, the museum is compact, and even a short visit is rewarding. The view of the Duomo from the upper floors is worth the climb. Orvieto's best view is found at the top of the Torre del Moro, about two hundred yards north of the Duomo at the intersection of Via del Duomo (home of several pottery places) and Corso Cavour (Orvieto's main street). The climb, while not trivial, is a good deal shorter than Siena's Torre Mangia, and the view is great. It is worth knowing, however, that the bell chimes every fifteen minutes, and it is incredibly loud and startling if you happen to be standing next to it when it happens!
Two historic sites near Piazza Cavour are the Pozzo di San Patrizio and the Tempio di Belvedere. The Pozzo, a medieval well that was mistakenly thought to resemble a well in Ireland, was dug to help the town withstand a siege. It is very cleverly engineered with a double helix of steps which never intersect, so donkeys carrying water pots could go down and then up again without colliding. Apparently it worked great for donkeys, but for backpack-carrying modern tourists, the pitch and spacing of the shallow steps (248) is somewhat awkward; wear good shoes or you may get some blisters on the descent. Unlike the donkeys, paying guests (3 euros, not included on the Carta Orvieto) are allowed to turn around without going all the way to the bottom (I stuck it out). The nearby Fortezza (now a park) has excellent views out over the valley, though these are not that rare in Orvieto. The Tempio di Belvedere is a ruined Etruscan temple, abandoned since the Roman conquest. Pre-Christian worship sites are not rare either hereabouts; a large number of the churches are built on one. What makes the Tempio di Belevedere unusual is that a church was not built on it, so you can still see it.
Orvieto has numerous small hotels in the historic center. The nicest is the Hotel Palazzo Piccolomini in Piazza dei Raineri, opened in 1997; the 16th century palace originally belonged to the Piccolomini family, prominent in Siena, which produced two Renaissance popes and other churchmen. The rooms in the upper floors are simple but extremely comfortable, and have good views. Breakfast is served in a tufa cave downstairs ("Underground Orvieto" with caffe latte, I guess). Orvieto's most famous restaurant, Vissani, is actually in Civitella del Lago, a world-class establishment with prices to match. Guidebooks and websites (linked below) recommend various more modest places. I tried one just a few yards west of the Hotel Palazzo Piccolomini, a small family run restaurant called Trattoria Mezza Luna. FWIW, there is also a restaurant called Mezza Luna in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, but under different management. The Orvieto version has only a few tables, but it is that rarity in Europe, an entirely nonsmoking restaurant. The food was very good, and the service was easygoing and friendly. Orvieto seems like a friendly town throughout. (So is Santa Rosa, NM, if you are looking for a place to stop on I-40.)
Corso Cavour has many upscale shops. A worthwhile tourist stop is at the bar which now has "Internet@café" on the doors, though it has been around as the Mancinelli bar much longer than the Internet. It has fantastic desserts, and in the back, some computers for rent--it is a branch of the Tuscan Internet Train chain. On Saturday, there is a market in the Piazza del Popolo behind the Torre del Moro.
Orvieto links are given below; the most thorough guidebook, in my opinion, is the "Blue Guide to Umbria," by Alta Macadam. However this book is currently out of print (coming out in a new edition, I hope).