Orvieto and the case of the inverted tower.

Getting out of the city and experiencing the slower paced Italian life is a popular activity for Rome inhabitants. Orvieto, only an hour away on the train, is a beautiful volcanic cliff top city. The buildings of Orvieto use the same tufa rock on which they sit and seem to grow upwards from the almost vertical cliffs. Within lies a looming Duomo (Cathedral) fit for a major city, a secret underground labyrinth of caves and passageways and to top it off,  a spectacular surprise right at the end.

After our train journey from Termini station in Rome to Orvieto, we took the ‘Funicolare’ or cable railway right outside the station. The funicolare running on train tracks is like a fun ride, a rollercoaster without the drop, ascended slowly to the heights of the city above us.

Orvieto minibusYou immediately feel the warmth of a provincial Italian town, where helpful locals motioned a confused me on to a tiny white public bus outside the funicolare (free with €1.30 funicolare ticket). It takes you into the town, where we got off at Piazza della Repubblica.  If in doubt, get out where you like, the place is not big enough to get lost for long. The locals thanked the driver by name as they were dropped off one by one to the quaint apartments with private gardens.

I began with a hunt to sniff out quality restaurants. I look for a place that is; down a side street away from a piazza or main street, very scary looking, and full of Italians. Unfortunately we were subject to country rules and they were all finishing up their service for the afternoon (closed 3pm -7pm).  I opted for a café on the main street, and a nice deal of €10 for a pork Panini, a glass of Orvieto white wine and a coffee.

Orvieto duomoWe sat and relaxed, within view of the massive gothic 13th Century Duomo , begun under Pope Nicholas IV. It’s decorative façade displayed the minutest detail of hand pressed tiles and twirling sculpture columns. The sides sat in stark contrast with stripes of white travertine and greenish-black basalt rock, like the under layers of a grand cake. It is plopped ceremoniously  in the middle of town, flanked behind by a sprawling view of lush dark green blanketing the stunning valleys and peaks. The town itself is picturesque and quaint, with glimpses of duck egg blue wooden shutters and large crumbly beige volcanic bricks.

Orvieto sidestreetI went to thank a musician for our mealtime serenade (I only do that with those who are actually good and don’t hassle diners). He responded with giving us a quick rundown of the town’s must sees. In his opinion there was not much to see inside the Duomo, but the underground secret passage ways of ancient Orvieto are a hidden treat.  (The ticket office is easy to find right on the Piazza Duomo). He was also shocked that we had not tried a curious well with spiral staircase that wound its way underground. ‘Ma non lo sapevi?!’ (You mean you don’t know about it?!), he exclaimed. We had walked right by it when we got off the funicolare.

We tried the Duomo anyway, at €3 it’s not much of a stretch. I have to say the interior was beautiful in its grand spanning simplicity where the stone layers are on full display. The front altar piece was adorned with murals using a striking coral aquamarine that was ‘rusting’ romantically. Outside, we hopped on the mini bus just in time beside the Duomo. We were very intrigued about our musician friend’s tale about a strange well by the funicolare.

Well orvietoThere in minutes, we hopped off and found to the left of the station (if you face it) down a short hill there was a peculiar low building in the shape of a short fat cylinder. The Pozzo di San Patrizio (€5 entrance), is a 16th century well built by Pope Clement VII who was seeking refuge at Orvieto and was paranoid about the town’s water supplies in the event of an attack. Once inside we were unprepared to be struck down by a fantasy like scene. The well, like a spectacular inverted tower, drives down into the belly of the cliff on which Orvieto sits. It is an awe inspiring feat of skill. The spiral staircase lining the expansive dropping well was cut with arched windows, individually lit to throw dramatic shapes in unending swirls downwards. Venturing below where the creeping ivy could not grow, the air became at once cool and our voices hushed in the weighty silence. Time stops at the bottom as you take in the towering cylinder above you, on a tiny bridge covering water still like glass and dotted with coins like a forgotten treasure. We stayed there for many minutes just taking it in, surprised we had never heard of this strange hidden tower before. Huffing our way back up we were rewarded by another sprawling view outside before our trip on the funicolare back down to normality. Last funicolare is 8.30pm.

Tips on getting there:

Take the train at Termini station on the Florence(Firenze) line to Orvieto. Buy tickets quickly and easily using the self-service machines (card only) in the station. Tickets to Orvieto vary depending on how fast they are but cheapest was €7.70 one way for 1hr10min trip. Check the huge screens for your departure platform (binario). Our platform was a good 5 minute walk, give yourself enough time and don’t forget to stamp your ticket in the small machines on the walls around the platforms (or pay a €5 fine).

Pictures by Elizabeth Sheeran

Orvieto Duomo – €3 entrance, Piazza Duomo,  www.museomodo.it  (for varying opening hours check website)

Underground citywww.orvietounderground.it, Piazza Duomo, 23, full price €6, scheduled guided tours, book in office on Piazza. Open all year round.

The Pozzo di San Patrizio – Viale Sangallo, Price €5, Open Jan-March/Oct-Dec  10,00 – 17,00

Apr,May/Sep 9,00 – 19,00. www.sistemamuseo.it (use search on website to find page)

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