Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Orvieto's Magnificent Duomo & Underground City

Famous for its colourful ceramics and gleaming cathedral, Orvieto, one of Umbria's grandest hill towns, sits majestically high above the valley floor, perched on a plateau of tufa rock with the outline of its world famous Duomo visible for miles around. The city of Orvieto has adapted to the needs of the modern day tourist by transforming itself into a car-free haven. Access to the city in fact is either via the funicular that runs from the railway station below, up to the old town centre through the system of escalators dug into the cliffside, or by parking quite close to the centro storico, outside the gates of the Albornoz fortress. The result makes touring Orvieto a glorious experience.

The view approaching Orvieto makes a striking outline against the horizon

The Gothic façade of the Orvieto Cathedral is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages. The church is striped in white travertine and greenish black basalt, similar in many ways to the cathedral of Siena and other central Italian cathedrals of that era. Construction started in 1290 but it took almost four centuries to finish it. Several important architects and artists worked on the duomo over the centuries, resulting in the highly styled building filled with beautiful mosaic floors, elaborate altars and colorful frescos that remain today.

Bronze doors by the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco 

One of the many extraordinary carvings on the exterior of the Orvieto Duomo

The cathedral's stunning facade is embellished with mosaics that shine in the sunlight, elaborate stone carvings that play among the shadows and bronze work that dazzle the senses. The story of the Duomo dates back to 1263, when a Bohemian priest called Peter of Prague, doubting the true nature of Christ, was celebrating Mass at Santa Cristina in nearby Bolsena, and noticed blood dipping from the Host onto the Corporal, the eucharistic altar cloth. 

Chapel of the Corporal of Bolsena

The miraculously blood stained cloth was immediately brought to Pope Urban III who was staying in Orvieto, who then established the annual Feast of Corpus Domini to commemorate the miracle, an event that's still celebrated with a big medieval procession in June each year. Most importantly, it was decided that the bloodied Corporal needed a suitably extravagant resting place, a large new cathedral, so in 1290 Pope Nicholas IV laid the foundation stone, and three centuries later the grand Duomo di Orvieto was completed.

The winged bronze lion, a symbol of Saint Mark

The Duomo's Gothic-style interior holds frescoes by Fra Angelico, Signorelli and many other recognized artists of the time. To the right of the main altar, one of the Duomo's masterpieces is the Chapel of St. Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli's brilliantly lit frescoes from around 1500. Stepping into the room, you're surrounded by vivid scenes of damnation and salvation — an incredible sight, only 25 people are allowed in the chapel at a time.

Chapel of St. Brizio

Museo Emilo Greco

In addition to the famous Duomo, Orvieto has been acclaimed for its gorgeous ceramics for hundreds of years, along with other Umbrian ceramic centres such as Deruta and Gubbio. My favourite shop for ceramiche is Bellocci on Via del Duomo in Orvieto. A family shop run by husband and wife team, Luigi and Elizabetta Bellocci, their shop sells some of the finest ceramics in Umbria. A wonderfully friendly lady, Elizabetta is fluent in English and Italian, and with her impeccable eye and fabulous collection of ceramics, she makes shopping at Bellocci a little too easy. The large packages that are being shipped from Orvieto this week are testament to the exquisite pieces she sells — I could easily have come home with her entire shop. Good thing we had tickets booked for the Orvieto Underground Tour, so we had to scurry off.

Bellocci Ceramiche in Orvieto — my favourite shop with highest quality ceramics in Umbria

Colourful ceramic platter from Ceramiche Artistiche Giacomini, 
in the main square of Orvieto — one of my proud purchases

Orvieto is a city within a city, honeycombed deep into the tufa volcanic rock, with over 1200 caves, hidden tunnels and secret passageways. Orvieto’s underground traces its history back to the Etruscan’s, who dug wells to provide the city with water when it was under siege by the Romans. The underground has been used for many purposes, from olive oil and wine processing, water access, fortification from attack, parking and a sustainable food supply in pigeon cultivation. 

Carved entry sign to the Orvieto underground tour

One of the current residents of the Orvieto Underground gardens

One of over 1200 documented underground tunnels that wind their way through 
the tufa rock on top of which Orvieto sits

An underground olive oil press — the caves maintain an average 12-13° 
which was perfect for making oil

There are hundreds of pigeon coops under the city, which produced a totally self sustainable food source because the birds feed themselves and reproduce at a high rate. All they needed to have provided for them was shelter and water. The walls of these fascinating square underground rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes that even have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. And so began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you can still find on some menus in the city today.

Thousands of underground pigeon cotes were created for homing pigeons,
a chief source of food when the town was under siege

Steps lead up from the underground tufa rock caves to private residences above

During WWII many of the caves were converted to bunkers, 
where locals could flee during bombing raids

An original Etruscan well with steps carved into the sides, 
traces of how the wells were originally built

The very first underground tunnels built by the Etruscans were in search of water, roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells, with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out, and peaked cavern ceilings, are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people. 

Gorgeous views from Orvieto over the valley below

Walking back from the Orvieto Underground Tour, we wandered through Piazza del Duomo, the central square that's also home to the Museo Emilo Greco and Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, the Museum of the Cathedral works, which houses works of art formerly in the Duomo. Although we didn't have time to visit these two museums, it gave us two very good reasons to visit Orvieto again the next time we're in Italy.

Walking through Piazza del Duomo on the way to lunch

The charming 13th century Torre del Moro clock tower, the highest point in Orvieto,
with a bronze figure that strikes the bell every quarter hour

As the 13th century bronze figure on the Torre del Moro clock tower struck 1pm, we followed Elizabetta Bellocci's recommendation for great local Umbrian cuisine, and made our way to La Grotta Trattoria, located on one of Orvieto's tiny cobblestone side streets. A tiny family run restaurant with only about eight tables, the ambiance was charming, the produce locally sourced and the food — just delicious.

Trattoria La Grotta in Orvieto

The vaulted interior and charming interior of La Grotta

Aqua frizzante and a bottle of Orvieto white wine 

Prosciutto locali


Papparadelle con Cinghiale

Zuppa di Ceci

Malfatti al sugo di funghi

Bistecca alla Griglia

The second restaurant that Elizabetta Bellocci recommended for good Umbrian food was Trattoria La Pergola, just around the corner from her shop on Via del Duomo. When a local suggests a place to eat, it makes good sense to follow that advice. In both cases, La Grotta and La Pergola, we were the only non-Italians eating, which was exactly what we were hoping for. La Pergolla, although a little more modern in decor, was excellent. In fact, the Carpaccio di Manza was the best I've ever had. Delicious thick slices of raw beef on a bed of wild arugula with generous shavings of Parmigiana, flavoured with Umbrian olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Buonissima!

Trattoria La Pergola — Elizabetta's other suggestion for fine local dining, where we went to second time we went back to Orvieto — to buy more ceramiche!

La Pergola menu

A delicious Rosso do Montalcini by Castello Banfi, an elegant vineyard and small hotel, where we stayed two years ago when we were last in Tuscany

Antipasto Misto con affetati locali e bruschette

Carpaccio di Manza con rucola e parmegiana — the best I've ever had

Gnocchi a modo nostro con pancetta, affumatrata, spinachi e tartufata 

Tagliatelle al Ragu d'Agnello

Both days that we visited Orvieto, we parked across from the Albornoz Fortress, in a small parking lot that was perfectly located near the centro storico, but long enough for a good brisk walk to burn off the pasta. The Albornoz fortress stands on an area that was once occupied by a temple, known to archaeologists as the Augurale, in Etruscan times. Originally known as the Rocca di San Martino, construction on this massive fortress started in 1353, by order of the notorious Papal legate Cardinal Egidio Albornoz. 

The gates to Orvieto's Albornoz Fortress, now a lovely public park

The idea was to make the city a secure holding for the Church, thereby enabling the Cardinal and his captains to consolidate their recent military victories. After the Sack of Rome at the end of 1527 Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto. To ensure that the city would be sufficiently supplied with water in the event of a siege, he gave orders for the digging of the well-known artesian well known as the Pozzo di San Patrizio. Today the Rocca is used as the town’s public gardens.

Walking along the walls of the Albornoz Fortress with fabulous views of the valley below