Inquire about where the best place to see Christmas in Italy and many will enthusiastically tell you “Rome, it’s where the celebration started!” Or, “Naples, where they have the most elaborate nativity scenes!” And mostly, “Bolzano, where they have the best Christmas Markets!” Of course, I’m leaving a lot of others out like Perugia, Turin, etc, but you get the point.
Since this was our second and last Christmas in Rome we wanted to get another sample of what another Italian town is like during the holidays. As I said, Bolzano is the popular choice, plus we haven’t been to the Dolomites yet. Unfortunately, the idea tanked when we discovered the trains coming back to Rome were completely booked. So if you ever plan on going to Bolzano during the holidays, book well in advance. Our next thought was Naples, but a friend who had visited the weekend before said the crowds in the historic center were stacked like bowling pins. No grazie, we’ll try another time. But the solution was easy. Orvieto. An immaculate medieval city perched on a hill overlooking the Umbrian countryside. Only a ninety minute drive north (also accessible by train), easy parking, fantastic food, gorgeous architecture, unique shopping, perfect, perfect, perfect.
I have tried and failed to visit Orvieto twice before. The first time, I blame the weather. A cloudy day turned into a monsoon the moment we parked the car. We ducked into a restaurant and tried to wait the storm out during lunch. After a few hours we cut our losses and headed back home. The second time was last spring when I managed to injure myself the night before, so I had to send my husband and guests to go without me. I’m glad they had a nice time, but seeing their pictures and hearing about their handmade pasta made me a little huffy. Hopefully you guys don’t feel that way about me.
This time though, this was my time. All muscles and bones were in working order. I checked three different websites to confirm the weather would be cloudy, but not rainy. The camera was charged and complete with memory card. All gloves, hats, scarves, and coats were in place. Orvieto would not win this time, and things finally went as planned.
A bit of Orvieto history: On the surface this is a Medieval/Renaissance town. But its history actually goes back to Etruscan times, when it was the political and religious capital for hundreds of years. Because it’s surrounded with sheer cliffs and able to sustain itself through wells and storage, it took the Romans two bloody years to conquer the city. Once conquered, it was flattened and used as a trading post until the fall of the empire. Orvieto later entered it’s golden age during the middle ages when it became a wealthy trading center and a favorite escape for Popes. The Popes of this era rewareded the city by building palaces, monuments, fountains, and the famous Duomo, which is the masterpiece of the town. There was even some talk in the mid-1500s about moving the Papacy to this location permanently. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Since we arrived around lunchtime we began our day with lunch at Trattoria del Moro, near the center of the town. Orvieto is part of the CittaSlow, or Slowfood movement. Which basically means they have pledged to keep things traditional, make food with regional ingredients, and do their best to maintain their heritage. I’m not saying that every restaurant and shop in Orvieto is authentic and worth your money, but a CittaSlow certification does mean that the city expects certain standards, which only benefits us travelers.
Happily, I can report back that Orvieto does not disappoint. We had a lovely long lunch of Pappardelle alla Cinghiale (wild boar ragu, my favorite pasta dish), wine, and some the best tiramisu we’ve had yet. Lunch alone is worth the trip here.
After lunch we wondered the chilly December streets, and window shopped where we could since most of the shops were closed for the afternoon. We noted the places where it looked like the night markets were setting up, and where to come back to later in the afternoon, and made our way to Piazza del Duomo so I could finally set my eyes on the Cathedral that I tried to see twice before. Worth it.
I love Italy in all seasons, but from a tourist’s perspective, I really love Italy during the winter. It’s cold and rainy, but tour buses and cruises usually don’t bother this time of year, which decreases the crowds exponentially. I could never takethis picture of a famous cathedral during April-October:
The cathedral was commissioned and begun in 1290 by the Pope, during an era when Popes would spend most of their time in Orvieto. It took three hundred years, and thirty three architects to complete, which was average for the time. The result is stunning, with solid gold mosaics, thousands of frescoes, stained glass windows, and marble carvings in every color. The cathedral in Siena is still my favorite, but this one is definitely in my top five.
If you ever visit do not miss the frescoes in the transcepts. Pictures are not allowed here, or else I would show you. These side rooms are gorgeous yet cautionary with huge gory frescoes of purgatory. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I always find art depicting damnation interesting.
While there was still daylight we walked to one of the overlooks about a hundred yards to the right of the cathedral. From here we could see some of the castles that were set up for defense during more violent times.
We meditated on one of the benches and somehow began planning our next trip. There are several places I’d like to see that we didn’t get a chance to on this trip. Like the labyrinth of Etruscan tunnels underneath the city. Tours leave several times a day and can be inquired about at the ticket office in front of the Duomo. We also really want to see Pozzo di San Patrizio. It’s really just a well, but during the Renaissance they commissioned two double helix stairways that never intersect to spiral up and down the well to accommodate one-way traffic. Before you roll your eyes at me, take a look at the pictures, they’re impressive. The Pope’s palace, and several restaurants also made the list. But that is for next time, this time we were here to experience Orvieto the weekend before Christmas, and the shops were finally opening up again.
We began on the “Street of the Artisans” officially known as Via dei Magoni, not far from the Duomo. Need a handwoven wrap for grandma, a painting for your sister, a puppet for your nephew, or a set of olive wood bowls for your mom, this street will take care of that. I may have left with my own olive wood bowl that is now proudly displaying clementines on my kitchen table.
Now that the sun was almost down the evening Passeggiata had begun. We joined in and strolled the streets like locals. This was the real reason for our visit.
After we reached the opposite end of town we turned around made our way down Corso Cavour, a pedestrian road that runs right down the center of town. We continued our browsing, and picked up a few more future birthday gifts (our Christmas shopping was done and it was way too late to ship anything back home), stopped for an appertivo, and pointed out things to each other that we really could live without.
Once the shops began closing, we chose to head back to the parking lot. Another meal was tempting, but we were still full from our late lunch and happy to leave it there. Our trip was a success. We saw a beautiful Italian hilltown during the Christmas Season, and best of all we left feeling relaxed and not frazzled. Not once did we have to wait in line, or push through a crowd, or deal with a trains/planes/or traffic. Plus we know we are coming back, so there wasn’t that bittersweet silent farewell moment we usually have when we leave a city. I will miss the Christmas lights though, the streets will seem a little bare without them next time.
If you find yourself looking for a daytrip outside of Rome, or a stop between Rome and Florence, I highly recommend Orvieto. It doesn’t disappoint.
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