Maybe for once I should be thanking global warming (did I really write that!?) but this unseasonally glorious weather made an excuse to take an away day. These days are warm and sunny. Early morning mist clears to reveal clear blue skies, the colours are magical. What better to leave off raking leaves and explore Umbria and head to Orvieto in the south east of Umbria. The town, like so many in Umbria is a gem, and it is also one of my real favourites.
The road to Orvieto takes the traveller south of Perugia following the course of the river Tiber. Passing by the hilltop town of Todi, voted in the 1980’s Condé Naste’s Top 100 places to live and itself worth a day visit, one peels off and takes the road following Lago di Cobarra. The twisty road along the artificial lake never ceases to amaze me. Because of the need to raise the road above the lake it hugs the shoreline and passes over curved bridges and through a series of short tunnels. The scenery is attractive in an artificial sort of way, and there are several lay-bys presumably meant as places to appreciate the view. I well remember driving this road in the 1980s and seeing many camper vans parked up, presumably tourists enjoying the scenery and peace. But, no, I have for long known these are not the reasons.
The camper vans are places of work. Unlike the road near Gubbio where ‘ladies’ stand by the roadside or sit in cars, at Lago di Cobarra the ‘ladies’ work openly in their camper vans. Clearly there is more money in this area. Passing this time, the vans without exception, looked shabby and unkempt. I guess business is bad. I’ve never understood why there are not ‘gentlemen of the night’, but there are not. It is just part of the Italian culture. I am not advocating this lifestyle, it saddens me and I find it weird to find it so evident in a Catholic country.
However I digress. In the time I have known Orvieto the opposite is true, it has seen a boom and rejuvenation. Approaching Orvieto the road passes by well tended vineyards and slowly winds its way up the volcanic tufa hill to the entrance to a stunning medieval town. We parked the car just off a piazza which has overtures of pompous 1930s architecture and headed off to explore. Our first stop is the hanging gardens. Entered through an imposing stone arch the views westwards are expansive. The gardens immediately giving a sense of calm and contentment.
A few paces away we bought tickets for the Pozzo di S Patrizio. This 53 metres deep well was constructed by Antonio di Sangallo the younger between 1527 and 1537 to ensure a good supply of water when the then Pope was in residence. A small circular building gives no idea of the architectural gem that awaits the visitor.
Entering through a digital turnstile you start the descent. There are two concentric staircases lit by seventy arched windows. It is ingenious. The double helix staircases allowed a constant flow of mules to descend and ascend with water, and these steps are the ones we follow.
We walked to the bottom and crossed the bridge to start the ascent. The ascent on the second staircase was, even for the unfit, surprisingly easy.
We stopped for the obligatory coffee in one of the many small bars that line the street heading uphill to the town centre we breathe in the atmosphere. Main streets are lined with alimentari, galleries, stylish design stores, artisan craft shops and a myriad of restaurants. Side streets are narrow, residential and even in early December flower filled. This town has a vibrant feel.
Our destination is the Duomo or cathedral, my favourite in Umbria. From the first glimpse the visitor has no concept of just how well it sits in its environment.
The elaborately carved and mosaic facade begins to reveal the magnificence of this building. Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary work on the cathedral started in 1290 with work continuing until the twentieth century. The body of the cathedral is constructed in alternating layers of white travertine and black basalt. The golden facade attributed to Maitani was built between 1325 and 1330 with additions to 1590. Wow! it is breathtaking, a masterpiece. Three pointed gables top mosaics and intense carvings and bronze figures. The entire cathedral sits so well in its piazza, to me a perfect harmony of spatial architecture.
The details are stupendously daring. The stone carving is detailed and intricate. Four bronze statues, symbols of the, Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle dart forward leaving the facade. I particularly like the winged Ox signifying S Luke.
On my first visits the tourist was free to enter and leave the cathedral at random. Now it is ticket entrance guarded by handsome young men in smart uniforms. We enter the cathedral by a side door, the main bronze doors sculpted in the 1970s by Emilio Greco are rarely opened – see a later photo on this post. I am blown away. Inside the travertine and basalt layers seem to continue, but in fact the basalt finishes at one and a half metres in height, the remaining contrast layers being painted. Yes, I read the guide book!
This in no way spoils the effect. Softly lit by alabaster windows and lit by large wrought iron chandeliers, it is a harmonious space.
But it is the chapel of the Madonna of San Brizio with its rich frescoes that draws us. The vault – “Christ in Judgment” is by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli and is magnificent in itself;
However it is the Signorelli frescoes that are the real draw. In 1499 Luca Signorelli was commissioned to paint frescoes depicting the apocalypse and last judgement and his treatment of the nude male is utterly stunning. The figures are heavily muscled and exude life and movement. I particularly like the “Damned taken to Hell and received by Demons” .
We tear ourselves away from the chapel and head to the exit. As a funeral cortège is leaving the main doors are open, we have to wait. We follow through the enormous bronze doors and out into the warm sun.
It’s Italy and time for lunch. Lunch is very important. Having remarked earlier on a sign outside a small trattoria of a huge pig lying on her side whilst her piglets are suckling, somewhat gross we thought, we decide to return and check it out. The window is filled with home cooked antipasti and salamis and pecorinos. It looks real and locals enter, and, so we dive in to “L’Oste del Re“. The marble topped tables in the small ground floor space are taken and we are shown upstairs. Choosing hand cut prosciutto and marinaded figs to start, we follow with a local pasta ‘Umbriachellini‘ made with only flour, water and red wine, yeah! Served ‘in bianco’ with luxurious plump porcini, it is exquisite, a good choice. The kitchen is on the top floor, above where we are eating, those smiling waiters sure have their work cut out.
Time marches on….
….and we still have not seen the extensive underground city but that will have to wait for another visit. After a creamy gelato we head back to the car and wend our way back down the narrow streets still busy with tourists and with smiles on our faces and on to Bellaugello Gay Guest House.
If you want to discover more about Orvieto you can check this website in English: http://www.inorvieto.it/en/