Saturday, April 9, 2011

An Umbrian Visit

My aunt and uncle made it to Italy!
Leaving Naples, Paige, Julia and I headed up to the region of Umbria, with a stop-off at the Rome airport to pick up my very tired aunt and uncle, Katrina and Mike. Having had a couple of hours at the airport to wait on us, they were falling asleep atop their luggage. We were able to remedy that quite easily just by putting them in the car. It's impossible to sleep your first time on Italian roadways as you quickly realize that by staying awake, you may get that life flash that comes just before certain death.

Umbria is the sister to Tuscany, lesser known and visited, but with charming towns to explore. Orvieto was our destination, mainly due to it's closeness to Rome as we had only one night before returning to Rome. We booked into B&B Villa degli Ulivi, located just outside Orvieto's city walls, a beautiful, clean hotel with gorgeous views over the Umbrian countryside...and parking for my big, fat American car, which came in handy with five adults, four of whom had suitcases and carry-ons packed for their two week vacations. After settling into our hotel, we started up the hill to the escalator. Orvieto is so high up that you actually take an escalator to get into town! But up on the hilltop, we found a town just like the ones depicted in the movies, with stony, ocher-colored walls, flowers spilling from planters, cobblestone streets, and a main piazza complete with a fancy Duomo.

Orvieto is home to one of Italy's best known duomos, which was begun in the late 1200s, but took almost 300 years to complete...and it's huge, bronze doors weren't added until 1960. While the building is mostly stripes of black and white marble, the facade is an active riot of mosaics and sculptures. The interior is mostly bare, but features the intense, side chapel: Chapel of San Brizio, an absolute must-see. If anyone's read Frances Mayes's delightful Every Day in Tuscany, you'll recall her near obsession with the artist Luca Signorelli. I have not seen much of Signorelli's work, but I have to believe that the Chapel of San Brizio must have been one of his masterpieces. Signorelli is said to have influenced the younger Michelangelo, and gazing around this room, it's easy to see why. An entire room of frescoes, each showing a part of the Apocolypse - the whole story is there, covering the walls and ceiling. One wall shows signs of the end times and include an eclipse, tsunami, earthquakes, and violence in the streets - chilling given the images on the news each night. The frescoes are brilliant in color and captivating in their detail...and it was painted over 400 years ago.

Following our Duomo tour, we headed across the piazza for our tour of Orvieto's underground, with Paige electing to stay topside. We turned out to be the only ones signed up for the late afternoon, English tour, so we had our own personal tour guide - and avoided the bane of every guided tour group...that one person who just will not shut up. We found out that Orvieto's past residents, set atop a cliff with no water source, had done things like dig caves underneath their houses, and in some places, dug wells down to the bottom of the cliff for a water source during sieges. The result is that Orvieto is now on top of a honeycomb rather than solid cliff, and the outer cliff walls keep crumbling. Not something I really needed to know about until we were no longer underground. But our guide was fabulous in showing us a few of the caves, their staircases upward that once led into the homes of the owners, and the pigeon holes that provided a living for those folks lucky enough to have their very own cave. Pigeons were both a food source and something to sell, and they always returned to their own little hole in their own little cave. The caves we saw with the pigeon cubbies were located right on the outer wall, most with a little window cut into the cliff - the following day, on our drive out of town, we were on a road with a viewpoint to those very same caves:

Back in the piazza, we picked up Paige, and with the weather turned freezing, headed for a light dinner and bed. We ate at an internet cafe/restaurant that was a one-stop shop of pastries, light food options, local wine, and hot chocolate. A perfect end to the day.

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