ORVIETO, ITALY, December 17, 2016 – Imagine a city situated atop a huge flat summit of volcanic rock, or “tuff,” rising above seemingly vertical cliffs establishing an impregnable fortress to protect its citizens. Seems unimaginable but there is such a place: Orvieto in southwestern Umbria.
By virtue of its location, Orvieto is one of the most dramatic sites for a city in Europe. And yet, though situated along the main road between Rome and Florence, it is somehow frequently overlooked by travelers.
Whether you arrive by car, train or funicular, the first thing you notice about Orvieto today is the peaceful, almost sleepy, surroundings of this once mighty fortress that used to be a sanctuary that protected several popes.
Annexed by Rome in the third century BC, Orvieto was last conquered by Julius Caesar. As such, it has had hundreds of years to become complacent about its fortifications, which would certainly be a cause for its contemporary serenity.
At one time, toward the end of the 13th century, Orvieto counted a population of approximately 30,000 inhabitants. It was considered a major cultural center during its heyday thanks, in large part, to the reputation of Thomas Aquinas who taught at the studium there.
A studium was a university organized during the High Middle Ages for the purposes of advancing higher learning.
The 13th century also brought visits by several popes to Orvieto and, except for Viterbo and later Avignon (France), it was the only city outside of Rome to have a papal palace.
Among the most notable landmarks in modern Orvieto is the cathedral which is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, a celebration that has had considerable importance for the city. Pope Nicholas IV laid the cornerstone of the cathedral on November 15, 1290.
Pope Nicholas IV laid the cornerstone of the cathedral on November 15, 1290.
Striped in white travertine and greenish-black bands of basalt, the Cathedral of Orvieto follows the tradition of several other cathedrals from that era situated in central Italy. The most striking resemblance is that of the nearby Cathedral of Siena.
With five bells tuned in E flat, the cathedral dates back to the Renaissance and has become a popular venue for weddings in the region.
Various popes made their way to and from Orvieto from the 13th to the 16th centuries. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement took refuge in Orvieto and commissioned a 200 foot well, known affectionately as the “Well of St. Patrick.” in order to provide sufficient water to the city.
Among the most interesting aspects of Orvieto is the labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves that lie beneath the surface of the modern village. The underground city can only be visited in a guided tour, but it is well worth it with more than 1,200 tunnels, galleries, wells, stairways, quarries, cellars, passageways, cisterns and, even, small nooks for pigeon roosts.
The underground city was constructed over the centuries by noble families who had the means to use their subterranean homes as escape routes should a siege ever take place. The tunnels led from the city palace to a number of safe exits that provided freedom a considerable distance from the city.
Two other projects included the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo which was built on the same site as the original palace and the Fortezza dell’Albornoz that was constructed under orders from Pope Innocent VI.
The huge Fortress Albornoz began in the mid-14th century near the town cemetery in order to offer a secure location for the church as well as to allow the cardinal and his captains a place to consolidate their military victories.
While the remnants of its history remain, Orvieto today is a city filled with cobblestone streets and shaded paths that guide travelers past ancient walls. Orvieto is roughly circular in design, so it is easy to enter from one direction, exit from another and see the entire city in a single visit.
Next time you are in Florence headed toward Rome, or vice-versa, be sure to savor a few delicious moments in Orvieto.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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