Orvieto: Umbria’s Gothic Jewel

I have two important things to tell you about Orvieto. First, it’s one of my favorite Italian getaway spots. This city is more than a hilltown, more than a wine destination. Orvieto floats above a green Umbrian valley, perched atop a tufa outcropping that looks as though it came straight out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Once you’re in Orvieto, though, you’ll realize that you’ve arrived in a place that is at once mystical and historic, set away from the bustle of Rome and Florence, but very much a part of Italy’s wine history and culture.

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Second, it rains in Orvieto. Often, in fact. Since walking is the best way to get around, you need to know about the rain. You also need to know that rain shouldn’t keep you away from Orvieto’s cathedral, cuisine, or wine.

Orvieto makes a great daytrip or weekend stopover, whether you’re arriving from Rome or Florence. Orvieto’s an easy 1½-hour train ride from either city. If you’re traveling by car, you’ll be able to strike out toward the wineries in the countryside. However, you’ll need to park your car at the train station while you sightsee in town. It’s well worth doing; just lock everything in the trunk (even stray maps and pencils), pay the parking lot attendant and take the bus or funicular up to the town.

Once you arrive in Orvieto, you’ll see why having a car is a handicap. Orvieto, which dates from Etruscan times, is built on a large tufa plug that rises straight up from the valley floor. The town is small and parking is nearly nonexistent. Orvieto is made for wandering, not for driving.

If you’ve planned to spend a day in Orvieto, you’ll want to head for the cathedral (“duomo”). This gothic marvel is justifiably famous. The cathedral features a brightly-colored facade, recently restored with loving care. The facade, designed for the most part by Lorenzo Maitani, almost leaps out at you with bright blues, gleaming golds, and all the carvings lovers of the gothic style could want. Martyrs, sinners, spires, stained glass – they’re all there, in stunning, accessible detail.

Don’t forget to walk into the cathedral, though, because Luca Signorelli’s frescoes are worth a look. In the San Brizio chapel, he has created a Last Judgment scene that will scare the sinfulness right out of you, complete with hideously-hued demons and wailing reprobates. Across the church, the chapel of the “corporale” is meant to orient the visitor back toward the sacred. According to Catholic tradition, a priest who doubted the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist saw the host drip blood while he was saying Mass in nearby Bolsena. He caught some of the blood on the “corporale”, or altar cloth, and brought the cloth to Orvieto. The chapel contains a beautiful casket for the cloth and frescoes by di Prete that tell the story of the miracle.

If you love caves and mystery, consider taking the “Orvieto Underground” tour. The tufa plug on which Orvieto sits is full of tunnels that date from Etruscan times. You can take a tour of the tunnels if you contact Orvieto Underground.

Saint Patrick's Well is also worth a visit. This 16th-century well was built to ensure that the town would have enough water to last out a siege. Unlucky donkeys dragged water from the well’s bottom to the piazza via two spiral stairways. After descending into the well, climb the Torre del Moro to get a bird’s-eye view of Orvieto.

Orvieto lies on the Strada dei Vini Etrusco-Romana, or the Etrusco-Roman Wine Trail. People have been creating wine here for over 2,500 years. The area is justifiably famous for its white wines, including Orvieto DOC, Orvieto Classico DOC, grown in this region since the days of the Etruscan cities, and Orvieto Classico Superiore DOC. Several wineries also produce red wine, including Rosso Orvietano DOC and Lago di Corbara DOC.

If you’re only visiting for the day, head to the Enoteca Regionale at the Palazzo del Gusto, Via Ripa Serancia 1 (sorry, website is in Italian only), telephone 0763/393529. You can take a guided tour with tastings of one or two local wines, with or without tastings of regional products, for a fee of 5 – 18 Euro.

If you are traveling by car and have some extra time, consider driving out to one or more of Orvieto’s wineries. If you’ve been reading this column for a month or two, you probably realize that buses and trains don’t normally pass by Italian wine estates. You’ll need a car to see the vines up close.

Today, several important wineries have put their individual stamps on the famous regional wines of Orvieto. Castello della Sala, part of the Antinori wine estates, is well-known for its Orvieto Classico Superiore DOC. Castello della Sala also produces award-winning IGT wines, such as Cervaro della Salla. You can try wines and other estate products at Castello della Sala’s wine shop (“bottega”) at the estate. Call ahead to 0763-86051 to make sure the bottega is open.

Tenuta Le Velette recently launched an English-language version of its website, which makes their award-winning wines even more accessible. This winery received the top-level three-glass award for its Gaudio 2003 Umbria IGT, created entirely from merlot grapes, from Gambero Rosso this year.

Some well-known wineries near Orvieto are also agriturismi that rent vacation apartments and rooms. If you have time for an Orvieto weekend, consider splurging on a night or two at Locanda Palazzone or Tenuta di Corbara. Both wineries feature beautifully-appointed rooms, swimming pools and the backdrop of the stunning Umbrian countryside. Tenuta Le Velette also rents vacation houses; you’ll need to contact the winery for information on pricing.

If you prefer to stay in town, you have many hotels to choose from. Hotel Valentino, on via Angelo da Orvieto, features a tastefully-decorated lobby, pleasant rooms and a friendly staff. It’s just one of 31 hotel choices in old Orvieto.

Umbrian cuisine is typical of Italian hill country, emphasizing meats, pasta dishes and truffles from Norcia. During our stay in Orvieto, we ate at Ristorante Antico Bucchero, at Via dè Cartari, 4, and at Trattoria La Volpe e l’Uva at Via Ripa Corsica, 1, both good choices if you’re looking for a mid-priced, hearty meal with typical Umbrian dishes. I tend to go for anything covered with wild boar sauce, and my husband enjoys porchetta, the regional roast pork specialty.

Whether you visit for a weekend or for an afternoon, Orvieto is a truly memorable destination. Raise a glass for me while you’re there.