Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Montepulciano to Orvieto – Day 9 – Saturday

I got up at my usual hour, even though it was Saturday, because I had a complicated day of traveling ahead.  Bus schedules on weekends and holidays in Italy are limited and seem to be a secret from even the locals.  Fiorella thought there was a bus to Chiusi at 9:30.  She gave me a ride to the bus station at 9:00.  It turned out that there wasn’t a bus until 10:00.  This bus was scheduled to arrive at the Chiusi station at 10:50.  My train was supposed to leave at 10:59.  This sounded pretty tight, but I already had my train ticket, so figured I could make it if the bus wasn’t late.  Few people were travelling at that hour, so the bus made good time until we got to Chiusi and got stuck in traffic.  If I had known where to go, I would have gotten out and made a dash for it, but I had no idea where to find the station or how far it might be, so I stayed in my seat and fretted.

We arrived at the station at 10:57.  My fellow travelers and I made a dash for the platform.  I didn’t even have time to check which platform I wanted.  I just followed the other runners.  Fortunately, the train was “in ritardo.”  I encountered my friend, Lucy, on the platform.  She was leaving and was taking the train to Rome.  It was nice to see her and to have someone to chat with on the ride to Orvieto.  I was sorry to part from her, but hope to see her back in the US, since she doesn’t live too far from me.  The train was a regional one and we were in the second class car.  We had no trouble finding seats and it wasn’t bad at all for a short journey.  Honestly, I had been more crowded in first class on the way from Milan.

Umbrian Countryside
I left the train at the Orvieto station.  I had planned to go to Bagnoregio and Civita on Sunday, but realized that bus service on Easter Sunday might well be impossible.  I decided to go to Bagnoregio straight from the Orvieto station.  I bought round trip bus tickets from the clerk at the convenience store in the station and proceeded to wait.  Of course, there was no posted schedule.  My guidebook said there was usually a bus at 12:45.  It was noon, so I waited and hoped for the best.  I got lucky.  It rained a bit while I was waiting, but there was a shelter.

Umbrian Vineyard
The bus ride took about an hour, but it was interesting to drive through the Umbrian countryside.  Umbria is different from Tuscany.  The terrain is more rugged and there are more trees.  It doesn’t look as manicured, but it is still green and scenic at this time of year.  Many houses have colorful flowers planted in window boxes and they looked cheerful even on a wet, gloomy day.  The passengers on the bus were about half locals and half tourists going to Bagnoregio.

We arrived in Bagnoregio sometime after 1:30.  The shuttle bus that runs from the bus station to the base of the bridge to Civita takes a break between 1:00 and 3:30.  As there was no luggage storage in Bagnoregio, I was forced to carry my luggage all the way to Civita.  Fortunately, I had foreseen this circumstance and packed light.  I had only a shoulder bag, but it was heavier than I would have liked because of the computer, guidebook and indispensable dictionary.

Bagnoregio sprawls along the top of a ridge.  The bus station in slightly below the town on one end and Civita is about a mile away across a bridge that connects to the far end of Bagnoregio.  Bagnoregio is not particularly interesting, but, being on top of a mesa, there are some nice vistas of the surrounding countryside.  I met a darling orange cat that insisted I pet him.  I stopped and scratched him for a bit.  He was a younger version of my own cat, Pumpkin, so it was good to get my cat fix.  Leaving my cat behind is one of the hardest things about traveling.  I have always thought that it should be possible to get a hotel room that comes with a cat.

Civita is called the, “city that died.”  The last of the original inhabitants is now too frail to make the trek across the bridge.  Today, it is occupied solely by people involved in tourism.  Civita was a major Estruscan city and there is conjecture that it was a sort of Estruscan Mecca.  Bagnoregio was originally a suburb of Civita and the two were once connected.  Erosion and a major earthquake in 1695 served to strand Civita on its own pinnacle of tufa.  Formerly, there was a donkey path across the saddle, but that was damaged by bombs during WWII.  The current pedestrian viaduct was built in 1966.

Civita is noticeably older than the other hill towns I have visited.  Many of the buildings date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.  The entrance to the town is through a cut in the rock that was carved by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago.  Today, the trench through the rock is crowned by a 12th century Romanesque archway.  The passage made a good place for tourists to huddle during cloudbursts.

Bridge to Civita
Palace Facade
Having traveled hard all day, I was hungry after lugging my bag across the bridge and up the steep path to Civita.  The rain held off long enough for me to sit outside and eat a sandwich of prosciutto and cheese and enjoy a glass of proseco.  The café was right on the plaza and I could see most of Civita from there.  There isn’t a whole lot in Civita, but highlights include the façade of a renaissance palace whose aperatures now lead to thin air, a small museum displaying ancient olive and wine presses in caverns carved from the tufa and a chapel located in a cave that might once have been an Estruscan tomb.  Civita is essentially an island in the sky.  The views are incredible.  A profusion of spring flowers made the little city one of the most romantic places I have ever seen.

Wisteria and Garden in Civita
As gorgeous as Civita is, there is not a lot to do there.  After I had seen the sights, it started to thunder and sprinkle and I decided to make a dash across the bridge before the weather deteriorated further.  It sprinkled all the way back to the bus station, but the deluge didn’t begin until an hour or so before the bus arrived.  I had been waiting under an overhanging balcony, but when the sky opened up, I made a dash for an outdoor coffee bar with covered seating.  I had a cappuccino and waited for the rain to stop.  When it finally abated somewhat, I returned to the bus stop.  Considering that Civita is one of the major tourist destinations in Umbria, the bus stop is quite unimpressive.  It is merely a square painted on the pavement behind someone’s garage.  There are a couple of small shelters without seats across the road, but they had motorcycles parked in them on this rainy day.

It started to pour again just before the bus arrived and we had a wet journey back to Orvieto.  It was the last bus of the day and was fairly full.  In Orvieto, sheets of rain were falling.  I dashed back to the convenience store to buy a Carta Unica, a ticket that includes entrance to all the major sights in Orvieto, restaurant discounts and admission to the funicular that takes one from the train station below the city to the top of the bluff where Orvieto is located.  The funicular runs up the steep side of the rock outcropping and finally through a passage carved from the stone one the wall becomes vertical.  Most ancient cities in the region are on the top of rock outcroppings, but Orvieto is unique in that the rock is vertical for long stretches and forms a natural wall.

A major thunderstorm was still raging when I reached the top, so I made a dash for a waiting shuttle bus and rode that to the Plaza del Duomo (cathedral.)  Tourists were huddled in every doorway.  I made a dash for the nearest doorway to consult my map and found myself in the midst of a German tour group.  The guide did her best to herd me onto their bus, but I managed to escape.  After orienting myself, I made a dash across the plaza just as it began to hail fiercely.  The streets were torrents of water.  I had several blocks to go through a labyrinth of medieval stone alleyways and I arrived at my lodgings soaked to the skin.

My Room at B&B Valentina
It had been difficult to find an available room in the old section of Orvieto for Easter weekend and I had been forced to splurge on a double room in the B&B Valentina.  This turned out to be very fortunate because when the friendly staff showed me to my chamber and I squished inside, I was greeted with a warm room with plenty of light, an actual king sized bed, plenty of light (!) and a heater and heated towel rack on which to dry my dripping clothes.  Everything I owned was wet.  My poor shoulder bag was not protected by my tiny travel umbrella.  I was able to turn up the heat, hang out my clothes and huddle under the down comforter until my clothes dried enough to wear them again.  B&B Valentina also has functional wifi in the rooms.  I definitely give this place four stars.  The room is furnished with lovely antiques, the linens are exquisite and, despite its location in a renaissance building, the rooms are spacious and offer every modern convenience.

By 9:00 pm, I had finally dried out enough to dress and go in search of dinner.  The rain had stopped and the stars were out.  Pizzeria Charlie had been recommended to me and was fairly close, so I decided to give that a try.  It was packed and I had to wait for a table.  The host was very affable and brought me a chair.  When I was finally shown to a table, I was seated next to a noisy party of 30 or 40 people celebrating some special occasion with large volumes of beer.  It didn’t matter whether I could speak Italian or not because the waitress and I couldn’t hear each other anyway.  We managed somehow and I enjoyed a crispy pizza Margherita for dinner.  I sat reading the history of Italy and watching the partiers carry on.  What a contrast to my wretched state upon arrival!

Orvieto – Day 10 – Easter Sunday

Duomo in Orvieto
Woke up early, but couldn’t bring myself to hurry this morning.  Breakfast arrived about 8:30 and I sat and munched fresh baguette and drank coffee while I worked on my blog.  About 11:00 I determined it wasn’t raining and decided I’d better go out and take advantage of the break in the weather.  I wanted to visit the Duomo, but there was an Easter service going on.  I did stand in the back of the church for a while to listen to the choir.

St. Patrick's Well
Fortress in Orvieto
Having determined that the Duomo was busy and there wasn’t a tour of the Orvieto underground available in English until 3:15, I set off to walk down the hill the ruined fortress at the other end of town.  It was a nice walk and the fortress offered spectacular Umbrian views.  I climbed all 496 steps down to the bottom of St. Patrick’s well.  The well is a feat of engineering built in the 16th century to discourage enemies from besieging the town.  Stairs run up and down in a double helix so that people and donkeys heading down did not have to share the path with traffic trekking back up.  The bottom of the well was still filled with clear water.  I’m sure that I will feel those stairs tomorrow.  I still had a long uphill walk to get back to the Plaza Duomo.  I stopped along the way to get an Iskender kebap at a little shop on the Corso Cavour.  I swear the Iskender kebap was made out of pork.  Only in Italy!  The meat may not have been authentic, but the pide had just come out of the oven and was delectable.  It tasted just like the bread I got fresh from the communal oven in a village in Turkey.

After lunch, I had a couple of hours to kill before my tour, so I visited the several museums associated with the Duomo.  The Duomo began as a simple design, was redecorated in the baroque style and then restored to its original simplicity in the 18th century.  All the art that was removed at that time is now in the museum.  I learned a few things today.  Painters take note: If you want your work to last, paint on canvas.  After 600 years or so, paint tends to flake off wooden panels and bugs get to the wood.  Do not work in fresco, especially in an earthquake prone area.  Frescos are too easy to paint over, anyway.  Sculptors, work in marble if you want your work to last.  Bugs tend to get to wood over time and ceramics get broken.  Beware, however, that any ugly creations or pieces you leave unfinished will also be around for centuries. 

Olive Press in Orvieto Underground
It started to rain heavily while I was in the museums.  I thought that the tour of the underground would be a good thing to do on a rainy day, but it turned out the trip to the entrance of the caves involved a long trek through the rain.  The caves were interesting, though.  The excavations were started in Etruscan times and the Etruscan caves were neatly finished with vaulted ceilings.  More modern caves were strictly utilitarian, with no such aesthetic considerations.  Caves were used for the pressing of oil because olives were harvested and pressed during the winter months.  Oil flows more freely when the temperature is warm, so they pressed the oil in the caves where the temperature was always moderate.

Dovecote Under Orvieto
Many caves were the result of mining the stone to make cement.  Mining the stone was eventually stopped in the 19th century because the government feared the city might collapse into the mine shafts.  Many homes near the edge of the cliffs had dovecotes excavated under their homes where the pigeons could access the cave through a window carved in the outer cliff wall.  These dovecotes had many niches carved in the walls to accommodate nests.  Pigeon is still a common dish in Orvieto.  The practice of excavating dovecotes under the houses was finally forbidden by the pope in the 18th century because he feared that smugglers could sneak into the city through the openings and avoid paying taxes at the approved gates.  One of the last caves we visited was carved from the rock to serve as a bomb shelter during WWII.  While Orvieto itself was not shelled because of the cathedral, the lower town was bombed because of the railway line.  People living below took shelter in the stone above.

It was still raining when the tour was over, so I ducked into the cathedral.  The cathedral in Orvieto is notable in the entire structure is constructed of alternate bands of black and white stone.  The arcades are exceptionally tall and the windows are fenestrated with alabaster, all of which serve to make the church exceptionally light and airy, even on a gloomy day.  The chapel of San Brizio, painted by Signorelli, is not to be missed.  The palette he used glows with warm colors, making the chapel appear luminous, an effect that is further enhanced with tasteful electric lighting.  In sharp contrast is the older chapel on the opposite arm of the transept, which is quite dark and reflects an earlier, less realistic, style of painting.

View of Orvieto from Torre del Moro
By this time, I was getting cold and damp and my hotel room was sounding good.  The Torre del Moro was about halfway home and I ducked in there to get out of the rain for a bit and climbed another 173 steps up to the top of the clock tower.  The bells started to ring just as I stepped out onto the observation platform.  They were deafening.  Even though it was pouring, I couldn’t resist peering out at the panoramic views and taking a couple of photo of the rooftops of Orvieto.  After descending the tower, I made the final dash to my hotel and my comfy room.  Sure wish I could take this mattress home with me to Montepulciano.

A few hours later, once the rain had passed, I took a walk along the lamplit ramparts of the city.  It was pretty and atmospheric.  I seemed to be the only person alive in Orvieto.  I ate a very forgettable dinner of lousy lasagna at a “tavola calda” (steam table restaurant) and returned to my room.

Orvieto to Montepulciano – Day 11 – Easter Monday (Yes, the Monday after Easter is a Holiday in Italy.)

Checkout time was 10:30, so I got up early to pack.  I wanted to walk the path that goes around the base of the cliffs, but I knew that it could be difficult to get home on a holiday, so I wanted to leave plenty of time.  My breakfast arrived about 8:15 and I was out of the hotel by 9:00.  Valentina let me leave my bag in her quarters while I went walking.

It was thankfully not raining, but was very cold and windy except on the leeward side of the cliff.  Orvieto sits on an exceptionally tall block of tufa, so there are cliffs on all sides of the city.  Originally, I had intended to follow Rick Steves’ suggestion of descending to the path (called la Rupe) from Plaza Marconi near the Duomo, walking three quarters of the way around the city and then riding the escalator back up from the tour bus parking lot at Campo della Fiera.  I walked across the short axis of the city to get to Plaza Marconi, only to find that the pathway down to the Rupe was closed.  I had to walk back to the Porta Romana to get out of the city and ended up at the Campo della Fiera entrance to the path.

Fortress from Below the Wall
The walk around the city was very pleasant.  I was very much in nature.  I could hear the birds singing and the bees buzzing.  I got to see an actual hedgehog.  The path passed some Etruscan tombs at about the halfway point.  Having seen hundreds of tombs in Turkey, I didn’t feel the need to make the side trip to visit them, but I got a good view from above and took some pictures.  It was a pretty spot with lots of vivid green grass and flowering trees.  The Etruscans had built a very orderly cemetery that actually looked quite modern.  The path climbed up and down quite steeply and the circuit was a good workout.  I reentered the city by the Porta Maggiore and climbed up the steep street rather than taking the escalator.

Etruscan Tombs
The walk had taken longer than I expected (too many stops to read placards and take pictures.) My train left at 12:31.  I went back to Valentina’s to collect my bag and caught a minibus to the funicular.  Everyone and his brother packed into that funicular.  We were packed so tightly that the woman in front of me leaned her entire weight against me all the way down.  There was no way I could lean over to pick up my bag until 90% of the people had exited the car.  I made it to the train without incident.

View from Orvieto
The train ride from Orvieto to Chiusi is only two stops along the Firenze to Roma line.  It takes about half an hour.  I left the train at Chiusi and wandered about, trying to determine whether or not the buses were running.  It was pretty desolate around there.  The fact that the tobacconist who sells the tickets was closed was a bad sign.  I drifted out to the bus stop and noticed an older man peering at the schedule.  The schedule was completely silent on the subject of Sundays and holidays.  As it turns out, this is because the buses do not run then.  I asked the man if there were buses that day and he told me there were not.  He suggested that I take the Siena line to the Montepulciano station.  Montepulciano Stazione is actually a separate town about six miles from Montepulciano, but I figured a taxi would be cheaper from there.  I didn’t really want to shell out another 45 Euros for a taxi from Chiusi.

I had to wait a few hours for the train, so I had some pizza and then read for a while.  Getting to Montepulciano Stazione was uneventful.  I had hoped there might be other travelers with whom to share a taxi, but I was the only person who departed the train there.  The station was deserted.  There were no taxis.  My guidebook said it was 5 miles from Montepulciano Stazione to Montepulciano, so I decided to try walking.  I walked about a mile and then came to a road sign that indicated it was still 9K to Montepulciano.  I started to doubt I was going to make it at that point, but decided to keep walking at least until I got to some recognizable location before I called for a ride.  The walk through the countryside was gorgeous.  I walked through vineyards and olive groves.  Flowers bloomed everywhere.  The sun afternoon sunshine was warm on my face and it was a lovely time to walk.  The experience would have been entirely pleasant if I hadn’t been lugging my overnight bag.

There is a big regional hospital about halfway to Montepulciano and I started to see signs for that.  I thought that there might be taxis at the hospital, so I headed there.  By the time I got to the hospital, the steeps hills, heavy bag and earlier walk around Orvieto had conspired to do me in.  I called my friend, Savannah, and she came and rescued me.  Fiorella made me a tasty steak dinner and I went straight to bed.

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