From the very first time I stepped into Orvieto, way back in the day, it struck me that this town is perched atop a vast underground akin to Swiss cheese. The ever-present threat of collapse is a sobering realization. Nowhere is this more hauntingly felt than when you descend into the Pozzo di San Patrizio. This astounding well from 1520 plunges nearly 230 feet down and showcases two distinct spiral staircases—one for going down and another for coming up, both wide enough for donkeys to lug water barrels without crossing paths. Beneath Orvieto, you'll find a labyrinth of 1,200 cellars, tunnels, and wells—some dating back to the Etruscans, 3,000 years ago.
Mosaic Facades of the Duomo of Orvieto
Despite—or perhaps because of—its location, Orvieto played a significant role in history. Medieval popes, far from being saintly, waged wars just like any worldly ruler. When Rome felt too perilous, they often sought refuge in Orvieto, considering it their safe haven. For a time, Orvieto was even the Christian world's epicenter, a wartime Vatican. Perhaps the very reasons that made the popes feel secure, are, why there's no major rail line, expansive shopping district, or freeway access. Orvieto remains charmingly frozen in its medieval past.
Orvieto's role as a papal residence meant it needed churches, cathedrals, and palaces that showcased its power and wealth. Just glance at the cathedral, the Duomo, and you'll get the picture. Legend has it that in 1263, a skeptical priest in nearby Bolsena doubted the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. During Mass, the host bled, staining the altar cloth. Pope Urban IV, then residing in Orvieto, saw the event's PR potential and swiftly ordered a cathedral to house the relic.
A Masterpiece of craft in Orvieto
While the church was well underway, in 1309, an architect from Siena, Lorenzo Maitani, took over. Experts say he masterfully blended a cacophony of shapes, colors, and styles, which would typically spell chaos, but here, it just works. The Gothic facades with their four towers, intricately decorated portals, and a mosaic-covered front, narrate Biblical tales in vivid colors, familiar to the medieval masses who couldn't read. Overlooking the Piazza Duomo is the Torre di Maurizio, where a bronze statue of Maurizio has been clocking worker hours since 1347, striking his bells with a hammer.
Compensation in 1,000 Liters of Wine
The interior is just as opulently decorated—a feast for the eyes that'll have you discovering something new with every gaze. The chapel of San Brizio had been around for over a century but remained unfinished. In 1499, Luca Signorelli was tasked to adorn the chapel with frescoes. With a style fit for today's graphic novels, he painted vivid depictions of the end times, heaven, and hell teeming with angels, demons, and naked souls in distress. It's said he was paid in 1,000 liters of Orvieto's finest wine. Considering the cathedral's vast underground wine cellars, it wasn't a bad deal!
Orvieto Beneath the Surface
While Orvieto’s cathedral might snag most of the spotlight, this town has so much more up its sleeve! Stroll around, and you’ll bump into delightful boutiques, from a truffle connoisseur’s haven to the local enoteca where regional wines await your discerning palate. Oh, and while you’re at it, don't miss the chance to drop by the charming Tipica Trattoria Etrusca on Via Lorenzo Maitani. This place boasts a 16th-century underground cellar — get this, it's accessible only via a long stairway carved out of volcanic tuff! Turns out, these kinds of cellars are a quirky Orvieto feature. Originally wine cellars, some like the ones beneath Palazzo del Gusto and the Enoteca Regionale can trace their history back to Etruscan times. They’re part of the ancient Strada del Vino Etrusco Romana. Trust me, Orvieto's underground is full of such hidden gems.Tipica Trattoria Etrusca, Via Lorenzo Maitani, 10, 05018 Orvieto TRPalazzo del Gusto, Via Ripa Serancia, 1, 05018 Orvieto TR - More info here
There’s a cheeky saying in Italy: if ‘your pocket isn't as deep as the well of San Patrizio’, then you’re not exactly rolling in dough. Now, whether you'll find hidden treasures in Orvieto remains to be seen, but you’ll surely stumble upon the renowned Pozzo di Patrizio. Imagine a jaw-dropping well that’s over 62 meters deep. Picture a spiral stone staircase leading all the way down — with two separate entrance doors. So, if you and a buddy each take a different door, you'll see each other but never cross paths. Ingenious, right?Pozzo di San Patrizio, Piazza Cahen, 5B, 05018 Orvieto TR - A steal at 5 Euro p.p.
Meandering from the Piazza Duomo to the town's southern edge, past the Archeological Museum, lands you at a viewpoint that'll take your breath away. The rolling hills, the stunning La Badia monastery turned luxury 5-star dining destination, it’s all there. And here's a secret: a hidden door in the city walls leads to Orvieto’s mysterious underground. Dive deep into the past, tracing the lives of the Etruscans from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Want to catch every hidden corner? Grab a guide and take the hour-long tour.Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Orvieto, Piazza del Duomo, 05018 Orvieto TR - Check this outLa Badia di Orvieto, Località La Badia, 8, 05019 Orvieto TR - For the foodies
Orvieto's Culinary Delights
There's more to Orvieto than its ancient roots. It proudly wears the title of ‘Città Slow’. Yep, the Slow Food movement is thriving here! And with a smorgasbord of culinary delights to choose from, I'd say: come hungry!
- First off, the Orvieto Classico doc. A delicate white wine perfect to kick off your meal. Its slight bitterness will surprise and delight.
- Got the munchies? Grab a Lumachelle: adorable snail-shaped bread with ham and cheese bits.
- For the carnivores, try Mazzafegate: a smorgasbord of pork sausages, both sweet and savory.
- Caffé Montanucci: Internet, terrace, delicious pastries, and choco treats. A must-visit!
- Craving gelato? Gelateria Pasqualetti is where you'll find the town's best.
- For a fancier affair, book a table at La Badia.
- And just by the Duomo, Wine-bar Il Gusto offers an impeccable lunch stop.
While the above is just a glimpse into the beauty and history of Orvieto, it's evident that this town offers a lot more than just history and architecture. As with any journey, the experience, the food, the wine, and the people make Orvieto a must-visit!