Orvieto is a great example of an Italian hill town. It has about 20,000 residents, a big church and a few smaller ones, a handful of stores selling local crafts (ceramics and lace), and an attraction that is only there because of the papacy. Orvieto also claims the underground ruins of ancient Etruscan tombs.
On Saturday, I hopped on a train with twelve other Notre Dame kids. In just over an hour, the train dropped us off at the base of a gigantic, craggy hill. “Ah god, do we have to walk all the way up there?” someone moaned. “I know we walk a lot, but that’s ridiculous,” I chimed in. Imagine our delight when we discovered that for just one euro, we could buy tickets to ride up the hill in a trolley/gondola. We zipped to the top and disembarked.
Just to the right of the Funicular station, we noticed signs for Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well). We hustled over to see the 500-year-old well, but we had to stop for some panoramic photos before descending underground.
The well was really deep – 175 feet deep. We spiraled down and back up on double helix staircases, passing by large cutout windows as we went. At the bottom, a small bridge allowed us to cross over the pool of water. We took some pictures and made wishes on tossed coins, but it was really cold 53 meters underground, so we hurried back to the light of day.
The other major site in Orvieto is the Duomo. Unlike the Duomos in Milan and Florence, Orvieto’s Duomo doesn’t actually have a dome. I think it’s just called il Duomo because it’s the main cathedral in the city. Although Orvieto’s Duomo was way too big for the tiny town, the stripey sides and mosaic façade were pretty spectacular.
The building was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV in 1290 to celebrate the miracle of Bolsena. In 1263, a priest in Bolsena, Italy was saying Mass. He had personal doubts about transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the communion wafer transforms into the body of Christ during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Much to this priest’s surprise, the communion wafer he was holding during Mass began to bleed onto the corporal, the small cloth underneath the bread and wine. When the pope came to see what had happened, he declared it a miracle and established the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ). Corpus Christi is still a huge feast day in Orvieto, as it is in much of the Catholic world.
We had to pay two euro to enter the Duomo. I was a little annoyed by having to pay to go in a church (it was more expensive if you wanted to see different parts of the cathedral), but I suppose since the church is one of the only tourist attractions in Orvieto, they have to capitalize on it somehow. My entry fee got me a detailed brochure, but it turned out that there wasn’t a whole lot to detail on the inside of the church. When the people of Orvieto decided to un-Baroque their church in the late 1800s, they stripped paintings off the walls and moved sculptures to other locations, thus leaving a surprisingly bare space.
Besides the area around the main altar, only two large chapels remain fully-frescoed. When we entered the Chapel of the Corporal, we admired the frescoes covering the walls and the high vault ceiling. After about 90 seconds, the lights shut off. A cluster of grey-haired tourists squeezed past us and left the chapel. As we stood in the dark, confused, Kelly noticed a glowing red box near the entrance. Put some change in and the lights come on. No more euros, no more lights. We couldn’t see the other chapel (where the lights never turned off) because we hadn’t bought the deluxe ticket. Disappointed (but not willing to part with more money), we left.
After a great lunch with some awesome local wine at a teeny family-run pizzeria, we boarded the Funicular to head back to the train station. We didn’t get to see the Etruscan tombs (some of the boys broke off from the group and went on a tour), but I’m really glad we went down St. Patrick’s Well. While the boys were exploring the underground city, the girls went ceramics shopping. I got a pretty painted coffee mug to supplement the tiny IKEA mugs that came in the apartment. It was a very practical purchase – I’m drinking tea from my mug as I write – but I was sorely tempted to bring home a plaque with an Umbrian axiom.