Markus' Travel and International Living Blog

Markus is an enthusiastic traveler, who lives in Houston, TX (USA) most of the time, but also spends some time in Saalfelden, near Salzburg (Austria). He is fascinated by travel and also by his experiences gathered by living in two different countries and continents.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006
Orvieto, Umbria, and the Toscana

After our brief visit to the Amalfi Coast and to Pompei, it was time for us to return home, if not to Houston, then at least to Austria. We didn't have a ton of time for this, and it is a long way to drive, but we still wanted to see a few things on the way. So we ended up driving along the A1 Autostrada with some planned stops. Both the Umbria as well as Toscana ("Tuscany") regions of Italy are beautiful and deserve a trip of their own. Especially the Toscana is an area I am reasonably familiar with. This is one of those places where I could imagine buying an old (farm-)house one day when I am retired to slowly fix it up and grow some wine or something along those lines. Especially with it being close to Austria and all, it is very accessible. It has great scenery and great lifestyle.

I remember visiting thermal springs called "Therme di Saturnia". These springs were already used by the Romans 2000 years ago. There is an organized bath there, but one can also just swim in the thermal river a little further downstream, where it goes over a cascade of small waterfalls. You are likely to find some fellow bathers when you are there, but usually it isn't too bad, and you should be able to find a pool you can enjoy all by yourself. And if you are in the mood, fling some mud at each other. It is supposed to be healthy. I gotta say: personally, I prefer the natural, non-organized version over the bathhouse.

We didn't have time to go there on this trip however, and we didn't buy an old farmhouse either. So for the time being, the Toscana remained an area we drove through, not a destination. We did decide to stop at a small village just off the Autostrada called Orvieto. The Italians usually built their towns at the top of hills, which gives the area such a distinctive look. Orvieto is one of those towns:

You can get their by car and also by train, with the train station being at the bottom of the hill. If you come by car - as we did - just drive into town and park at one of the designated parking areas. As always when you park your car in Italy, give some thought to avoiding break-ins. Do not leave anything visible in the car as it may attract thieves. (A foreign license plate does enough of that already). Also, open the glove compartment, which acts as a sign that says “I know the rules and there is nothing in this car of interest to you… go and smash someone else’s window”.

The town itself is typical for the area, with lots of cute little narrow streets, tucked away restaurants, and numerous small shops. The biggest attraction in Orvieto is the Duomo (the dome) which is disproportionately huge for a town of this size. The reason is a supposed miracle that happened here in the 1260’s. A Bohemian priest on his way back from a pilgrimage to Rome worshipped in a place called Bolsena, near Orvieto. The reason of his pilgrimage was that he doubted the bread used in communion really was the body of Christ, and he hoped to be enlightened by such a journey. During his mass, he broke the bread, and to everyone’s amazement, the bread started to bleed on a linen cloth. The cloth was brought to the pope who happened to be in Orvieto at the time (as he had a residence there). The pope declared it to be a genuine miracle and proof of the bread being the body of Christ. I will let you be your own judge of miracles (there seem to have been a disproportionate amount of miracles in Italy of that time… Umberto Eco had an interesting take on that in his book “Baudolino” which was on top of the bestseller lists in Europe for months and months), but at the very least, it is interesting in a historical sense since this was a major contributing factor for communion being such a big part of Christian masses.

The bled upon cloth is on display in the Duomo, which was built specifically to house it. The Duomo is a beautiful piece of architecture, with one of the most impressive facades of any church. The interior is peculiar, as there are no benches or anything else to sit on. Either they have very few masses there (which would not be out of line with other European churches these days) or it is a “BYOC” (bring your own chair) affair. The cloth is off in a wing to the left of the altar. Note that the church seems to get closed for inexplicable reasons every so often. When we were there, they were just closing it. If you are going there for religious reasons, you may want to inquire about the schedule ahead of time, to avoid a serious disappointment.

The following are photos of the facade of the Duomo and the surrounding area: 

In any event: We were not aware of any of this before we went to Orvieto. Our main aim was to see a cute Italian town, have a nice walk, see some nice architecture, and have some good food. We succeeded in the first three and even partially in the fourth. I recommend that you do not eat at one of the tourist traps around the Duomo, but find a place off the beaten path. Aim for something that is busy and seems to have lots of local people eating there.

Orvieto is also well known for its wine as well as ceramics. To be the proper tourist, sample some of the wine and buy some pottery as a souvenir.  For the wine-part, I recommend that you do stick to the dome-square. It is a great way to sit back, enjoy the wine, and soak in the overall atmosphere.

Posted @ 9:51 AM by Egger, Markus ( -
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