This past week I have been very lucky to have a very dear friend visiting, and so I’ve been playing a bit more tourist than I normally do in Italy. We wanted to get out of Florence a bit, so we headed to nearby Orvieto, somewhere I have never been, and only about two hours on the regional (slow) train. Orvieto is located on a (very tall) hill, so we took the funicular from the bottom of the hill where the train dropped us off to the old town, and then headed straight for the main piazza del Duomo. We picked up tickets for our main interest first, and while we waited headed into the Duomo. Orvieto’s Duomo is pretty low-key overall, but the chapels are what are most noticeable and they are much more ornate than the rest of the empty-feeling church.
The church is similar in feel to the Duomo in Siena, but as previously noted the chapels here are what are incredibly ornate. One chapel in particular was created for a piece of bloody cloth from when the wafer began to drip with the actual blood of Christ to convince a doubting priest. The cloth and host were taken to the pope, a miracle was declared and the chapel was built where the cloth is enshrined to this day. The majority of the frescos in that chapel were done by Luca Signorelli, and are said to have influenced Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The influence is obvious; Signorelli’s figures are incredibly muscular.
After viewing the church we headed from the beautiful city aboveground to under the ground, to the main attraction of Orvieto and what we were most excited to see: the Orvieto underground. During the time of the Etruscans thousands of man-made caves were dug out of the hillside and they are spread throughout the city. I tried to find an example of the map that you can see there, but was unsuccessful, but imagine a small Italian town city map: now draw thousands of red circles all over it and you’ll have an idea of how many caves there were and the reach of them. We took a guided tour in English, and were able to get some backstory on the caves and see them up close and personal.
The caves look pretty much like you would expect– they are caves after all– but what is perhaps most surprising is the temperature drop after you descend even just one level down into the caves. It is so much cooler there, and it is no surprise that the Etruscans used the caves for things such as olive oil making. Below you can see an ancient olive oil press. The straining mat is modern, but something similar would have been used to press the oil out of the olives and prevent pieces of the olives from joining the oil.
The caves were incredibly extensive; we felt we had seen so much, but in reality we only covered two tiny circles on the map of thousands. At one point our guide pointed out that while it seemed we had covered a lot of ground, it had all been vertical, and there certainly were a lot of stairs– this was not a tour for those who can’t do stairs– or the claustrophobic! The caves were quite spacious, but the tiny staircases and passages between them, not so much.
Many of the rooms in the caves were studded with holes, as you can see in the photograph above. For a long time they believed that these holes had a different purpose, but now archeologists are pretty certain that they were used to raise pigeons, which are actually a pretty common food in Orvieto, one of the things the city is known for (the others being ceramics, Orvieto classico wine from Trebbiano grapes, and olive oil). The pigeons were self-maintaining, because they would fly out the window that was ever-present to eat, and also bring back food for their young. Unlike other animals such as rabbits, people did not have to put in as much effort to raise them.
After some time the caves reached their final hurrah when the people of Orvieto were forbidden from digging out any more caves due to the instability of the area; landslides, thanks to the instability caused by the caves were increasing and there was fear that the entire city might disappear. Now there are spikes driven through the hill to protect the city, but the caves are now an archeological and historical site as opposed to a functional one.
Orvieto, being a hill town, had beautiful views, and we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and enjoying them before heading back to Florence on the train. Below you can see a convent (I believe) from the hillside where we entered the underground caves.
Orvieto was sacked by the Romans, but the city withstood their attacks for two years thanks to its prime hilltop position: easy to defend. There are walls around the city as well, and facing the train station you can climb atop for the best view of the valley below.
Sometimes living in Florence it’s easy to forget that Italy isn’t really a land of cities. I’m lucky enough to have a view of the hills from my balcony, but visiting a small hill town is a good reminder of what Italian life is really like for most people– in the past, and in the present.