Orvieto is my favorite city. It's situated on a hilltop in the Umbrian countryside about two hours by train from Assisi and about an hour by train from Rome. The old town rises dramatically above the new city below and is reached by a wonderfully old-fashioned funicular train. The old town drips of living history and bustling street life. There are tourists around to be sure, but Orvieto is, for me, that perfect blend of authenticity and tourist attraction.
The "ancient city" (urbs vetus in Latin and thus Or-vieto) has been steadily populated since the time of the Etruscan civilization in the fifth century BC. It has been of strategic significance for most of that time and was under direct Papal authority until the 1860s.
It was in Orvieto that the Pope could get away from the swampy heat of the Roman summer and so it was that the Pope was in Orvieto when the Eucharistic Miracle took place in 1263. Peter of Prague went like a flash with the miraculous corporal linen and met with the Pope. For those who didn't click the link - this was what led to Pope Urban IV establishing the feast of Corpus Christi. The miracle is still on display in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
As recently as the Second World War, the city was strategically important enough to be directly bombed. The people enduring that artillery did just as their ancestors had and went underground! The modern city has become a major suburb of Rome and many of its residents take the one hour train ride into Rome every day.
The main piazza of the old town is dominated by the most incredible facade, very possibly, in the world. It's absurd in the most wonderful and awe inspiring way: incredible colors, mosaic sheen, statuary, stone reliefs, doors, stairs and sheer size.
The inside of Church doesn't have quite the same wow-power, but it's stunningly beautiful in its own right. The Chapel of the Miracle is remarkable, but that's not my favorite part of the Cathedral. Across the main aisle from the Chapel of the Miracle is the Chapel of St. Brizio which is decorated with brilliant frescos by Luca Signorelli who was a student of Fra. Angelico. His Last Judgement is a masterpiece of style and theology. It first came to my attention in Michael D. O'Brien's book Father Elijah.
In Father Elijah, the titular priest is on a mission from the Holy Father to engage a powerful politician who may or may not be the Antichrist. Father Elijah is sent first to Assisi for prayer and then to Orvieto to meditate upon these frescos. Father Elijah realizes after some reflection why the Pope sent him to this little chapel... The figure of Jesus, which appears on the Gospel Side fresco at the bottom-center, has a devil reaching through the back of his tunic and manipulating him. It's only then that we realize that this isn't Jesus at all, but an imposter who looks like Jesus. The actual figure of Jesus is elsewhere in the image. Father Elijah realizes that the Antichrist will look very suitable to the world and that only those who are near to Jesus in prayer will be able to identify him and fight him. As JRR Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings "it seems that a servant of the enemy would look fairer and feel fouler." Since I read Father Elijah, I've been Orvieto several times and always tried to make time to pray in the chapel of St. Brizio and to meditate on the frescos.
Orvieto is famous for white wine, which is called Classico, and for wild game. The boar ragu served over fresh pasta is second to none! Also, there's a small shop on one of the back streets that has mascarpone gelato. Let me take a minute to share with you the joy of mascarpone gelato. Mascarpone is a cream cheese... Gelato made with it is heavenly. It is so, so yummy...