We heard public transit worker strikes were a more frequent occurrence than in the USA and of course one began to over the weekend. Fortunately, everything was back in operation on Monday morning as I am not sure what we would have done if it wasn’t! We rely heavily on public transportation when we travel and have enjoyed the ease of the system- particularly in Europe where you can get almost anywhere without needing a car and at an affordable price.
From Siena and after our lovely day wine tasting in Montalcino, we continued our journey south to the small town of Orvieto. In planning the first trip to Italy, we wanted a mix of city and countryside- Orvieto would fulfill the latter- it would be a true test of our Italian skills as we anticipated the least amount of spoken English here out of the destinations on the trip. Upon arriving via train, it was easy to spot the unique town sitting atop a plateau. Before proceeding, we bought the Carta Unica pass that allowed us access to different sights in Orvieto, including the Duomo, the MODO, the Faina Museum, the National Archaeological Museum, the Crocefisso del Tufo Necropolis, Saint Patrick’s Well, the Moro Tower, the Pozzo della Cava and Orvieto Underground, and a round trip ticket on the funicular. Having this pass also gives ticket holders discounts to some of the town’s restaurants and shops- a great value at 20 euro!
The funicular (tram/cable car) transports people from the ground level at the Orvieto train station up to the town proper. The walk to our hotel was quite a bit longer than anticipated as our backpacks grew heavier with each step but once we made it to Hotel Virgilio, we were thrilled with our selection. Our hotel was directly next to the Duomo- literally next to it! The town center was consdierable small given the size of the Duomo- the scale did not make the most geographical use of the space but the Duomo represents more- the better the Duomo, the better the city.
With our trusty rain jackets, we ventured the short walk to the Duomo di Orvieto. The Duomo’s exterior was ornate with every inch of the facade covered in details so when walking in it was surprising that the interior did not match. While the chapel areas were decorated in gold, the rest of the church remained bare. It was actually a nice change of pace from the previous churches we visited- the simplicity felt more peaceful.
Our next stop was Pozzo della Cava for exploration of the caves. Orvieto is known for their Etruscan underground world due to the town’s elevation and there are some intensely deep caves underneth it all. This walk through really gave us a perspective of the massive network of caves that exists as a preview to the Orvieto Underground tour we were doing tomorrow.
After the tour, we began to explore the rest of Orvieto, making several observations. As expected, there was very little spoken English, I would say none with the elderly generation. We could almost feel the eyes of people staring at us- we were clearly different and not from around there- I am sure everyone in the town knows each other and so we stood out. While there were a many shops lining the streets, I would say half of them were ceramic stores- colorfully painted with flowers and chickens- bowls, pots, vases, and other house hold pottery. And they were very expensive! Each item was made by hand and many shops even advertised shipping discounts to the USA- so I guess some tourism exists!
Instead of just looking at store fronts, Kevin wanted to go into some. I have to say I was much more apprehensive given our less than passable Italian. Kevin picked a store that sold cheeses, meats, pastries, and cookies among other small foods items. He marched in as I slowly followed behind, noticing an old lady sitting in a lawn chair across the street who suddenly got up to walk towards us. The lady from the chair outside made her way behind the counter. After a few exchanges of the three of us clearly not communicating well with her Italian dialect and our textbook, first grade level Italian, we somehow learned she was 90 years old- though it remains unclear why sharing her age was relevant to the (not) conversation. She then pointed to the biscotti and offered us to try some… I felt skeptical… Kevin delightfully indulged her request as she tells him to split the biscotti so we could share (we understood this quite well!). As soon as the compliment of the biscotti left Kevin’s mouth, her hand began shoveling various biscotti into a bag. Unsure how to stop the biscotti bonanza, we really had no choice since neither our Italian nor English was getting her attention to stop (“basta”). How much could biscotti cost? She flung the bag onto the scale- 9 euro. Stunned, Kevin handed over the money and we march out with an enormous bag of cookies. We were totally scammed by a 90 year old lady into buying 9 euro worth of biscotti! I had a feeling we may have annoyed her afternoon on the lawn chair by walking into the store… she made sure we paid for it! “Sto solo guardano”- I am only looking- we committed this to memory the second we got internet to look it up to avoid another biscotti bonaza on this trip.
Fortunately, biscotti bonanza was our only major communication issue we had in Orvieto. The rest of the day went beautifully. We had dinner reservations at Trattoria del Moro Aronne– highly recommend as it was packed! The owners knew little english but the flow of conversation during a dinner service was much easier as our dining vocabulary is our strength in the language. Orvieto is known for their white wine that is golden in color with a hint of sweetness, so we began with this. For dinner, Kevin ordered parpardelle with wild boar ragu and I got nidi (wide pasta) with pecorino and honey. Both dishes were out of this world- it really is hard to describe how amazing the food was here. Still no salt in the bread, which was a surprise as we were now farther south in the country- apparently not far south enough for sale in the bread! For dessert, Kevin ordered their famous crème brûlée, insane custard, and I ordered the panna cotta with chocolate, which was equally squisito (“yummy”). Our meal ended with a digestive liquor, amaro, which was much more pleasant than I expected- I did not find it nearly as repulsive as other straight liquors. A fantastic and very affordable meal. It was a small cozy family operation that felt every bit like grandma cooking up rustic, traditional dishes at home.
Breakfast was easy- we had unlimited breakfast supply from biscotti bonanza. We spent the day checking off the numerous other sights on the Carta Unica pass. Our first stop was the National Archaeological Museum that contained items from the Etruscan era showcasing tools of their life and items placed in their tombs. The museum was practically ours for the entire time of our visit. Towards the end, a lady took us to a closed off area to see preserved frescos. We were able to see it multiple frescos from the 4th century and in their unaltered and in their original form- insane!
We always found something to climb on this trip and Torre del Moro, the clock tower, was next. The view from the top was stunning… until the clock hit a quarter mark when the bells went off and had us nearly jumping off the tower- we were so startled by it!
We met in front of the Duomo for the 11AM guided tour (in English!) of Orvieto Underground. Orvieto only has a limited number of square miles for people to live, so the people had to build underground for more room, creating a large network of caves for work, water supply, and protection. There are over 1200 man-made grottoes, tunnels, and wells that span the town. We had the opportunity to see several contraptions preserved in the caves, including a cement mill, olive oil press, and a wine cellar. To comment more specifically on the olive oil press, the work space was set up complete with with millstones, press, furnace, and grindstones that were operated by animals.
A common feature for the caves that had a view of the outside was a wall that resembled mail box slots, squares about 4×4 inches. These served as homes for pigeons- providing means of communication… and nourishment. The caves are a very unique characteristic of this small town.
We grabbed lunch at a La Piazzetta wine bar ordering Orvieto Classico white wine along with a cheese and crostini plate- my favorite being the chicken liver (I know, I am just as surprised!).
Since we can never have enough stairs, we made our way to St. Patrick’s Well– commissioned by the Pope in case the city was ever under siege. While Orvieto has the high ground, all the resources must be available if there is a stalemate, hence the wells and other fail safes. As we descended down the spiral stair case, the humidity increased but the temperature decreased. The view from the bottom looking up was so neat. The climb back up was not so fun. We also walked along the Albornoz fortress next to the well to get expansive views from high above.
As we searched for dinner we noticed a problem- practically every restaurant was closed on Mondays! We walked far to our selected dinner spot, Ristorante Il Saltapicchio, to see it closed, walked past another option we had in mind, Trattoria del Orso, to see it closed, then (since we loved our meal so much) Trattoria del Moro Aronne to see it closed too! Not a good day to be a tourist in Orvieto. Those three were the only places we had reviewed so we left it up to the good people of Orvieto who wanted our euro to feed us.
We found Trattoria da Carlo down an alley and we sat at an outside table under string lights. Kevin had wanted to try pork cheek so we gave it a go. When Carlo brought the dish drizzled in balsamic vinegar, he also gave us a huge basket of bread in a “you are going to need this” manner. While ordering this was not a mistake, it definitely had an inedible characteristic- it was so fatty and I understand why the bread was brought out as it helped absorb the pork cheek. A memorable experience….ha! I had the ravioli special and Kevin ordered the cacio e pepe (“cheese and pepper”), a traditional pasta dish tossed simply with grated cheese and ground pepper. I think that is what we loved so much about the food in Italy- it is not like pasta dishes in the USA- they are simple and showcase the pasta, not doused in a thick, overbearing sauce. The ingredients are fresh and pasta is not as filling or heavy as they are back home.
On our way home, Kevin convinced me that gelato at Il Gelato di Pasqualetti was the perfect detour to end our final night in Orvieto (yes, second gelato of the day at the same place!). Apparently the pistachio gelato here was one of his favorite expressions on the trip.
Overall, Orvieto was surprisingly fun given our necessity to speak Italian and the challenges that accompanied. To be fair, biscotti bonanza did provide us with several mornings of breakfast and snack fulfillment. This town is so full of history and culture that you cannot find in many places, especially those caves!
In the morning, we made our way to our final destination on this two week adventure, Milan.
For the full Italy itinerary, click here!