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Top Ten Things To Do

  • 1. Piazza del Duomo – for the magnificent Orvieto Cathedral

    A climb up serpentine curves is rewarded with the startling expanse of the Piazza del Duomo. The Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral (Duomo) is best-seen when the late-afternoon sun glints off the mosaics of the astonishing façade. On display are an array of mosaics, carved alabaster and bronze statuary, bolstered by striped horizontals of basalt and travertine stone. The Duomo, considered one of the loveliest in Italy, was commissioned in 1290 but only completed four centuries later. Creating this masterwork required the dedication of legions of architects, sculptors, painters and mosaicists.

    Inside the cathedral, the black-and-white stripes highlight the curvilinear arches. To the right of the altar is the frescoed Cappella Nuova, whose decoration was begun by Fra Angelico in 1447 and completed by Luca Signorelli at the turn of the next century. Whereas Fra Angelico focused on the glory of God, Signorelli put the human perspective centre-stage. The chapel supposedly inspired Michelangelo and his painting of the Sistine Chapel. On the left-hand side of the altar is the Cappella del Corporale, painted by Ugolino and his assistants and depicting The Miracle of Bolsena. The apse is decorated with scenes from the Life of the Virgin, completed by Pinturicchio.

    Address: 23 Piazza del Duomo, 05018 Orvieto

  • 2. Underground Orvieto – it’s a secret world

    Hidden underneath Orvieto lies an intriguing underground city that winds its way beneath the main monuments. This secret city is dotted with man-made caves and a maze of Etruscan tunnels, wells, quarries, cisterns and cellars, all carved into the tufa-stone. The major noble palaces were equipped with secret escape routes from the upper city, allowing the aristocratic owners to flee if Orvieto were besieged. The tunnels took them to safety via exits that emerged some distance beyond the city walls.

    The route winds through 2,500 years of city history, focusing on the Etruscan, medieval and Renaissance periods, all spread out between two different underground settlements. Carved into the cliff-face are countless tunnels and around 1,200 chambers. The underground world had numerous practical uses over the ages – including transporting water in Etruscan times, through aqueducts and water cisterns which are still functioning. In medieval times, the underground tunnels, nooks and crannies were used for pigeon-breeding, olive-pressing and even as stabling for horses. The tour begins with the remains of a medieval oil mill, with further oil presses and grindstones dating back to the 17th-century, proof of how long the olive oil industry was ensconced underground.

    Don comfortable shoes and head for piazza Duomo for the start of the tour. If taken with the setting, you can come back and book your wedding in one of the Etruscan chambers or dine in a converted well.

    Address: 23 Piazza del Duomo, Orvieto

  • 3. St Patrick’s Well – an engineering feat

    If you can’t get enough of the underground theme, or just want a taste of it, join a visit to the so-called St Patrick’s Well, an essential city attraction. Before descending to the depths, enjoy the delightful views over Orvieto from the neighbouring city gardens off Piazza Cahen.

    The well’s poetic name comes from the belief that it represented St Patrick’s Purgatory, with the promise of Paradise beyond. The well was designed by the Florentine, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger in 1527, to provide Orvieto with a reliable water supply, and took a decade to complete. This great engineering feat was commissioned by Pope Clement VII, who sought refuge here to escape Charles V’s invading forces during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Set in the lowest part of Orvieto, the site leads down 62 metres within the well shaft by means of two spiralling ramps, with the double-helix effect provided by the two flights of steps, connected by a bridge at the bottom. The cunning of this ingenious system made it possible to reach the well water with pack animals in tow but then to go back up without getting in the way of the mules coming down.

    Address: St Patrick’s Well (Pozzo di San Patrizio), Piazza Cahen, Orvieto

  • 4. Medieval meanderings in Orvieto

    The dark volcanic stone lends a slightly gloomy air to the city but the Medieval Quarter remains an engaging part of the town, tucked into ancient walls hung with pots of tumbling geraniums, and tiny cave-like workrooms of Orvietan artisans. The so-called `Medieval Quarter’ occupies the western part of the city and is steep, narrow and ostensibly forbidding. Serried lines of houses seem to sprout like strange appendages from the tufa-stone slopes and cling to the rocky spurs. Meander in these medieval backstreets, if only to feel the joy of seeing the tight alleys open into tiny squares or offer unexpected views of `the green heart of Umbria’ beyond the city.

    More rock than town, Orvieto offers drama at every turn. The contrast between the grey basalt buildings and the tufa-stone rocks, which in the light change from mustard-tinged to golden or russet-red. The city’s wealth and power peaked in the 13th to 14th centuries and Orvieto’s medieval nature is apparent along most streets. Off Corso Cavour awaits the striking 12th-century Palazzo del Popolo, made of basalt and tufa-stone. Straight ahead are the Palazzo Comunale and the church of Sant’Andrea in Piazza della Repubblica.

    Address: Orvieto Tourist Office: Piazza Duomo 24, 05018 Orvieto

  • 5. Museo Claudio Faina – insights into the Etruscan world

    Orvieto is an Etruscan city but the most accessible way of sensing this is to see the treasures in the city’s Etruscan museum. The Museo Etrusco Claudio Faina, set on Piazza del Duomo, opposite the cathedral, is the right spot for an overview. The museum is home to an important archaeological collection of Etruscan and Hellenistic works, mostly linked to the Orvieto area. Founded by a local count in 1864, the collections are supposedly based on a gift of vases given to the founder by Napoleon Bonaparte’s niece. (The Bonaparte family discovered the Etruscan necropolis of Vulci). 
    The museum highlights include Etruscan black bucchero ware, Attic vases and 4th-century pots depicting Vanth, the Etruscan winged goddess of the underworld, who has snakes wrapped around her arms. The Romans changed the Etruscan city name of Volsinii to Urbs Vetus, and hence Orvieto. Even so, the Hellenistic finds dating from the 5th-century BC attest to the fact that the city terracotta workshops still thrived during this period and copied works inspired by the Ancient Greeks. From the second floor there are lovely views over the Duomo, Orvieto Cathedral.

    Address: Piazza del Duomo, 05018 Orvieto

  • 6. Todi – one of Umbria’s most mesmerising medieval towns

    East of Orvieto is hilltop Todi, a bewitching medieval town with one of Italy’s dreamiest squares. Despite its Etruscan and Roman origins, Todi feels like a medieval fairy-tale. The town transcends its quiet charms, from labyrinthine alleyways to the set-piece main square of Piazza del Popolo. The lovely view from Piazza Garibaldi is enhanced by scents from the gardens below. Piazza del Popolo, seat of the civic and religious powers, is represented by the Gothic Palazzo dei Priori, today’s town hall, with its crenellations, battlements and mullioned windows. The grand staircase leads to a Museo-Pinacoteca but the frescoed main salon mostly overshadows the art.

    On the same square stands the medieval Duomo, which rests on the site of a Roman Temple to Apollo. The three-tiered façade and bold rose window reveal a dusky interior, fine choir and stained-glass windows. The Gothic bell-tower, built 100 years later, strays from the fine Romanesque style.

    A brisk walk around the hill leads to the church of San Fortunato and more views. In keeping with Umbrian tradition, it is a large vaulted church, a variant on simpler, low-pitched Tuscan “barn” churches. Given its charm, Todi has become the haunt of history of art buffs and a smugly knowing expat set.

    Address: Todi Tourist Office: Piazza del Popolo 38–39, 06059 Todi

  • 7. Civita di Bagnoregio – Lazio’s ghost town

    From Orvieto to Bagnoregio is only 30 minutes by car or bus but feels like a lost fantasy world. The route south borders Lake Bolsena and reveals scenery straight out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Civita di Bagnoregio is a semi-abandoned village often described as a ghost town. If so, it’s a ghost town coming back from the dead as it’s rightly popular with romantic visitors. Perched above a canyon and teetering atop a pinnacle is a fairy-tale medieval town that risks slipping into a ravine. This small village is perched precariously upon eroding rock and reached only by a causeway bridge.

    For defensive purposes, this ancient Etruscan settlement was built on a ridge of a hill surrounded by ravines. It rose to prominence in medieval times and is still a vision of ancient carved stone archways and secret passageways. In time, landslides led to the collapse of sections of the cliff-like rock above, particularly after the 1695 earthquake, when the eastern section tumbled away. Now reached via a long pedestrian bridge over the ravine, the town revels in its dramatic setting. Visitors enter through a lofty stone passageway, cut by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago and later adorned with a Romanesque arch. Passing through the portal feels like an accomplishment, as does the return of some life to the village. Most of the houses have been restored in recent years and an advanced monitoring system regularly checks the stability of the hill.

    Civita is now enjoying a second wind. The difficulty of access which once caused its almost total abandonment today attracts visitors in search of silence. Apart from lapping up the views and the sense of desolation, visitors can tuck into some home cooking in the local inns. From bruschetta slathered in olive oil to truffled pasta, the food can only taste good in such a compelling setting.

    There's a bus on Sundays.

  • 8. Viterbo – a taste of Tuscia in Lazio

    Viterbo, the capital of Tuscia, former Etruria, makes a beguiling day out from Orvieto. Southern Umbria has much in common with Tuscia, the northern corner of Lazio. Forget the apparent strangeness of moving into another region and discover the echoes of Umbria, from the Etruscans to the impact of the Papacy. Overlooked Viterbo, directly south of Orvieto, also comes as a refreshing change after the over-popularity of too many perfect Tuscan towns. 

    Known as “the city of Popes,” Viterbo owes its medieval heritage to its brief period as Papal capital in the 13th century. Its medieval heyday is apparent in the showpiece squares, and in the charming San Pellegrino district east of the Cathedral, dotted with craft shops and charming back alleys.

    The city centrepiece is Palazzo dei Papi, the Gothic Papal Palace, built as a residence for Popes to escape the heat, unhealthiness and clamour of Rome. In 1271, during a three-year conclave to elect a new Pope, the exasperated townspeople tore the roof off the great hall where the cardinals were conferring, and put them on bread and water. A new pope—Gregory X—was swiftly elected.

    After exploring the town, make time for a refreshing dip in the local hot springs. Terme dei Papi spa complex offers a temptingly vast limestone pool fed by Viterbo's famous sulphurous waters, which pour in at 59°C (138°F).

    Address: Viterbo Tourist Office. Piazza Martiri d'Ungheria, 01100 Viterbo

  • 9. Orvieto wine-tasting and wine tour

    Orvieto is the capital of the "Città Slow" movement, meaning the epicentre of the Slow Food cities.  Both Orvieto and its hinterland enjoy a centuries-old connection with the land and still preside over a flourishing food and wine scene. Celebrated Orvieto wine can be tasted along the so-called Etruscan-Roman Wine Route, which includes the entire Province of Terni. It’s worth beginning a tour with a tasting at the Enoteca Regionale dell’Umbria, the regional wine store and Umbrian wine showcase.

    Download the apps to a food and wine tour:
    For more on wine and oil, see the Umbria tourism website (in English, French, German and Dutch):

  • 10. Umbria Jazz

    Music-lovers should consider visiting the region when Umbria Jazz is on. The region stages Italy’s biggest and best-known jazz festival but tries to share the spoils among different Umbrian cities. Recently, the festival has been expanding its remit, with successful versions held in different seasons. The best-known version of the festival remains the Umbria Jazz in summer, staged in Perugia, but Umbria Jazz Winter takes place in Orvieto, towards the end of December. Instead, Umbria Jazz Spring takes place in Terni, usually in late April. The Orvieto version of the festival often stages high-level American jazz but it’s always an eclectic programme. The summer jazz festival encompasses more than jazz, ranging from the music of Gilberto Gil to Pat Metheny.


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