Orvieto – An Italian Town Built on Tunnels
Orvieto is one of Italy’s most unique and fascinating towns. This hill town in Umbria is perched dramatically atop sheer volcanic cliffs, with expansive views over the countryside.
Orvieto has 3,000 years of history dating back to the ancient Etruscans. Over the many centuries, Etruscans, Romans and medieval Popes have all left their mark here, making the town what it is today.
Orvieto on the cliffs
Orvieto is situated high above the valley, on an outcropping of volcanic rock. This easily defensible site is further protected by city walls made of the same tufa rock.
Unfortunately, this rock is slowly crumbling away, and needs to be constantly maintained by numerous engineering projects. A major factor contributing to the rock’s instability is the fact that it’s laced with hundreds of tunnels, caves and wells, some dating back to Etruscan times.
Due to the instability of the rock, most of the town is now pedestrianized, which gives Orvieto a relaxed feel as you stroll through the quiet cobblestone streets, and take in the expansive views of the rolling hills below.
Orvieto is a great day trip from Rome – just a little over an hour by train. When you arrive at the Orvieto train station, a funicular railway will take you to the top of the rock, where the town is situated. As soon as you exit the funicular at the top, you will see a park to your right, that boasts wonderful views of the Umbrian countryside.
Orvieto above ground – The grand cathedral
The most stunning attraction in town is the Orvieto Cathedral (Duomo di Orvieto), which was begun in the late 1200s. This is a magnificent Gothic building, intricately decorated with delicate sculptures and mosaics.
Originally this church was created because of a miracle. A priest in the nearby town of Bolsena was unsure about transubstantion, where the bread and wine during Eucharist are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. During a service, his altar cloth became stained with blood. It was declared a miracle, and this cathedral was constructed to hold the holy cloth. The Corporal of Bolsena is still housed here.
The Cathedral is about a 15 minute stroll through the streets from the funicular, and there are plenty of signs, so it’s easy to find. Don’t rush, though. It’s an enjoyable walk, and along the way you will encounter plenty of quaint restaurants and shops. Ceramic souvenirs are a specialty, as is Orvieto Classico wine. You may even find a gelato shop calling your name.
Orvieto underground – Wells and tunnels
The volcanic butte Orvieto sits on is riddled with tunnels and wells created over many centuries. The soft tufa rock is easily chipped away, and residents have taken advantage of that.
Another must-see attraction in Orvieto is St Patrick’s Well, which gives insight into the world of tunnels below the town. Here, you can travel 200 feet under the town, via a spiral staircase that was built in the 1500s. This well was critical for its inhabitants once upon a time, as it was their main source of water. As you walk down and back up, imagine doing this daily carrying buckets of water.
If you want to explore the tunnels further, there are tours that will take you on a journey through the caves and tunnels under the town. There are stairs and cellars, passageways and cisterns, quarries and niches. Many of the important families of Orvieto had secret tunnels built so they could escape if the town was under attack. It’s a fascinating view of a hidden underground world.
For more on Orvieto, see Orvieto tourist information.
If a relaxing day in a picturesque Italian town sounds like something that interests, you, then consider including a day trip to Orvieto in your Europe tour. It’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours or days if you want a break from big city sightseeing.
Candice has traveled extensively throughout Europe, and enjoys sharing worldwide tour options on her website: TravAddict