The view is stunning. It is, hands down, one of my favorites in Italy. The ride up alla Funicloare (or the cliff railway) brings you to the unassuming station where you have two choices: either up or down. A short walk around the corner and then it hits you. A view of Umbria that you can see for miles. A thousand feet below, the town, vineyards, and rolling hills are painted out in colors of sienna, green, tan, and misty blue. You stare. Then the pictures start. But no frame can capture the true beauty or essence of this place. That is why you have to go.
The realization that there is a entire town to see is the only justification for turning your back on this beautiful sight. Up the hill, where modern asphalt meet cobblestone streets, you pass by the familiar mosaic of cream, pink, and sienna houses. Small shops and eateries occupy most first floors of the two to three story structures. The rare glimpse of a side street or alleyway hints at the lives that are lived behind the buildings facades. The main street, Corso Cavour, carries natives and visitors alike into the heart of town. Making your way past the open doors (and then others who look like they haven't been opened in a century) you will inevitably drift into one or more of the shops. You will find culture and cliches in equal measure. Hand-painted ceramics will grace shop entryway displays and a "Welcome to Oz" sign will point you in the direction of a fabulous toy store. Don't question it, just smile. It is a bit of an uphill trek to the crown jewel of the town: The Orvieto Cathedral. It was founded in 1290 and its highlight is the Cappella del San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli's frescoes of the Judgment and Resurrection. The church itself is striped in white travertine and greenish-black basalt in narrow bands. (If you are having a hard time envisioning it, think of a zebra.)
After visiting the cathedral, get lost. I'm truly serious. The magic of the town is in its nooks and crannies, its alleyways and forgotten staircases. If I can give you only one piece of advice it would be: take the side streets. The iconic charm of Umbria will be there to greet you at every turn. And don't worry too much about finding your way. The bells from.the clock tower will be there to guide you back. Once you put the buzz of Corso Cavour's shops and tourists behind you, you start to see the Orvieto that Italians call home. I wandered my way up to the empty balcony of the Piazza del Popolo or Peoples Palace. Overlooking the town's rooftops and then down to the piazza below, I felt like a fly on the wall of this town on a hill. If the cathedral is the crown jewel of Orvieto then the crown on which it shines is its people. The day to day life of Orvieto's people, who are seemingly unencumbered by the influx of tourists that inevitably make their way up this old volcanic tuff, seem measured and natural. Neighbors greet neighbors, friends meet for lunch, and children play in the piazzas. It's the familiar motions and flow of the town that is so endearing. Orvieto's obvious Italian charm incorperated with its Etruscan past makes this town a true gem. The distant past and present visually collide in Orvieto's architecture and design. It is a town that was once a near impregnable fortress. What remains of Fortezza dell'Albornoz stands to remind us of that as you make your way back down to the bottom of the hill.
Returning to the unassuming station where you have two choices, either up or down, you realize something. "Up" is ascending a thousand feet from the valley below with curiosity and anticipation. "Down" is a trip that feels twice as long and is tinted with the regret that you have to leave but comforted by the promise that you will one day return.