Travel: an Autumnal Sunday in Umbria

Umbrian views. PHOTO: ELEANOR SLY

ORVIETO- Nestling in the Umbrian countryside, this small hill town is very much worth the one-hour train trip from the capital. Perched on top of a large rocky outcrop, the pretty winding streets and vine-covered alleyways are easily accessible from Rome, via direct trains and a funicular, and the views, once there, are incredibly beautiful.

 Mounting the 300 or so metres in a funicular was a novel way to begin our day trip. As we gradually rose up the steep slope and above the tree line, more and more of the rolling landscape came into view. Olive groves, vineyards and forest-covered hills appeared, fields and a sky that seemed to stretch on and on before ones eyes. It felt like stepping back in time.

 Umbria is one of Italy’s less populated regions. Known affectionately as Italy’s “green heart” it has a certain emptiness and wildness that, compared to the buzz of the Eternal City, was very refreshing. Coming up out of the funicular, like a rabbit out of a burrow, the September sun bathed the streets in a mellow tangential glow. Crisp breezes and the odd leaf blowing here and there made the experience all the more magical.

 Heading west along Corso Cavour, initially tree lined but giving way to rows of local shops, cafes and restaurants, we paused for lunch. Something particularly novel was the lack of English tourist menus. Although the region is touristic it hasn’t yet got to the extreme of Florence or Rome. Step a few streets back from the Duomo and you can walk for some time without coming across a single person.

 Late lunch outside at the Antica Cantina was wonderfully relaxing with its wooden tables and chairs and a flower-covered terrace under blue autumn skies. Local truffle pasta and a 2€ glass of Orvieto wine made for a delicious introduction to the region.

 From there we wandered towards arguably the town’s main attraction, the Duomo. Visible for miles around, this 14th century cathedral’s magnificent façade is certainly worth seeing. The front of the building is startlingly attractive, glimmering gold with mosaic inlaid columns and carvings, as well as depictions of scenes from the Old Testament. The striped green and white marble interior and outside are just as striking, as are the frescos of the chapel within.

 The ramparts too are certainly not to be missed. Continue along the main high street and one is greeted with sand coloured walls with breathtaking views of the Umbrian hills. And we were alone. For the hour spent sitting on a bench there in the sun, only two other people appeared. The pretty Chiesa di San Giovenale was an unexpected highlight with its 12th and 13th century frescos that were still amazingly well preserved.

 Heading back through the dark, overhung streets, a contrast from the sunshine, one would notice street signs announcing the different “quartieres” with beautifully painted coats of arms. A boy played with a football in the alleyway in front of his family’s restaurant. A pair of cats tiptoed along a wall. Back along the high street once more and past the Duomo bathed in evening light, we descended the slopes and returned to reality at the end of an unexpectedly relaxing day.

 With more time, the Pozzo di S. Patrizio would also be worth pausing at. Two spiral staircases, 496 steps, lead down to the well, deep below ground. It was apparently built in the 16th century when the pope was seeking refuge there. With a car and more time, other hill towns of Assisi, Todi and Norcia are all within striking distance and meant to be beautiful, as is the regional centre, Perugia.

 For a weekend getaway, Orvieto and Umbria come highly recommended, especially during the autumn. The heat is not so searing and, as the season for walks, truffle mushrooms and wine comes into full swing, what better time to get out of the city and into the countryside to explore this un-spoilt area of Il Bel’ Paese.




Orvieto Cathedral. PHOTO: ELEANOR SLY
Winding streets. PHOTO: ELEANOR SLY