This is another entry you can file under we-wouldn't-have-gone-if-we-hadn't-made-friends-here. We'd never heard of Orvieto and had no intention of visiting it, but one of our new friends, Dan, used to study there and said it was definitely worth a visit. He said he was going to do a day trip and would show us the sights if we wanted to go. Free tour guide? We're there.
A couple friends from the church group came with us with Dan leading the way. The possible number of travelers
had swelled to 10 at the haircut party last night, but homework, uncancelable plans, and the early departure time weeded out the maybes. We hopped on the train to the region of Umbria not knowing exactly what to expect.
Orvieto was built on a hill made of volcanic ash which made it extremely porous. They had to dig down a long ways to reach water and the difficulty in obtaining it made the city vulnerable to siege. Sure, they were in a good position to defend themselves on the top of these steep cliffs, but they couldn't survive a long, drawn-out siege with a limited water supply. The town is not the easiest to get up to. We had to ride a funicular to get up there. This video shows just how scary that can be...
Since the town is up so high, you can get a great view of the surrounding area. You would almost think that we were up high enough that we
wouldn't need to climb something. Well, you would think. But Dan managed to find us a tower to ascend. While our spot on the ground gave us a good look over the city walls to the area below, our view from the Torre del Moro bell tower gave us a look over the town itself. Yes, I said bell tower, and yes, it's still operational. As we found out the hard way. You know when you hear a church bell ringing out in the distance and you can hear it from pretty far away? There's a reason for that. They strike them hard and it's just a little bit (ok, a lot bit) loud standing right next to one when it decides it's time to be heard.
You could get a good look at the duomo from up there and of course we went to check it out. I've completely lost track of how many churches we've stepped foot in over the course of our trip so far, but I'd put the number
somewhere between a lot and too many. Each one keeps on surprising me with little things that make them stand out from the others. In this case there were a few things (like the giant wooden rafters or the chapel with scenes from Revelation), but the one that stuck out to me was the alabaster panels in the windows. The cathedral in Orvieto is so old [blogees: "How old is it?"] [bloger: Stop interrupting.], it's so old that it was constructed before stained glass was commonly found in churches. In its place, they used thin pieces of alabaster. The result is a soft glow from the translucent panels that allow light in, but keep the interior cooler. From the outside it appears that the windows are covered in concrete or stone, but inside the effect is beautiful.
There are quite a few streets in Orvieto, but what you can see when you walk around above ground is only half the story. The people of Orvieto were diggers. They liked to make tunnels and there are more tunnels
underneath the city than roads above. Part of the reason is that it was cooler underground and so a lot of the work of the city was done there. Also, because the caves maintained a constant temperature and there was a lot of humidity it was a perfect place for storing wine and olive oil. Some of the passageways are escape tunnels that lead from underneath the noble's homes away from the city for use in times of siege. The caves and tunnels are only open to the public through a guided tour. We were lead through a small section of the caves and saw a number of the rooms, tunnels and stairways under the city. Dan told us that one time when he was down here, he lagged behind a little taking photos and the group left him. They locked the door and shut off the lights. Not cool. They came back for him when his friends
realized he was no longer with them, but needless to say, I didn't stray too far from the pack when I was snapping my photos.
Before heading back we did some more climbing, but this time in the opposite direction. We went down 200 feet to the bottom of the Pozzo di Saint Patrick - a well that Pope Clement VII had constructed so he'd have plenty of water in the event of an attack. The well has stairways (more like small, ramped steps) that run around the outside of it that are lit by 72 internal windows open to the central column of the well. The design is completely unique in that there are two intertwined spiral stairways forming what is called a double helix (like a strand of DNA).
The result is that there is one stairway that leads down and a different one that leads back up. This allowed them to send mule-drawn carts down one passageway without colliding with the ones coming back up the other. We just liked to stick our heads out the windows and take pictures. Ironically, the builders didn't strike water until 10 years after the project had started and by that time the pope was dead. Just like the old saying: you can't dig your well and drink from it too. Actually, I think I just made that up. But I'm going to start using it.
We really liked Orvieto. It was oozing with interesting things to see and experience around every corner - above and below ground. Thanks, Dan, for organizing the trip and being our guide for the day. I'm sorry we don't tip well.J