Umbrian hilltop charm in Orvieto

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IF you are looking to holiday in authentic Italy away from the crowds of Rome, Tuscany and the country’s popular beach resorts, consider heading to one of Umbria’s unspoilt hill-towns, where residents still outnumber tourists and most tourists are mainly Italian themselves.

Of all the Italian hill-towns Orvieto is one of the most spectacular, sitting atop a plateau of volcanic rock that is visible for miles around, the town protects within its walls a fascinating history and one of the most impressive Duomos in Italy. Easily reachable by train or car, many live to regret leaving only a day to enjoy the town, however those in search of authentic Umbria are not disappointed with a week exploring the treasures of Orvieto and the rolling countryside that surrounds it.

Alison Starling from CV Travel, which provides luxury villas in Umbria, is passionate about the region and has put together her top suggestions for exploring Orvieto and the beautiful area around it.

Drama and the Duomo

A seven-storey masterpiece in black and white marble, the Duomo di Orvieto has the dominating position you’d expect from a building that took a miracle, 300 years and 33 architects to complete. As legend has it the project to build the current Duomo was launched after a Bohemian priest, who had doubts about transubstantiation, witnessed a miracle when performing mass in nearby Bolsen. The host (Eucharist bread) suddenly began to bleed onto the linen altar cloth in his hand during his mass. Pope Urban IV who was visiting the area at the time and had the cloth carried to Orvieto and, to commemorate the miracle, he established the sacred holiday of Corpus Domini. The Popes believed the cathedral of Orvieto, which at the time was an old dilapidated building; was unworthy of housing such an important relic and spent sixty years convincing the townspeople to sponsor the construction of a new duomo. The famous alter cloth is kept in today’s Duomo in a reliquary in Capella del Corporale to the left of the altar.

The cathedral’s façade is a result of the changes in style during the period it took to construct it and includes elements of design from the 14th and 20th century. A close examination of the façade will reveal depictions of the Old and New Testament in chronological order and mosaics tracing the life of the Virgin Mary.

Signorell’s famous fresco cycle

In a chapel to the right of the main altar, the Capella di San Brizio contains a majestic fresco cycle painted by Luca Signorelli in 1499-1504. The works of Signorelli in the vaults and on the upper walls represent the events surrounding the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment. Stylistically, the powerful depictions of hell, paradise, the nude and damned, were shocking in its day. It has been claimed that the cycle surpasses Michelangelo’s similar cycle in the Sistine Chapel, which was painted forty years later and seemingly influenced by Signorelli’s fresco.

Museum musings

Without leaving Piazza del Duomo you have the opportunity of visiting several museums including the Museo Archeologico which contains artefacts including an entire Etruscan tomb. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo exhibits a columnor milestone which dates back to 107AD and is home to important items taken from the Duomo and other local churches for safekeeping, including a self-portrait by Signorelli himself. The Museo Faina opposite the Duomo displays an interesting collection of Greco-Etruscan pottery, Roman coins and Etruscan tombs. It also provides a wonderful close-up view of the Duomo from the terrace and upper windows. For sightseeing purchase Orvieto’s Carta Unica from any of the main tourist venues, the tourist office or funicular terminal, for entry into all the main attractions.

Orvieto Underground

The distinctive geological nature of the mass of stone on which Orvieto stands enable its inhabitants to dig, in the course of about 2500 years, an incredible network of cavities extending, overlapping and intersecting beneath the modern structure of the city. As well as creating a discreet way to move around the town, the tunnels served as tombs, storehouses, workshops and roosts for pigeons bred for messaging and food by the town’s Etruscan founders. The tourist office organises fascinating underground tours (Viaggi nella Citta’ Sotterranea) which take visitors through the caves to explore the historical and archaeological details that have only recently been thoroughly studied. Included are the remains of an old olive press, two impressive 130-feet-deep Etruscan well shafts and the remains of a primitive cement quarry.

Walking around Orvieto

If you leave Piazzo Duomo by stepping onto Via del Duomo you will soon come across the 480-foot Torre del Moro. The tower has a bell that’s been ringing every 15 minutes since 1316 and a viewing platform that’s reached by an elevator and 171 steps.

From here, head to the Piazza della Repubblica which was the centre of town for both the Etruscans and Romans. Here you will find the mayor’s office and the church of Sant’Andrea, which was built between 6C and 14C, with even older remains in the crypt.

Continue to the opposite end of town from the Piazza Duomo, to Piazza San Giovanni to see the pretty Santa Maria del Pianto (Santa Maria of the Tears) and the convent church of San Giovanni Evangelista. It’s worth taking a short walk from here to Porta Maggiore for views across the valleys and Etruscan excavations. For a spectacular ride into town board the funicular railway from the mainline station.

Day trips from Orvieto

A short drive away from Orvieto is Todi, another pretty hill town where you can easily lose a few hours climbing its steep streets, taking in the stunning vistas that open up unexpectedly and admiring its beautiful High Renaissance church.

Near Todi is The Concordia Theatre in Monte Castello di Vibio which has only 99 seats and is known as the smallest theatre in the world. Completed in 1808, the wooden interior is a rare example of Goldoniano style and offers a unique space for scenery, actors and audience. For a unique experience catch one of the many productions which take place throughout the year and include opera, Jazz and classical concerts.

Umbria’s capital and largest town, Perugia, is a bustling place alive with students from its university and art academies with a compelling calendar of festivals including the annual chocolate festival, Eurochocolate. Visit the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria to see the region’s finest collection of medieval and Renaissance paintings and stop off on Corso Vanucci, a broad street with a string of cafes and restaurants down the middle that is perfect for people watching with a glass of wine.

Countryside expeditions

Those seeking relaxation should put aside a few days to explore the Umbrian countryside. Roughly an hour from Orvieto is Lago Trasimeno, the fourth largest lake in Italy where you can spend the day swimming, windsurfing and sailing, take a ferry to one of the lake’s islands or enjoy a wonderful hike in the hills above the lake.

For more amazing walks, visit The Nera River Park in Valnerina to explore its unspoilt natural landscape of meadow, forest, streams, gorges and waterfalls, including the Roman Cascate delle Marmore (Marmore Waterfalls), where a mass of water gushes from 165 metres. The more adventurous can enjoy rafting, canoeing and canyoning.

When to go

There is really not a bad time to visit Umbria. The summer is wonderful for al fresco dinning and the cooler spring and autumn months are less crowded and perfect for sightseeing and exploring the town on foot. Celebrating its 20th year, the Umbrian Jazz Winter festival between 28 December and 1 January 2012/2013 will ensure the historic squares of Orvieto are full of a lively crowd enjoying excellent jazz music, fine food and wine.

Where to stay

Stay in the Umbrian hills among cypresses and olives in the spacious La Casetta . A comfortable Italian house with beautiful views of Orvieto and the Umbrian landscape. The house is elegantly furnished with a broad wisteria shaded terrace running the length of the property, a tennis court, swimming pool and a spacious garden. For an indulgent night in, use the villa’s cook service and have a local chef create a delicious evening meal using the best produce and specialities of the region.