Orvieto, Italy: Life in the Slow Lane
Precariously balanced on the edge of a rocky plateau 1,000 feet above the plain clings Orvieto, a breathtakingly positioned walled town that commands an inspiring view of the tidy farmhouses, monasteries and vineyards below. Travelers might get a fleeting glimpse of Orvieto from the window of a Freccia train as it speeds between Rome and Florence, but this quintessential Italian hill town merits much more. Spend some time here and you’ll understand why the Slow Cities/Cittaslow organization chose Orvieto as the headquarters of an “international network of cities where living is good.”
Slow is the Way to Go!
This offshoot of the Slow Food movement was started in 1999 to expand Slow Food’s promotion of healthy, locally grown food, indigenous culinary traditions and artisanal food production to other areas of civic life. Towns must have fewer than 50,000 inhabitants to join Cittaslow and sign a charter that encourages members to showcase their historical heritage, preserve local crafts and customs, set up local cultural events, highlight local knowledge and historic architecture by renovating old buildings and farms, increase the number of green spaces and pedestrian areas, develop bicycle path networks and alternative modes of transportation, and reduce energy consumption.
The goal is to to reconcile mass tourism with the need to protect the townspeople’s own patrimony and maintain liveability; it’s easy to see how this benefits residents and visitors alike. And with Orvieto gearing up to host Cittaslow’s General Assembly in June 2019, the organization has produced a short video extolling the town’s laid-back lifestyle that is guaranteed to appeal to all those looking for a break from the daily grind.
Orvieto can be done as a day trip from Rome, however, we like to propose it as a stop-off on the drive between Florence and Rome—the town is situated at just about the halfway point, with a convenient exit from the A-1 Autostrada del Sole (Sun Motorway). Hiring a chauffeured car means you will be whisked right up to the centro storico and your luggage stored safely in the trunk. Those who opt to arrive by rental car have two main parking lots to choose from: the large Campo della Fiera / ex Foro Boario lot, set to the west of town, directly below the so-called “medieval district;” from here there is access to the city center via elevator, escalator or stairs, all of which end up close to Piazza della Repubblica or, on the eastern edge of town, the free parking lot behind the train station at Orvieto Scalo.
I like to park at the train station because right across the street is the entrance to the Bracci Funicular Railway for a spectacular ride up to town. Originally built in 1888 and powered by water, this line was in use until it was abandoned in 1970—then, 20 years later, a new electrically hauled funicular was built on the route of the old. Average travel time is a speedy 116 seconds and the funicular leaves about every 10 minutes. Upon arriving at the top terminal in Piazza Cahen, go out the front door where an electric bus (marked A; included in the ticket price) is waiting to take you to the Duomo.
Colorful Mosaics Glisten in the Sun
Orvieto reached the peak of its wealth and influence in the 13th century, counting such luminaries as Pope Urban IV and the scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas among its 30,000 residents (only about 20,000 people live here today). The town’s religious aspirations are expressed in what might be Italy’s finest Romanesque–Gothic cathedral. Started in 1263 and completed some 200 years later, the Duomo’s façade is a gleaming mass of mosaics, stained glass and relief carvings that depict stories from the Old and New Testament.
Not one centimeter of the façade is left unadorned, however, stepping inside the building provides a distinct contrast: windows of thinly-sliced alabaster bathe the uncluttered interior in a soft light and the nave is an optical illusion, designed to appear longer than it really is. Not to be missed is the Chapel of San Brizio in the right transept. Here, Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly colored frescoes (1499-1502) treat themes of resurrection and salvation—his “Last Judgment,” complete with hideously-hued demons and wailing reprobates, will scare the sinfulness right out of you! Michelangelo is only one of the artists who meticulously studied Signorelli’s work in the Brizio Chapel, as the younger master’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel attest.
Umbria’s Landscape Will Soothe Your Soul
As a reward for his work in the Brizio Chapel, Luca Signorelli is said to have received not only a house and money but also 1,000 liters per year of Orvieto’s celebrated white wines. Grape vines thrive in the mineral-rich, volcanic soil as they have since Etruscan times. In fact, a vast underground network of Etruscan-era caves, cisterns, quarries and tunnels was found dug into the tufa stone underneath Orvieto in the 1970’s. You can visit this fascinating piece of local history by guided tour only.
The town also lies on the Etrusco-Roman Wine Trail so pick up a couple of bottles of Orvieto Classico DOC or Orvieto Classico Superiore DOC while you’re here. And if you have time for an Orvieto weekend, consider splurging on a night or two at Locanda Palazzone. This country wine-resort features seven beautifully-appointed rooms installed inside a medieval pilgrim’s inn, an in-house restaurant with wine bar and a swimming pool overlooking the estate’s 24 hectares of vineyards.
“Best Damn Pasta in All of Italy!”
Orvieto’s nondescript Trattoria La Mezza Luna is underground, too, but it’s not the ancient Etruscans that draw people here—instead, it’s the mythic spaghetti alla carbonara that the owner, Averino, has been serving up for more than 40 years.
“Carbonara becomes poetry in this place,” enthused one happy diner; “Carbonara from God” is the judgement of another. How can a dish of spaghetti, guanciale (pork cheek), beaten egg, black pepper, and parmesan cheese garner such effusive praise?
Averino says the secret is in the hand: his hand, that he trained for two years in traditional restaurants in Rome before moving back to his hometown to open this place. At €8 per portion, Mezza Luna’s carbonara isn’t just among the best in Italy, it’s also an incredible deal. The restaurant is small and books up at least a day or so in advance; even in low season, last-minute tables are virtually unheard of so, for pasta perfection, call ahead to reserve an unforgettable lunch.
Trattoria La Mezza Luna
Via Ripa Serancia, 3, 05018 Orvieto TR, Italy
Monday-Saturday: 12:30pm-2pm, 7:30pm-9pm
Orvieto, perched far above the everyday world, has so much to offer! Whether you’re attracted by music, the arts, history or gastronomy, this proud-to-be a Slow City is a spectacular retreat! At Olive Tree Escapes, we can make it happen so speak to a travel designer, submit a trip request, or contact us for more information on how to include Orvieto and Umbria on your next Italian vacation.