During our planning, we had wanted to take a side trip during our stay in Rome. Because we had visited prior and had seen many of the sights (the Colosseum, Vatican museums, millions of churches, the Forum), we wanted to expand our horizons and see a new town. We wanted to take a train (had flirted with the idea of renting a car but decided that driving in Rome wasn’t really for us, plus we didn’t want the hassle of picking up and returning a car) and wanted to be within two hours of Rome. We did some research, taking into account weather and distance as the biggest factors. Our next trip to Italy will definitely encompass the south/southwest (Positano, Capri, etc) but because we were traveling in late February, those destinations seemed to be off-season. We had considered visiting my great-grandparents’ hometowns, Chieti and Campobasso, but there were no direct trains to either place and we ultimately decided that an ancestral road trip is for another occasion. We wanted to find a place that was a walkable town with multiple sights to visit (if we wanted to) and several restaurant options. We had already visited Siena (highly recommended, one of my favorite cities) and Florence, which would have been good choices. Ultimately, we decided on Orvieto, a town in Umbria that is about a 1 1/2 hour train ride from Rome. Other locations that can be considered can be found here.
Before leaving the US, we planned as much of our trip as we could have. We found (but did not purchase) tickets in advance on Trenitalia‘s website to get an idea of our timetable and did as much research as we could on Orvieto. We also used our Rick Steves’ guide (Italy 2015) to help us navigate while we were there. On the PBS channel on Rook we watched an episode of Rick Steves where he went to Oriveto (I think it was the episode called Italy’s Hill Towns) so we were able to get an idea of the town from his trip. He also has a good write up here. There are also some websites that help in familiarizing with the town, such as this one.
As was becoming our custom, we started our morning with an early breakfast at the hotel before catching the metro at our Spagna station to Termini. There, we caught the Trenitalia train to Orvieto. We purchased tickets at the automated machines at the station and validated them before getting on the train. The seats are assigned (unlike most Amtrak trains in the US). The car (carrozza) and seat (posto) are numbered and we were seated in car 4, seats 21 and 22. There is a conductor that comes around and makes sure that you are seated in your appropriate location and people can be sticklers about their seating locations. We were seated next to two older Italian women, which gave me a chance to practice my Italian and gave them an opportunity to speak English, which was so fun for me (my poor husband!).
The train ride lasted about an hour and a half, giving me time to get into my book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova–the movie with Julianne Moore is based on that novel. So good but very depressing. Tip: I have the Kindle app on my iPhone (and iPad and MacBook…and I have a Kindle too. I like reading, what can I say?). That app is great for travel because you can download books to read off-line, so you don’t end up using data while you’re abroad and it gives you something to do on long plane, train or bus rides. If you’re going to day trip and you’re using a device like your phone, try to remember to bring some type of backup charger (but don’t forger a converter) as the trains have electrical outlets at every seat. I have a Mophie charger for my iPhone and a rechargeable battery pack that I got at TJ Maxx for like $10 that can be used for both the iPhone and iPad.
We pulled into the Orvieto station and disembarked. The train station is at the bottom of a hill (mountain?) and there is a funicular (funicolare) that takes you to the top, where the actual town is. The funicular costs €1 per person each way (I think the ticket is valid for 90 minutes so technically one ticket can get you up and down if you don’t plan on spending much time in the town). The funicular is like a gondola ski lift/cable car that holds maybe 20 people and the ride lasts less than two minutes. Once we arrived at the top, we got out and walked around the fort and small park that is directly on your left when you exit the funicular station. The views from this fort are pretty incredible.
We walked up the Corso Cavour, which is the main road that links the funicular to the city center. There are signs everywhere but it is a good idea to have a map (like in Rick Steves’ book) because it can get slightly confusing. We followed signs to the duomo, which was a pretty impressive facade. The exterior was gorgeous, slightly reminiscent of Siena’s duomo (still by far my favorite)–very ornate, lots of gold and mosaics (I think) and statues. It costs €3 per person to enter, which also includes the cost of entering a chapel. There is a separate duomo museum that has some Etruscan art and some modern art (I’m not a huge art person, so it wasn’t really interesting to us) that is next door. Across the piazza is the information office that organizes tours of one of the most interesting aspects of Orvieto–its underground. The tour didn’t start for a few hours and we were hungry and a little cranky so we ended up bailing, though it was something we had planned on doing and it seems like one of the biggest draws that Orvieto has. There is an underground grotto and some caves that look really fun, probably especially in the summer when it is hot above ground.
Since we were not really on our game by this point, we started to unravel a little bit and began aimlessly wondering, poking in and out of shops and then trying to find a lunch place. The restaurant we had been looking at turned out to be closed for repairs for the next week or month so that added to our “meh” mood. By that time, all of the other tourists wandering around the town also decided that it was lunchtime and finding a restaurant without a huge wait was a bit challenging.
We finally ended up at Trattoria La Grotta, a cute family-owned place where we were sat immediately. We ordered a bottle of chianti, a side of seasonal vegetables, and I had ravioli with black truffles in a hazelnut sauce and my husband had some type of sausage and potatoes. I think I could eat truffles on anything and be happy! That improved our mood somewhat and we set back out onto the streets of Orvieto.
We walked over to the Piazza del Popolo, where a market convenes every Saturday morning. Unfortunately, we caught the tail end, with vendors breaking down their stalls but we caught a glimpse of small(ish) town life in Italy. The vendors sold clothing (especially underwear!), fruits and vegetables, cheese, snacks, and household necessities like trash cans, paper goods, and cutlery. It is so easy for us to pop over to Target whenever we need anything and it really got me thinking of how it must be to have to plan for your weekly excursion to the local market and figure out what to do the remainder of the week. And Orvieto is a relatively large town with a bunch of shops but they seem to cater more towards tourists and visitors rather than the locals. After we left the market, we wandered around the streets a little bit more, then decided to head back to the train and catch a slightly earlier one than we had originally intended on getting since we were a little bored and it was a bit chilly and damp. One of the vendors that was set up by the funicular station was selling all kinds of candy, nuts, and roasted chestnuts. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family roasts chestnuts (in the oven) so these are comfort food to me. I ended up buying a bag (maybe a half kilo, which is about a pound) and that was our snack for the train ride home to Rome.
We arrived in Roma Termini and caught the Metro back to our home base, where we crashed and napped for a little bit. That day, the Dutch soccer eam had vandalized the centuries-old basin at the base of the Spanish Steps after playing in a match against Roma. We ventured over to the fountain to survey the damage, which was not a lot but was representative of tragic disrespect for a historical landmark.
Next on our list was a ghost tour, led by Dark Rome. I think we found this tour on Tripadvisor and booked it before leaving the US. As has become fairly evident, we don’t take many traditional tours and prefer to go it alone with guide books or we will pick up audio guides, particularly if they are free. We seem to like tours like this (or the pub tour in London) that have a theme and are a little atypical rather than a guided tour of the Roman Forum, for example (which I’m sure are fine, just not our thing).
The tour was led by an American ex-pat (a 26 year old guy from Maryland) who is living the dream and living it up in Rome just because he wants to, which I find really admirable and pretty gutsy. The tour convened on the steps of a church (San Andrea della Valle), where a group of 10 or so gathered. It had been intermittently raining, setting the tone for the ominous tour. Our guide took us past places we had seen in the daytime and at night during both of our trips to Rome that we had never really thought twice about and he provided us with interesting information about the history, particularly the macabre.
One of my favorite take-home points was learning about the Madonellas, which are touted as Rome’s “first security system.” They are portraits of the Madonna and Child with streetlights illuminating them (originally candles) that were put up in especially dark, seedy corners where crimes happened to occur the most to deter rapists and thieves. The theory is that criminals are deterred if they look up and see a mother figure (with the joke being that all Italian men, even criminals, are mamma‘s boys), particularly THE mother of all mothers (Mary–way to play on the Catholic guilt), that they would think twice about committing whatever crime they were about to do. According to our guide, after the institution of these Madonellas, the crime rate plummeted. I had seen them but hadn’t really paid much heed; after he pointed them out, I couldn’t stop seeing (and photographing) them! It began raining toward the end of our tour, which added ambiance to some of the chilling stories. The tour ended right in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo, down the road from the Vatican. Again, being one of my husband’s favorite places, we decided to see St. Peter’s at night and walked down towards the Vatican. With the rain letting up and the pavement glistening under the streetlights, the magic of St. Peter’s came alive.
We had decided to go to dinner in a new neighborhood that we hadn’t explored, Prati. We found a restaurant called Su e Giu, another family-run place. Because we were unsure what time the tour would end, we did not make reservations and figured we would try to get a table. Thankfully, this worked out well for us, partly because of the late hour. I love that Romans eat late–usually people don’t head to dinner until 9 pm. It can be a little jarring, particularly for people who eat at “normal” dinnertime hours, but our mealtimes are so erratic anyway that Rome just works for us. The restaurant is on three levels and we were seated in the basement, near the kitchen. We ordered some fried starters (artichoke, or carciofi, and mushrooms, or fungi) and a bottle of chianti to start. I had the cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta) and my husband had bistecca al manzo (beef steak). All of the dishes were good, not excellent, but a welcome meal on a cold and rainy night. We ended our meal with a slice of chocolate cake, then walked home to our apartment.