The Umbrian hill town of Orvieto is one of the architectural and artistic highlights of Italy but many visit on a brief tour-party stop between Rome and Florence. Piazza Duomo is very busy around midday as coach-loads of tourists and school groups swarm around the famous cathedral.
But once they have moved on the town returns to its usual peaceful elegance and travellers clever enough to stay a night or a week can enjoy a real Italian treasure. In fact I love it so much I got married there!
Rising out of the olive groves and vineyards of the lush Umbrian countryside, there has been a settlement on this butte of volcanic tufa since Etruscan times. The Archaeological Museum (Museo Claudio Faina e Museo Civico) has a fascinating collection of artefacts from this ancient civilisation of the Italian peninsula. Under the city is a mysterious Etruscan necropolis and a labyrinth of caves and tunnels used over time for everything from pigeon farming to olive pressing.
There is no doubt the cathedral is the crowning glory of Orvieto and its facade one of the most beautiful in Italy. It is decorated with colourful mosaics, writhing statues and coils of carved marble inlaid with red, gold and blue.
In the dim interior, with its tall columns of travertine marble and dark basalt, the sun reflects in the marble floor like faint flames through the translucent alabaster windows, while the frescoes by Signorelli and Fra’ Angelico light up the walls.
The Romans also left their mark and Orvieto has always had a close relationship with the papacy, even becoming the refuge of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome in 1527 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Anticipating a siege, Clement had the deep Pozzo di San Patrizio or Well of St Patrick built at this time.
I always like to climb to the highest point of a town or city and the medieval Torre del Moro offers the best views of Orvieto.
But how to enjoy the real atmosphere of the town? In the evening the townsfolk come out for the passaggiata. Gossiping and strolling, Orvieto celebrates its own beauty and a relaxed pace of life that the centuries have not altered.
Women hold conversations across the narrow streets – window to window four storeys up – while hanging out their washing. There are many small artisan studios shops in Orvieto, including ceramic and wood carving artists.
Lovers of Italian food know that an important part of travel in Italy is the food. I’ve had some wonderful meals in many places in Italy but the Zeppelin restaurant of gregarious chef Lorenzo Polegri, just a few steps form the Palazzo Communale in Orvieto, is one of my favourites. Lorenzo and the staff at the Zeppelin are passionate about the culinary traditions of this region and welcoming their guests with true Umbrian hospitality.
How about wild boar with black truffle sauce or Crespella stuffed with scallops seasoned with butter and basil, broccoli sauce and Mediterranean hot red pepper? Make sure you try the local Orvieto DOC white wine (generally a blend of Grechetto and Trebbiano) or if you want a red I’d go for a Primitivo from down the road in Puglia. The restaurant also runs hands-on cooking courses, from one day to four weeks, covering everything from preparing fresh pasta and traditional breads to truffle hunting.
The other key thing for making the most of your time in Italy is to stay somewhere authentic – somewhere that’s dripping with beauty and history and personality. In Orvieto there’s a wonderful B&B – Palazzo del Cardinale – on Via Malabranca ([email protected]).
It really is a former cardinal’s palace, built in 1528, that has been owned by the current family since the 17th century and features beautiful frescoed ceilings and antique furniture. Anna Valeria is very kind and cooks a good breakfast, including freshly-squeezed orange juice and home-made jam from her own garden.
By Natasha von Geldern