When we need to get out of Rome for a few hours, we often drive an hour or so north to Orvieto for lunch. Orvieto’s old town rises almost vertically from the valley below to perch on volcanic rock some 1,000 feet above the autostrada between Rome and Florence. The view of Orvieto from the autostrada is dramatic, and we had passed the hill town countless times, remarking that we must stop there sometime, before finally visiting in May 2013. Since then, we’ve been back a few times, and when Charlie, my brother-in-law, visited in September, I put Orvieto on our itinerary for our Sunday lunch stop as we returned from Tuscany.
Orvieto has great food and wonderful white wine (Orvieto Classico) and the people there are friendly and outgoing, but the big draw is its magnificent cathedral. Construction of the Duomo began in 1290, and the cathedral was finally finished three centuries later. The Gothic façade always takes my breath away—it is one of the most stunning in Italy! The brilliantly colored mosaics, which depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, steal the show, at least from a distance. But as you get closer, you notice more amazing details, such as the huge, intricate bas reliefs (depicting stories from the Bible) at the base of the four broad marble pillars, the 24 statues of the prophets and the apostles that surround the rose window near the top, and the intricate stonework around the bronze doors.
The nave inside the Duomo is surprisingly empty, especially compared with other Italian churches built at the same time. According to the brochure about the Duomo, the side aisles originally had ten small chapels decorated with altars and paintings, and statues of the Apostles stood in the nave. In a classic understatement the brochure says, “This phase was dismantled in the second half of the 19th century when a radical ‘restoration’ was undertaken.”
My favorite part of the interior is the Chapel of San Brizio, to the right of the altar. The frescoes depicting the Apocalypse that fill the chapel burst with figures painted in brilliant colors by renowned 15th-century Italian artists, including Fra Angelico. The chapel is overwhelming and glorious! I couldn’t take photos, so you’ll have to see the chapel here or on Wikipedia. My second favorite part of the interior is the beautiful and unusual windows of alabaster. I also like the pillars of travertine and alabaster.
So far I have two favorite restaurants in Orvieto: Trattoria La Pergola, which is not far from the Duomo and which has good food and a lovely, shady patio in back, and Ristorante Il Giglio d’Oro, which is on the north side of the Piazza del Duomo. We took Charlie to Il Giglio d’Oro and had a wonderful lunch. Charlie had lentil soup, lasagnetta with wild boar, and a chocolate semifreddo. Michael had stuffed rabbit; tagliolini with oil, garlic, and black truffles; and apple tart bites with zabaione and Calvados. I had garbanzo cream with fried salt cod (amazing!), pappardelle with lamb and pecorino cheese, and zuccotta of ricotta cheese with pistachios (which reminded me of many Sicilian desserts).
A gelato festival—now that’s MY kind of festival!—was underway when we first went to Orvieto. Everywhere we went we saw stands featuring gelato from all over Italy. For €5 we bought a sheet of tickets for ten small cups of gelato, but we had just eaten lunch, so we could eat only two. You know how sad I was to have to skip the remaining six cups of my favorite food, but I just couldn’t find room. Next time I’ll have dessert first!
Hmmmm. I wonder what we’re doing for lunch tomorrow!