Orvieto is located in Umbria and is roughly half way between Florence and Rome. Built on a pedestal of volcanic rock that rises up from the plains, Orvieto was first established by the Etruscans because it was a natural fortress with its steep cliffs that offered protection from invasion. The city now offers a look into the past with its cobblestoned streets, the Duomo a 14th century Gothic church, and extensive underground network of caves and tunnels. The elevated city also offers some spectacular views of the Umbria countryside.
Where to Stay
La Casa di Tufo B&B - www.lacasaditufo.it
Located in the quaint medieval quarter and built in the sixteenth century, the La Casa di Tufo B&B offers the ideal accommodations in the heart of Orvieto. Classic Italian architecture comes together with historical Orvieto building methods to create a warm and cozy retreat after a long day of exploring the city. The rooms and common area are accented with beautiful stone archways, open beam ceiling and large door/window that opens onto the court yard. The beamed ceiling is all original and the exterior, arches and door frames are built with volcanic rock cut from the Orvieto hill. This technique was used throughout Orvieto so there are now many miles of caverns and caves beneath the city, see Orvieto Underground for more details of these fascinating caves. Beneath the glass table tops and in display cases around the common area, the hosts have set up displays of many artifacts that were uncovered during the building's renovations
The rooms were very clean and offer spectacular showers to massage your tired body after a day of hiking the city streets. The common area had a kitchen that was free to use at any time as well as a lounge area with lots of reading material. The hosts were very pleasant and shared their extensive knowledge of the area and how to best utilize our time in Orvieto. They also provided a wonderful breakfast to start our day off and introduced us to a new fruit called cachi.
There is no parking in the upper part of Orvieto so you have the option of driving by to drop your luggage off before parking below, or hiking your gear in from the parking lot. From the parking lot you must climb many flights of stairs to the medieval section of the city but luckily there are escalators to take you up most of the way (provided they are all working). La Casa di Tufo is located a short walk from the top of the stairs. We decided to hike our gear in because it seemed much easier than trying to navigate the narrow streets with the car.
What to See
Torre del Moro
This clock tower, or bell tower, is located in the centre of the city and offers panoramic views of Orvieto, the Duomo, and the Umbrian countryside. However, even from this high up it is hard to get the perspective that the city sits upon a butte. It's only a few Euros for admission but it is well worth it for the views. Be prepared for the climb as the elevator only goes to the second floor and it is a long climb up from there.
The Duomo is a roman Catholic church built in the 14th century an is consider to have the most elaborate facade of all churches in Europe. The details of the facade are spectacular from the ornate marble work to the detailed frescoes. We spent a great deal of time admiring the facade but never ventured inside, due to time restraints and the fact that it's hard not to get ‘churched out’ when Italy has so many exquisite churches. At this point, the entrance fee was also a deterrent considering we'd seen so many other churches for free.
The Orvieto Underground is composed of an elaborate labyrinth of caves, cisterns, cellars, tunnels and aqueducts. At least 1200 separate caves have been identified though only a couple of these are open to the public through guided tours. The Etruscans first started building these tunnels in the soft volcanic rock during the third century BC. The caves and tunnels were used to extract building materials for the city structures. Now each home in Orvieto has its own cellar dug out of the rock which is often used for storage or wine cellars.
These caves have an extensive history from many different era. For the Etruscans, the caves provided the much needed materials to build their homes above the cliffs in the natural fortress. Wells were dug far down into the soft rock to provide water to the village above, without having to leave the safety of their fortress. The caves and tunnels were also used to create a nesting place for pigeons which were, and still are, considered a delicacy. The pigeons would nest in the cutouts within the walls, leave to feed, but then they would always return to nest and breed. The pigeons multiplied quickly, which ensured a steady supply of food. The water retrieved from the deep wells, allowed the Etruscans to hold off the Romans from invading their fortress for almost three years.
Though the population of Orvieto is only 5000 today, at one time it was over 20 000. With such dense population the caves offered a place for the Etruscans to work. The remains of olive presses can still be seen carved out of the cave walls.
During WWII, the tunnels were used as bomb shelters and even a hospital to protect the people of Orvieto. The pigeon holes within these caves were taken out in order that seats and beds could be carved into the walls.