The Fortress City – Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Life In Umbria, Italy

My shoulders drifted forward slightly then slammed back into the padded bus seat as our forward momentum temporarily slowed and the driver slipped the bus into gear.  We were crawling up a steep, winding road towards the fortress city of Orvieto.  The road snaked away behind us winding down toward the open valley and the green fields below.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The road was relatively new. For hundreds of years the city had remained largely impregnable and isolated. Aloof on a mostly flat butte, it was encircled entirely by  sheer cliffs. The city was a castle but in place of large stone walls that crawled towards the heavens, Orvieto’s were sheer stone and crumbling boulders which plunged down and into the region’s strong bedrock.  Craning my neck and pressing my face against the glass, I fought to look up at the city as we traced our way up and through the city’s gates.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

As a testament to the power, defensible nature, and storied history of Orvieto, the town’s residents hadn’t been content to simply let nature’s fortress stand as-it-was.  Instead a series of impressive walls were added to the tops of the cliffs further securing the city’s perimeter. This provides a stable series of walkways and viewing platforms for defenders, residents, and visitors alike to traverse in search of one of the many amazing views the city offers.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Orvieto with its battlements and wonderful winding streets has a vibrant history which dates back at least to Etruscan times. While the specifics of history are somewhat murky, it is likely that the city dates back to the 8th century BC and stood as a long-lasting thorn in the side of early Roman dreams of expansion and control. With its proximity to Rome and its position  on the road between Rome and Florence, it likely served as a cornerstone of Etruscan defense during the early Roman/Etruscan wars. Most modern evidence suggests that the city was the Etruscan town of Velzna which played a fundamental role in shaping, trading with, and threatening early Rome.  However, as with most things Roman, persistence and resilience eventually won out and what we know as Orvieto was incorporated into the growing Roman Empire around 250 BC when the city was conquered and razed to the ground.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Once incorporated into Rome the history books go relatively silent about Orvieto’s role, though the location was considered as an alternative to Rome during some of the early Republic’s more flavorful disasters.  Nearly 1,000 years later Orvieto would crash back into history when it was occupied by the Goths. By 600 AD however things started to look up once again for the city as it grew and began to attract wealth.  By the early 1100s the city-state had been heavily reinforced by the now wealthy nobles who quickly sought to curry favor with the Pope.   In the imperial/papal wars the city fell decidedly on the side of the Guelphs or papal faction and was involved in heavy fighting.   This close relationship eventually resulted in the construction of the main cathedral and papal palace. It eventually served as the papal seat in the late 1200s.   This continued in various forms until 1860 when the then Italian Kingdom annexed the city state into what would later become the Italian Republic.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

While this turbulent and violent history was no doubt horrible to live through, it did a lot to shape the city we get to enjoy today. One of Orvieto’s most fascinating and unusual features dates back to the papal rule of Popes Clement VII and Paul III between 1527 and 1537. While taking refuge in the city during the sack of Rome in 1527 Clement decided to build a massive well to ensure the security of the town’s water supply while under siege. The result? The Pozzi di San Patrizio, a 10-year project that dug a 175 foot deep well through the butte’s solid rock. At its bottom, the well’s diameter is 43 feet and it has 248 steps in addition to intertwined stairwells (one to go up, one to go down).

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

As I slowly made my way down the 248 steps which were worn by the passage of tens of thousands of feet over the years I found myself acutely aware that I’d have to re-trace each and every one of those steps on my ascent. Keep in mind that while 175 feet doesn’t sound like THAT large a distance, it’s actually the equivalent of a 17-story building. For perspective, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is only 186 feet tall. The well, with its two wrapped staircases and series of windows in many ways feels like an inverted tower except the walls are symmetrical and straight.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

 The entire experience, especially as I neared the bottom and looked back up towards the tiny pinhole of light at the surface, was fantastic and humbling.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

In addition to Pozzo di S. Patrizio, one of my favorite parts of Orvieto was, well, Oriveto.  The city is a warren of winding narrow streets and beautiful alleyways.  While the city walls and the sheer cliff faces that supported them were ample defense in most cases, the city’s rulers decided not to take any risks.  The result is a series of winding streets which while somewhat confusing also do a brilliant job of adding charm and character to the town.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Character which the city’s residents seem to accidenttly complement brilliantly. While I did observe some young people, the majority of the Orvietians I saw around the city were older folks. In typical Italian form they were dressed sharply despite the rain. Some were just out for a casual stroll, others running errands. The result, though, was a city full of people who seemed to reflect and embody the beauty, history, depth and charisma of their city.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

It’s hard to express why specifically but with each of these individuals I felt a slight sense of sadness at the lack of opportunity to pause and explore a piece of their story. To the slight vexation of our guide I found myself continually falling behind to pause and snap a furtive photo before lowering my camera to my side as I  paused and soaked in the personality of the city and its wonderful people.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

However, of all the streets and people I saw in my time in Orvieto, and perhaps Umbria as a whole, the one that truly stole my heart and made me smile most was this wonderful couple. As they slowly made their way up the street, the older gentleman with a cane in hand and his partner’s arm in the other, took slow but careful steps.  Showing the wear of age, it was obvious that each step took him some effort. As they walked slowly both would sway side to side mirroring his steps.  What caught me in particular was the rhythm they seemed to naturally fall into. With each step they would seamlessly and effortlessly sway one way and then the other.  I couldn’t help but muse that this must be a regular ritual, one that they had repeated for years.  They were in sync with each other.  Aligned. It was a wonderful moment to share, even as an outsider looking in, and one I wouldn’t mind finding myself living some 60 or so years from now.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

For me a special part of Italy’s charm is its age. I just adore the well-maintained, oft-repaired but still crumbling, nature of the cities. Perhaps it’s just because I’m from the American West and I have a novel draw to tangible representations of human history. Perhaps, and I should think far more likely, it is adoration based in the fundamental nature of who we are and how we relate to identity, humanity and society. Of the many doorways I passed as I made my way towards Orvieto’s central cathedral, this one caught my attention: reinforced by metal beams, doors ajar and poorly aligned, bricks showing signs of wear and abuse. This is the type of thing I travel for. A small, easily-overlooked piece of a far grander city but one that entices the passerby who pauses to dream; to embrace fanciful musings and to ponder the history of the door. Who were the men and women who built it, who used it, who abandoned it, and who will some day reclaim it. Doors like this one, perhaps more than others, show the vivid fingerprints of history.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Before long I found myself looking up from my camera viewfinder roused from delightful daydreams only to note that the rest of the group was vanishing down a far alley. It was time to leave Orvieto’s winding vibrant streets behind in favor of an intimate look at the city’s crown jewel: Oriveto Cathedral.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Those familiar with Italy may note that the Cathedral mirrors the feel of Siena’s famed Cathedral which was completed in 1263. In many ways the two are siblings. The Duomo di Orvieto was begun in 1290 but it wasn’t officially completed until 1591. Now, how’s that for extended construction delays?

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

As we slowly explored the fantastic detail of the front facade, I was taken by a wonderful series of carvings depicting the embrace of temptation in the garden of Eden. I am always amazed by the masterful control of fine detail and expansive complexity that marks these types of works. While this picture captures a roughly 1 foot by 1 foot section of the wall, the entire piece towered over our heads at least some 15-20 feet.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The Cathedral features the banded travertine and basalt stripes that make the region’s cathedrals so unique. It always impresses me just how effective the alternating brickwork is in bringing simple, clean, and powerful decoration to what might otherwise be massive but somewhat sterile stone walls.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The colors of the alternating horizontal stones combine with the Cathedral’s plentiful stained glass windows to cast a veritable rainbow of different colors and shapes on the walls of the building.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

…and then there is the size.  The Orvieto Cathedral is built in a cruciform shape and focuses on a wide open and spacious feel with high, graceful arches and long, narrow windows. The builders knew exactly what they were doing and the end result is you feel small.  Very small.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

An assortment of additions, add-ons, and refurbishments have been done over the years. Perhaps the most noteworthy of which was the Papal Palace which was built immediately next to, and attached to, the Cathedral. Today the Papal Palace has an equally important, if far less powerful role as home to a small museum.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The highlight of the Cathedral’s interior is the beautifully preserved Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio. Added in the mid-1400s it features vividly colored depictions of doomsday scenes on the walls while Jesus and wise men look down in judgement from the room’s vaulted ceiling. The scenes are by the famous painter Luca Signorelli.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

This wall depicts “The Elect in Paradise” and shows Signorelli’s depiction of paradise with friendly angels relaxing and playing music for the assembled souls.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Another depicts the “Preaching of the Antichrist”. Apparently this was designed to highlight the execution of Savonarola, who was executed in Florence in 1498 for heresy. Of the figures depicted it is believed that Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, Raphael and even Christopher Columbus are all present.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Signorelli’s mastery of the human figure (though at times somewhat awkward…some of the women look like they have breast implants) is fantastic. Particularly in the diverse nature of each individual’s features. I find that far too often art from this period and in this type of setting tends to take on a sameness. Not so with these. Each could easily be broken down into small sub-scenes and be hailed as a masterpiece in and of itself.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Then there are, of course, the brutal depictions of violence being meted out upon the damned. While I’ve always found these depictions fairly distasteful and morbid, they definitely do succeed in making their point. The vomited laser beams are definitely a nice touch.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Nothing says disaster like people trampling each other in fear, right? The depth of focus, varied body positions and musculature in this scene are fantastic and the seemingly 3D codpieces definitely elicited a slight chuckle from my inner five-year-old.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

My final stop in the Cathedral was the Chapel of the Corporal which serves as home to the blood-stained corporal from the miracle of Bolsena. In addition to the corporal it also boasts a number of beautiful frescoes from the mid-1300s.

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

The partial afternoon I had to explore Orvieto was not nearly sufficient.  Of the many streets I saw and wandered there were many more I missed.  I also missed the opportunity to explore Orvieto’s expansive underground city.  The fortress city is the stuff of legends and a wonderful destination for a visit. The view from the fortress walls is engaging and I think you’ll find the city giving flight to your imagination, especially if you catch it on a day when it isn’t clogged with visiting tourists.

A Traveler’s Journal: Meandering Budapest’s Streets

Wandering Budapest

With its origins dating back to the 9th century, Budapest was officially formed in 1873 when the cities of Buda, Pest and Obuda were unified.  Once hailed as the heart of Europe and the Pearl of the Danube, it can be easy to overlook  Budapest’s rich and influential history.

Castle Hill in Budapest

I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Budapest was a mecca for backpackers and that just about every person I’ve ever met who visited fell in love with the city. Many described it as similar, but uniquely different, from Prague in the Czech Republic, a city I visited in 2007 and found to be absolutely charming. On the other hand I had heard stories of Budapest as a somewhat run down city suffering from significant economic hardship and the post-Soviet woes that came with the USSR’s collapse.

Independence Day in Budapest

The reality of the Budapest I found was a combination of both. As luck would have it, I was in Budapest during Hungary’s independence day which celebrates their attainment of independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. The city was decorated with special Hungarian flags. As you’ll notice in the photo above, taken in front of the Parliament Building, all of the Hungarian flags on display had a circle cut out of the middle to commemorate the removal of the Red Star when they gained independence.

Wandering Budapest

BUDAPEST’S CHARM

While it is obvious that the city is suffering from significant economic woes, it is also nowhere near as dirty, poorly maintained, or shabby as I had been led to expect. In truth, I found the city’s beauty to stretch far beyond the usual tourist attractions bleeding over into the old historic districts. It has a number of picturesque tree-lined boulevards, wonderful old buildings, great parks, and an exciting mixture of architectural styles. It’s also a gorgeous city at night, with many of the buildings boasting well-lit facades that give it a charming, romantic feel.

Wandering Budapest

Mixed in with newly renovated structures and modern buildings there are definite signs of economic woes, but these are being repaired or at the very least, casually maintained. One example I stumbled upon was a largely abandoned shopping mall dating back to the early 1900s – the Parisi Udvar or Parisian Aracade. Every inch of the interior was crafted for beauty with stained glass and marble decorating and lighting nearly every inch. While not something you’ll see in the tour books, a stroll through the building’s main hall is well worth a detour. It can be found at Petofi Sandor utca 2, Budapest 1052, Hungary just off the Ferenciek Tere station.

Wandering Budapest

Budapest’s skyline was one of my favorite aspects of the city. It is often colorful, full of character, and has a vibrant flare to it that really differentiates it from many of the other European cities I’ve visited. It also reflects the feeling of the buildings and city itself – which left me feeling as though I’d partially stepped back in time to the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s hard to put into words but Budapest just has this wonderful romantic feel to it.

New York in Budapest

The city is also home to a number of fantastic hotels with rich histories and a captivating late 19th century ambiance and class. These include the Hotel Astoria (1914), and Boscolo Budapest (1894) which was formerly known as the New York Palace.

Moped Along Budapest's Streets

The nature of transportation in Budapest only serves to add to that historic feeling. It boasts the usual mixture of modern vehicles, mopeds and the rare bicycle. Where it really sets itself apart, however, is its public transportation. The metro lines are small, narrow, and have an aged feel to them which makes sense given that the oldest of the lines, Line 1, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates back to 1896. While a good bit newer, most of the cars – especially those on Line 1 – tend to have a very historical feel. They are small, cramped, extremely narrow, old, loud and completely charming. I would guess that many of the metro-cars date back to the 70s and 80s.  The city also has a series of excellent surface trams which make for easy transport once you figure out the somewhat odd and out-dated paper ticket punch-card system. In short, to use it you buy a paper ticket with 6 boxes at the bottom. Then upon boarding there’s a hole-punch which you use to validate the ticket while trying to avoid tearing it.

Central Train Station in Budapest

I highly suggest a trip to the city’s Central Train Station located on the Pest side of the city. This old building is still in active use and has a lovely feeling to it. While due for restoration, it showcases a mixture of historical design elements and repairs which combine the modern, not-so modern, and old into a delightful mismatch. If you’re like me and love old train stations, I think you’ll get an absolute kick out of this one. Just don’t confuse it with the city’s other train stations which are more modern and far less charming.

Along the Danube

THE DANUBE

The Danube plays a significant role in Budapest’s history, serving as the boundary between Buda and Pest.. The two sides are very similar in many ways, but each has its own unique flavor.  As a major actor in the region’s history, the Danube also serves as home to a mixed assortment of great places to explore.  A walk along the waterfront is an absolute must.  What you’ll find is a number of barges and old riverboats which are semi-permanently moored along the river’s banks. Many have been converted into pubs, restaurants, night clubs and dance halls.

The Lion's Statue on Chain Bridge

As you wander down along the riverfront, you’ll eventually come to the Chain Bridge. The bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and was opened in 1849. Several changes have been made to it over the years, including massive repairs after the Siege of Budapest in World War II. It offers a wonderful view of both Buda and Pest as well as a chance to pose with its famous guardian lion statues.

Hungarian Jewish WWII Memorial

Located just to the north of Chain Bridge is the Hungarian Jewish WWII monument. This monument was incredibly touching, especially given the day’s bleak, rainy weather when I stumbled upon it. A series of bronze shoes are left at the side of the river to commemorate the genocide of Budapest’s jews during WWII. As the story goes, the jews were escorted to the edge of the Danube where they were required to take off their shoes and then shot at the edge of the water so they fell backwards into the Danube which in turn washed the bodies away. The monument was simple, small and sent shivers down my spine.

Saint Stephen's Basilica

CATHEDRALS AND MUSEUMS

What would a post on a great European city be without mention of the city’s grand cathedrals? While Budapest boasts a number of beautiful religious structures one of my favorites is Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Named in honor of Hungary’s first king  (975-1038), the Cathedral is one of the tallest buildings in Budapest and was completed in 1905. Perhaps the most fascinating, and in my opinion disturbing, fact about the Cathedral is what it holds. The Hungarians have held onto St. Stephen’s right hand, the mummified remains of which, are housed within the Cathedral and available for viewing.

Inside Saint Stephen's Basilica

If you’re up for a few steps (364 to be precise), don’t miss the bell towers and dome. One of the interesting aspects of St. Stephens is its exposed double dome. Viewers interested in a spectacular view of the city should head up into the dome and make sure to opt for the stairs for the final leg. The metal staircase winds up through the infrastructure and allows you to look at a cavernous room which features the Cathedral’s inner dome on the bottom, and then it’s free standing upper dome several stories above. Of the many cathedrals I’ve seen, very few actually allow the opportunity to see the exact nature and structure of the building’s dome(s).

Saint Stephen's Basilica

Once you’ve had a chance to view Budapest from above, head back down into the Basilica and enjoy the beautiful interior. I’ve always found that some cathedrals feel larger from the outside, and others from within. Saint Stephen’s Basilica falls into the second category and is bound to leave you feeling awed by it’s impressive size and scale.

Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts

Another must visit is the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. A palatial building with a beautiful interior it not only boasts a impressive collection of fine paintings, it also serves as home to the second largest Egyptian collection in Europe and a wonderful mixture of Roman and Greek pieces.

Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts

A beautiful sprawling building built with high ceilings, grand halls, and an abundance of open space, the walls of the Museum of Fine Art are filled with works from some of history’s greatest names including El Greco, Bellini, Velazquez, Goya, Raphael, da Vinci, and Rembrandt among many, many others.

Independence Day in Budapest

Budapest is a fantastic city to wander. During my week there I sampled many of its delightful charms, but lacked the time or good weather to properly explore many others. I can tell you one thing for certain – I fell in love with Budapest and cannot wait to return. The food was good, the city beautiful, and its winding, historical streets an absolute delight. The people were friendly and helpful.

Stay tuned for the next post in my series from Budapest during which I share my days spent exploring Budapest’s castles and palaces! Also, make sure not to miss my post Caving Deep Beneath Budapest – My First Brush With Claustrophobia.

Have a question or considering a trip to Budapest?  Let me know and I’d love to answer it!