Italy in Nine Parts- Orvieto

The sights and sounds of centuries


Orvieto is one of Italy’s grandest hilltop towns. It remains as a large and bustling testament to the long and important history these hubs of commerce played in the growth, and development, of the region. If anyone has any doubts as to the importance of Orvieto, and the wealth it once controlled, a stop by the Duomo is in order.  This gothic Cathedral is absolutely stunning. After a recent restoration the detail of its construction, and amazingly vibrant, painted and gilt facade will be sure to capture your imagination.

I was only able to spend an afternoon in Orvieto, but I was so impressed with the sights and sounds, not to to mention the smells and flavors, that I've added a return trip to my calendar for, well, for as soon as possible, which will not be soon enough!

What to expect: Orvieto

Orvieto lends its name to one of Italy’s best-known white wines.  The wine called Orvieto, while initially famous as a slightly sweet wine, is now almost always dry, crisp and light. With subtle honey and herbal tones that float above a core of white fruits, and a trademark hint of bitter almond on the finish, Orvieto is easy to pair with lighter fare.
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In the center of town on finds the Piazza della Republica, with it’s 16th century palace forming a gateway into the heart of the old city. Flanking the palace one finds a marvelous 12th century twelve-sided tower, the Torre Civica, which was co-opted centuries ago as the bell tower for the adjacent church of Sant’Andrea.

While the outdoor terrace was off-limits on this somewhat cool November afternoon, the very attractive dining room of Vinosus was open and happily accommodating clients. Ornate yet stylish it was welcoming and warm.

While the true designer of this Gothic masterpiece is lost to time, some say it was Lorenzo Maitani other Arnolfo di Cambio, but whoever brought together the disparate elements of Byzantine and Northern European design and unified them created a touchstone for the Italian Gothic style.

While the Duomo is certainly the architectural star of Orvieto there is much to see in this modestly sized city. In classic Italian style one finds layers upon layers of history and styles packed onto this relatively small hilltop. While the hilltops of Italy offered their inhabitants plenty of protection from invaders and conquerors, they didn’t off much room to grow!

Passing under the main arch of the Palazzo Communale one enters the old city of Orvieto, older being of course relative in Italy.  On these cobble stone streets the vendors of today’s goods, both those supplying the inhabitants of this vibrant city and those feeding the endless stream of tourist occupy roads and alleys that seem to wind back through the centuries as you make you way deep into the medieval quarter of Orvieto.

One of the ancient gems of Orvieto, the Church of San Giovenale, lies perched on the western edge of the town. With origins dating back to the turn of the millennium, we’re talking 1000 AD, here, upon foundations that date even further back in time; this is one of the oldest buildings in Orvieto. While the Church was expanded into its present layout in the 13th century, it retains many of its original features and houses extensive period frescos.

Almost as impressive as the frescos is the view from the grounds of the Church. From this vantage point one can see the tufo cliffs that have protected Orvieto through the ages as well as the broad, flat plains at the base of these cliffs that served the city well, supplying the fruits, vegetables, and grains that allowed Orvieto to become self-sufficient.

A city meant for walking delights all the senses

Trattoria Vinosus
The grounds of the Duomo hold many secrets. One worth sharing is the restaurant Vinosus that is tucked away by the northwest corner of the Duomo. A great wine list paired with fine food, and even an outdoor terrace for dining in the warmer months, makes Vinosus a must visit restaurant in Orvieto.

See all Orvieto offers

Once you are done taking in the historical sites and dining in Orvieto you might be tempted to do some shopping. Being a moderately large town, and popular tourist destination, Orvieto is full of fine shops. Many specialize in the region’s famed ceramics, but my favorites feature the flavors of Umbria.

Orvieto reached its peak of power and prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries and was able to build this grand cathedral to celebrate a miracle, or sorts.

As the story goes a priest, skeptical that the Holy Communion was in fact the body of Christ was visiting the neighboring town of Bolsena. During mass, while reaching for bread to use for communion, the priest noticed that the bread had bled blood onto the cloth holding it. He went on to Orvieto with his blood stained cloth just as the Pope was visiting. Obviously such a miraculous and holy relic required a glorious and imposing hhome. Thus was born the Cathedral of Orvieto.

The details that make up the faced of the church are simply astounding. One can spend hours absorbing the nuanced effect that was achieved through the combined use of various building materials, carvings, paint, gold leaf and stained glass.  It’s easy to dismiss the cathedral if you come apon it from the sides, it’s simple striped appearance striking yet seemingly unremarkable, but the longer one spends absorbing the design the more amazing the whole becomes.

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  • Snooth User: randy13
    215705 5

    Once again I had to stop work to read this article.
    I was in Umbria, and I did visit Orvieto, just beautiful. Thanks!

    Dec 24, 2009 at 1:33 PM

  • Snooth User: flyer
    244001 1

    I spent two weeks in Orvieto, sampling the cuisine, and certainly the local wines, at harvest.
    Such bounty, and such friendly people! It is a slightly less expensive destination than more trendy Tuscany, which is but a short drive away.
    Definately "bucket-list worthy"!

    Dec 24, 2009 at 3:02 PM

  • We visited Orvieto a few years ago, and loved it. Don't miss the underground tour of the Tufa caves, under the city, in which people lived from Etruscan times, through WWII, up until the 1950's! The hilltop views are wonderful!

    Dec 24, 2009 at 4:33 PM

  • Snooth User: Judge Rock
    Hand of Snooth
    205218 19

    we visited Orvieto in 2006 while staying at Montefalco- loved the town and the grape variety of the same name excellent warm climate white wine

    Dec 24, 2009 at 7:53 PM

  • My wife and I stopped in Orvieto on our way from Toscana to Calabria to board our flight home in the US. It was brief, just a quick lunch stop. The food and wine were superb at this small unimposing restaurant. We plan to make a trip soon to explore this interesting town and hopefully find that restaurant again.

    Dec 25, 2009 at 2:17 PM

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