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Walking along the Via Romea Germanica from Stade, near Hamburg, in Germany south through Austria and Italy to Rome.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Orvieto – 2 rest days – 99, & 100 exploring and resting.

As I said in the last post Orvieto is a town of surprises too.  I had no idea of it’s history, and so in between resting and eating I have had a lovely time exploring – above, and below, ground. 

The most obvious thing as one approaches the town is that it is built on, what we called in geography, a table mountain, with sheer cliffs on all sides.  I have subsequently learnt that this cliff is made of an igneous volcanic rock called tuff.  The buildings above ground are made of tuff, which to my eyes looks a lot like the sandstone we have in buildings in Adelaide.  Sometimes it is various shades of grey in colour, but mostly it is a beautiful warm sandy colour.  The blocks that are used in the buildings are very symmetrical, rather than rough hewn like the sandstone often is.  They look as if they have been sawn. 
 Here you can see the "clean cut"  tuff bricks......  

 .....and the beautiful sandy colour of the tuff.
 Using the walls and added bricks to make a fortress.

Where does the tuff come from?  Below the town!  I took myself off on a tour called Orvieto underground.  Here I learnt that there are many caves under the town.  We were shown a couple of caves that actually belong to the town, but there are hundreds, indeed around 1,200, caves below the town.  The caves were originally dug by the Etruscans, the ancient people who habited this area prior to the Romans, to carry water.  Nowadays every house above ground has a cave below ground with the entrance being in the house, and the cave being mostly used for storage – of wines, oils, vegetables etc.  The Etruscans were forced from the town and moved some twenty kilometres away to Bolsena, establishing a new capital there, and when the Romans reigned here the caves became abandoned more or less till the Middle Ages. They have never been lived in as the humidity can at times reach 87%. 

In the Middle ages many of the caves with outside openings were used as pigeon houses.  Pigeons served several purposes – the droppings made good fertiliser, they were free to roam through the openings and find their own food – but always returned home, and they were a good source of food for residents in time of war.  At one point the tunnels were filled in to prevent invading armies gaining access to the town.  The uses of the caves were numerous.  I visited another cave which had been used as a kiln for making pottery, and another which was used for pressing olive oil and another for wine.   To my way of thinking the caves also in a way served as a quarry, with the stone removed from the caves being used for the buildings above.  
 inside the cave with a tuff brick pillar and the holes for the pigeons

A map of the caves - the aves are the red dots!

I went “underground” in another way too.  Visiting the famous Pozzo di San Patrizio (St Patrick’s Well) going some 53 metres down inside the well,  via the 2 staircases, one down and one up, with 248 steps.   The reason for the two staircase (a double helix) was to enable pack animals to go down and up with out causing a traffic jam.  The are 72  windows in the well to allow some illumination, though by the time one reaches the bottom it would be pretty dark without the modern lighting installed.  The diameter of this amazing cylindrical hole is 13 metres.  The well was commissioned by the then current Pope (Clement VII) back in 1537 in case war broke out and the town had no access to fresh water.  I was secretly quite pleased on the ascent passing people much younger than me who had to stop on the climb to rest!

St Patrick's Well with its stairs and windows.


Orvieto is famous for its Duomo (Cathedral), which is undoubtedly deserving of its fame.  On the exterior the coloured mosaics are spectacular.  The colours are bright, and clear, and very eye catching.  The striped exterior reminds me of the Sienna Duomo, but inside the simplicity is a delight.  I loved this simplicity, having been told by someone the night before that inside the cathedral is underwhelming, until one reaches the front of the building.  Here there are the most beautiful frescoes.  

I had a coffee with an Englishman, a regular visitor to Orvieto, who told me the story of how the town, and in particular the Duomo, survived the war.  Apparently, as the English army approached from one direction, and the American on another, the Bishop went to the German commander telling him that they had no hope of winning – the armies were very close.  He requested that they save the town, especially the Duomo.  Consequently, later,  the allies saw a jeep approaching with a white flag waving, and were presented with a letter from the Bishop explaining what he had requested.  The arrangement was that the German army would go some miles up the road (I think about 20kms) where the conflict would begin again – the town was saved!

 Inside and outside the the Duomo, with its wonderful mosaics on the the outside and frescos on the inside.


Frescos inside Orvieto's oldest church - San Giovanale

This is a lovely town.  It is clean, friendly, full of tourists during the day, but the locals come out at night and early in the morning when the vast majority of tourists have gone or are yet to appear.  It is a delight to see them chatting with each other, sitting on the seats watching passers by, and greeting their friends.   I am so glad I spent and extra day here.  Tomorrow I head off again, with only about 8 days of walking to reach Rome – a city that I am now seeing signs pointing the way.  


  1. Back in Adelaide town, the fire's on, the weather is, well, wintery ie: cold, wet & windy.
    Time now to catch up on your very big adventure. We also loved those surprise package Italian villages, you never know what's around the corner.
    Continued happy travels & now I head back into your blog for further discoveries.

    1. looking forward to exchanging news. Not far to go now. Today I join the Via Francigena, and then it is walking where I have walked before - with slight changes (improvements)