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.
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.

While exploring the nuances of the Duomo’s design I happened upon a small restaurant tucked away in a corner of the Cathedral grounds. Trattoria Vinosus has a small, unassuming sign and torn menu advertising it’s creative Umbrian cuisine and outdoor terrace.

After settling in with a bottle of mineral water and a glass of Orvieto I took a brief look at the menu before settling on two dishes that seemed to bring together unusual yet classical elements of the Italian kitchen.  My fist dish was gnocchi with braised tripe and pecorino cheese. The gnocchi were light but chewy and worked as a fine canvass for the slightly chewy, sweet and richly flavored snippets of tripe. Generously topped with pecorino cheese that served as a sharp accent for the warm, earthy flavors of the dish this was a wonderful start to my meal.

My second was rabbit done in the style of porchetta, that is, boned, rolled and tied. The meat was moist and perfumed in a nice reduction sauce. Flavored with olives, this was not quite at the level of the gnocchi, though the execution was excellent, the flavor of the rabbit was somewhat lost in behind those of the olives and the sauce. While I am nit-picking, and enjoyed the dish, I am not sure I would order it again.

Which is not to say I would not return to Vinosus. In fact during my next visit to Orvieto I hope to spend the night and visit Vinosus for dinner, hopefully with friends so we can take advantage of their not inconsequential winelist. I hope there is not going to be a fire in the hearth anytime soon, as I have my eyes of some of the magnums that are currently on display there!

In fact I hope my next visit to Orvieto allows me to spend several days there, taking advantage of all the sights, I simply missed the vast majority of them from all the great Churches and palaces to the mysterious underground caverns and ancient ruins, to the wonderful array of wines, meats, and cheese. Orvieto is wonderful for a day trip, if that’s all the time you can spare, but I really think it deserves a whole lot more.

Did you miss the first articles in this series?

Find them here.

Part One: Arrival and Montalcino

Part Two: Getting settled in Greve

Part Three: Tasting Chianti

Part Four: The Hill Top Village of Montepulciano

Part Five: The Wines of Montepulciano




Part Six: Driving and Dining in Umbria

Part Seven: The Sagrantino of Montefalco - Adanti