Once in a While, Orvieto

Rome is great, especially in the spring, but once in a while I find an excuse to escape to Orvieto, in southern Umbria, one of the closest cities to Rome that has managed to free its historic center from automobiles.

Once was on our honeymoon; although we were directed to Firenze we got a late start and Orvieto seemed a nice town along the way. The last time, a few years ago, was to join a group of study-abroad students for drawing sessions, attracted by great perspectival streets for urban vignettes, and few cars to intimidate the sketcher.

The other day it was for an international conference on Green Infrastructure where I had been invited to present a paper. Since my topic was on cycling initiatives I thought it appropriate to use my folding bike to reach Termini Station and then bike around town in my spare time while there. Knowing Orvieto to be a hill-town, and relatively small, I didn’t expect this to be especially practical. It was more so than I had thought. In this post I will first describe my transit experience, and then a few notes about the town itself.

At Termini I brought the bike into the hip, new, high-quality food court, Mercato Centrale, where I leaned it on a crate of artichokes while I got an excellent café at the bar next to Bonci’s bakery. When they announced the track, the cursed 1B (about 500 meters from the head of the other tracks) I was glad I had my bike. I was there in seconds, folding my bike and storing it safely while I found a window seat.

Upon arriving at Orvieto station, I had no intention to bike up the hill — and no need to — since the town is blessed with a smart people-mover, a funicular. It was a bit awkward to cram my bike into the crowded car but since I was the last one in and my bike pressed against the door no one else was inconvenienced.

At the top of the hill I unfolded my bike and headed up the main pedestrian street and within a minute was joining friends for a coffee in the heart of medieval Orvieto. In between conference events I zipped around town, careful not to go down hill to far knowing I’d have to come back up. At the end of the day, the coast down to the funicular was so easy that I was tempted to continue all the way down to the rail station, but the light rain and my prepaid funicular ticket convinced me to descend the way I had come up. I made it home with a few changes of transit and no need to open the bike again until I was at the station just down the street from my home.

If I think about the other options: driving my own car and dealing with traffic, tolls, parking would be unthinkable unless I were carrying something heavy, or stopping in remote places on the way. Transit alone without the bike would have been fine—just a bit slower with a lot more walking.

As for Orvieto, I always find it charming and this time gave a little more attention to one of its artistic highlights, Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement (especiallyThe Damned Cast into Hell). I hadn’t previously noticed the grotesque border paintings, or paid much attention to the portraits of Ovid, Dante and other writers between Signorelli’s dramatic scenes of Heaven and Hell. No one else was in the chapel, and the afternoon light was perfect.

The menacing subject matter continues on the 14th century stone bas reliefs of the facade, where I stopped to consider another version of the Last Judgement, now sadly protected by glass so not so visible.

I booked a ticket on the Underground Orvieto tour that I had heard good things about, and got some advice from the ticket office about where to go to appreciate the walls and the views to the countryside — a short bike ride or a long walk away.

The underground tour was only available in English when I wanted to go and the guide’s English was fairly basic, but the caves were captivating and well-presented. The selection of subterranean spaces we visited in 45 minutes presented a variety of functions, from Etruscan wells to medieval tufo quarries, 18th century pigeon farms and 20th century bomb shelters.

With some time to kill before my train, I stopped near the Duomo for a glass of wine and some local delicacies: pecorino, salami and crusty white bread. When an elderly woman came in to buy bread I applied the “yield-to-locals” policy I always try to instill in my students and guests, letting her make her purchase while I waited. But like most of what I saw in Orvieto, this place was tailored for foreign visitors. A former alimentari turned tourist-outlet, ironically named Bottega Vera, it was well-designed, comfortable, and reasonably priced and the food and wine were great. Like most of Orvieto it seemed to work quite well. I suspect that after a few days I would yearn for the authentic grit of Rome and its devil-may-care attitude toward its guests. (Except that much of Rome has become even worse in its pandering to mass tourism, without even bothering to provide quality or design.)

Is it too much to ask for a city, big or small, which relies on tourism for its livelihood, to maintain its character and preserve its traditions, while constantly improving so as to better satisfy its long-term customer base? I don’t mean making travel easy or cheap, I don’t mean pandering to mass tourism (in fact I’m fine with shopkeepers ignoring the crass tourists who haven’t made an effort to learn enough to say “buongiorno.”) I mean keeping a focus on the quality of your core product but always making the experience a little better. I mean sweeping the streets outside the shop, experimenting with ways to reduce waste, using social media to share local knowledge. Resist the temptation to cheapen your brand to sell to tourists who don’t appreciate your product and will probably never come back. Forget that other shops seem to have gone this way and are selling more. Let your competition cater to the trash tourists. Focus on those clients with discerning taste and they will spread the word. Don’t worry about copy-cats. If this catches on, all the better; a more attractive city, by definition, will attract more discerning people who will stay longer and return frequently.