Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Day 2: Orvieto

We do sleep through the night and we hope that jet lag will not pose any further problems. When we open the window, the sky is blue and the sun is shining--this makes me very happy. After breakfast and putting in some time working on the computer, we head out for the Duomo. We take a roundabout route walking through some back streets and through some areas of Orvieto that are new to us. We discover the Palazzo del Popolo, a very imposing medieval building with turrets, a grand staircase (like the one at the palace in Todi) and a large balcony overlooking the piazza.

The Orvieto cathedral is one of the grandest in Italy....the facade is turretted, covered with mosaics, statues, and bas-reliefs as well as a handsome rose window at the top, not a surface is left unadorned. The inside is spare and austere compared to the exterior, but the space is huge. The highlight of the Duomo are the frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio, a masterpiece Last Judgment created by Luca Signorelli in the early 16th century. The frescoes--on the ceiling and high walls of the chapel are vivid cautionary tales about the effects of evil and the devil on the world. They are at the same time realistic representations of the human form combined with fantastical portrayals of devils and hellfire. The frescoes are said to have had a strong influence on Michelangelo's conception of his Last Judgment. The rest of the chapel is covered with a series of representations of famous authors and their works...Dante, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, etc. It is quite overwhelming and fascinating. Our experience was lessened a bit by some confusion in trying to make sense of some of the explanations in the guide book....but even without a precise knowledge of every panel, the effect of the fresco cycle is still powerful.

It rains while we are inside the Duomo but it has stopped by the time we leave. We walk across the piazza to the Faina Museum, primarily a collection of local finds--Etruscan and Greek--from the 5th century B.C. The museum is nicely arranged and there are some spectacular pieces of Etruscan statuary and Greek vases...the vivid sophistication of the decoration and the sculpting is even more amazing when you realize they were produced 2500 years ago. The museum also has some unusually good explanations (in good English as well as Italian) of the how the collection was originally acquired by Faina and his nephew and how the museum developed over the years. Another highlight of the museum is the excellent view of the Duomo facade from the third story windows....a different angle on the statues and the mosaics.

It rains heavily for part of the time that we are in the museum but it is barely drizzling when we we make short stops in a couple of pottery shops. We had neglected to take umbrellas when we went out (the sun was shining brightly) and now the rain begins again in earnest. We try to make it back to the hotel quickly but we are forced to take refuge in an open doorway (it turns out to be a church) to wait out the storm. After about 15 minutes, we hurry back to the hotel and are pretty wet when we arrive. We make a resolution not to travel without an umbrella in the future.

The rain continues so we decide to go out for a leisurely lunch...we take our umbrellas and walk to La Grotta, a trattoria recommended by Slow Food near the Duomo. It is pretty crowded, both with tourists and locals. We are heartened to see a table of five Italian men next to us...figuring that it must be a serious restaurant if the local businessmen patronize it. Lunch is terrific...the proprietor is charming and attentive and the food is excellent. I have a very flavorful zuppa dei ceci (chickpea soup) accented with some terrific local olive oil, followed by sausage and white beans and a delicious plate of swiss chard. Diana has prosciutto and melon (the proprietor explains that the prosciutto is a special type that he gets direct from the producer) and tagliolini with artichokes....heavenly pasta infused with the essence of artichoke - followed by a slice of black cherry tart. We drink a nice, inexpensive half bottle of local wine called Monrubio. Lunch comes to Euro 56 (about $73.00 US)...a good value. The proprietor shakes hands with us on the way out and says he hopes that he will see us next year. I reply that may well return tomorrow. This is a place we will definitely consider going back to....

The rain continues, so after a short rest, we get in the car and head off toward two of the less frequently visited Umbrian hill towns Amelia and Narni. The rain lets up as we approach Amelia and we drive through one of the narrow old gates to the town and head up to the top of the town through some of the narrowest and curviest streets we have experienced in Italy. Driving in Amelia confirms my feeling that almost every Italian town can be negotiated by car even if it looks impossible when you enter the town. If you follow the blue directional traffic arrows, you can be confident that the street will be wide enough to be negotiated by most any car. The problem is more often where to stop as you climb through the town and see a place you want to visit.

After one false start, we reach the top of the town and the cathedral. Parking at the summit is not a problem and we get out for a walk and to visit the Duomo, which turns out to be much more impressive on the outside. A twelve sided tower from the 11th century is particularly striking. There are beautiful views in every direction over the very green Umbrian countryside; we even spot a waterfall on the Nera River far below. The trip down is uneventful--the town's appearance is very austere--and we discover that most of Amelia's commercial district is actually located in the new town, not in the historic center. This explains why we find few stores and places to congregate inside the town. The town walls are reputed to be among the oldest and most impressive in Italy.

Next stop is Narni as the rain picks up again. Narni is another very austere, very medieval town. We head to the top of the town again and drive around the fortifications on top and enjoy the panoramic view of the Umbrian scenery. This time, when we enter the historic center and negotiate the narrow streets, we find that the center of Narni is an active, lively commmercial district. There are a number of small piazzas and squares filled with people (in spite of the rain) and the streets are decorated with colorful flags and banners. The combination of the rain and lack of parking keeps us from getting out and exploring Narni further but we think we got a good feel for the town on our pretty extensive drive through and it is a place we would like to return to someday.

During the first part of the drive back to Orvieto, the rain intensifies. Part of the drive is through a very lovely gorge along the side of the Nera River but as we approach the main highway, the skies open up and some of the roads are flooded....making driving a little tricky. But by the time we reach the autostrada at Orte, the sun has come out and the skies are clearing in the direction of Orvieto. We buy some local strawberries from a truck on the side of the road...they are red and look great, but in fact, they are not that good. With a few exceptions--melons and grapes--we are still looking for the perfect Italian fruit experience.

For dinner, I choose a trattoria called L'Asino D'Oro (The Golden Donkey) for dinner has received glowing writeups in both the Gambero Rosso and Slow Food guides. It is located in small alley just off the main street. It turns out to be a little too " nouvelle" and creative for our tastes...everything is well prepared but the menu is too fussy (and hard to decipher) for us. We eat pretty well--gnudi (the filling of a raviolo without the pasta outside--of ricotta in a fava pesto and olive oil, a sformato (flan) of potatoes and favas with a chickpea sauce and some very good lentils stewed with onions. Diana has a delicous onion and fennel soup...very silken texture...and a roasted pork shank (stinco) which she liked pretty well. Dessert was very good--a soft pudding (vellutata) flavored with zabaglione and cinnamon. We had a half bottle of a very drinkable Rosso di Montefalco. In fact, there was nothing wrong with the dinner, but something was off (for us) in the atmosphere and the style. We seem to do better in less pretentious trattorie. The bill came to Euro 57.00....certainly a bargain if we were eating out at home.

The walk home is pleasant....the rain seems to have departed...and there are more people in the streets, although the town would never be characterized as lively at this hour. We are hoping for bright sunshine tomorrow.


Anonymous Cheryl Alexander said...

Salve Jim,
Loved reading your log of the first two days in Orvieto. It's one of my favorite places, too and reading about the places you are visiting, dining at , etc. I feel like I'm there.

Have you eaten at La Pergola? Always good for lunch. And there's a great little wine bar/restaurant opposite the north side of the Duomo, with an outdoor terrace facing the giant side of the church (can't remember the name). Good service, wine and food... Looks very touristy because of the location, but they are serious about their business. Anyway, have a great trip. Wish I was there! Ciao, Cheryl

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

10:36 AM  

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