Photos and text by: David Johanson Vasquez © All Rights
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—We boarded a train in Venice with just a few days remaining of a three-week adventure in Italy. Our coach moved steadily from its station, with the island city quickly vanishing from view. Soon my wife and I were transported into the countryside, which gave us fleeting panoramic views of charming Italian landscapes. My mind wandered, trying to imagine what intriguing encounters we would find waiting for us at our next destination.
While the train traveled deeper into the center of the countryside, gray sky’s hung low overhead as morning turned into afternoon. Undecided of our next destination, we took a chance to stay in a mysterious fortress city, perched on cliffs, within the region of Umbria.
We had engaging conversations with an Italian couple, who were traveling to Naples with their young children. The youthful husband was born in Naples; his profession was a train engineer for the Italian rail network. His charming wife was blond, with blue eyes, and Norwegian born. Both husband and wife spoke fluent English. We exchanged information and ideas about many subjects on world culture, technology and comparing educational systems. Time went quickly as we used most of it in dialogue with our newfound friends, but soon we had to prepare to deboard at our intended destination. As the train slowed down to stop I caught a glimpse through the clouds, of a mysterious town perched on cliffs, appearing as if it were floating in clouds. We had arrived below the ancient town of Orvieto, and instantly became intrigued of its mysterious atmosphere.
This was a location we had penciled in as possible place to spend our 5th wedding anniversary. Before flying to Europe, we visited the office of Rick Steves, an America’s authority of European travel. His business is in a nearby town of Edmonds, located next to the Puget Sound. We bought one of his books and attended a seminar on Italian travel in which the medieval town of Orvieto came up. Steves mentioned this place was a refreshing one to visit, as tourist travel had not yet overrun it. The tip was spot-on and there were few tourist in town compared to busy Venice where we just came from. Rick Steves is an iconic figure in the travel industry and it’s remarkable how well he’s revered throughout Italy. Whenever I mentioned his name to hotel workers, they smiled and had positive words to say about him and his organization.
Because we were traveling off-season, we found without reservations, a wonderful hotel just outside of the medieval township of Orvieto. The hotel had a shuttle to take us up the steep road leading to the town, which resembled a fortress citadel on top of a volcanic butte.
In ancient times this bastion had been the capital city of the Etruscan Civilization, predating the Roman Empire by centuries. On my agenda was to explore the remaining Etruscan ruins, located at the base of the massive cliff stronghold. To better understand the past, our plan was to do a walking tour of Orvieto, to see if there were any impressions still remaining from its ancient ancestors.
Arriving on top of a dramatic plateau, we were greeted by vast panoramas stretching in all directions. There are no shortages of striking views, which any past tribal or clan leaders would have recognized as strategic in value. Bellow is rich fertile green valleys stretching outwards to distant foothills. Nature would have a challenge constructing any better fortification than this volcanic butte, with its solid ring of 100′ foot sheer cliffs. From this vantage point it was clear why this site was chosen… location, location, location!
Returning to the interior of Orvieto we found a small neighborhood with an interesting subterranean museum. Once inside, the steps descends rapidly in a winding cavern naturally formed into the porous tuff volcanic stone. Dim light with damp smells created an environment which hasn’t changed in thousands of years. This was ground zero of where this settlement’s roots developed. In prehistoric times this cave provided protection from the elements, attacks from aggressors–both man or beats and it provided a continuous fresh water supply. Latter the Etruscan used the grotto for religious ceremonies and eventually carved out passages for escape routes leading outside of the walled city.
I’ve always liked the experience of exploring caves. As a young teenager, I lived in California’s Mojave Desert, not far from Joshua Tree National Monument. My brother Jim and I would explore natural caves and man-made gold mines; while enjoying the cool, moist air which was a relief from the scorching desert air outside.
My wife and I found this fascinating setting for our fifth wedding anniversary dinner, named Le Grotte del Funaro. Enclosed in a natural grotto the restaurant featured windows cut through stone walls to view the valley bellow. This place was like out of a location scout’s, central-casting dream, except it was authentically medieval. The meals served were exceptionally fine—Italian seafood cuisine—paired with fantastic regional wines. Any-one traveling to Italy knows how remarkably delicious and distinctive the food from each region is. Realizing it was a special occasion for us, the restaurant staff gave us a wonderful dinning experience we will always cherish.
Italian hospitality is some of the best in the world. The people of this country are so gracious and accommodating, its no wonder celebrities such as George Clooney have chosen to live in Italy.
A large stone manor sat on a hill next to our hotel. It looked centuries old and I couldn’t tell from where we were, if it was still occupied. Employees working at the hotel shrugged their shoulders when asked if they knew anything about the place. It seemed as if the estate had been there so long, it just blended into the background and was ignored.
While traveling by rail or car, throughout Italy you see a landscape dotted by buildings centuries old, some are abandoned in various states of disrepair. These orphaned stone structures intrigued me because they stood the test of time and all had stories to tell. Finally an opportunity presented itself, to quench my curiosity of exploring one of these ancient sites.
I walked over a mile on a winding road, through rustic farm country. Following a dirt path uphill, past plowed fields, I came face to face with what was once a grand estate with a marvelous view.
The building was clearly abandoned, in disrepair with sections of walls missing, allowing for flocks of pigeons to fly out of its exposed interiors. Cautiously walking into an entry; I considered each step taken between mounds of debris, to ascend a crumbling stairway. At the top of the
flight of stairs a series of makeshift catwalks followed second story walls.
Carefully balancing myself with one hand holding my camera and the other holding parts of the building, I took a series of photos throughout the building.
Once back on terra-firma, I found a basement wall with iron bars on it. The room appeared designed to either keep people out or possibly in. Whether it could have been a storehouse for valuables or a jail for criminals, its dark entrance into the basement looked to foreboding for me to consider exploring without a flashlight. On the other side of the estate was a large kitchen with a wood oven and portions of a table still holding utensils. After taking several more photographs from various angles, I retreated back to the road and leisurely walked to the hotel for a rest from my solo adventure.
Orvieto has an intriguing urban context with the way stone streets, buildings and neighborhoods are laid-out. In some places the town resembles a maze, so we took advantage of this and turned it into a fun game—to just walk and explore new places in hopes of getting a little lost, then looking for visual clues to point the way back to a familiar landmark.
Looking at preserved Etruscan artifacts, it’s apparent they adopted the Greek alphabet and most of this art appears borrowed from classic Hellenic culture. No major surprise of a dominant cultural influence here, as Greek tribes heavily colonized the Italian peninsula, primarily with the Achaeans beginning in 800 BC.
With the recent popularity of Roman culture being portrayed in Hollywood movies such as: Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and STARZ cable series Spartacus: a misunderstanding has developed of where mortal combat began as a “spectator sport.” This brutal form of entertainment certainly didn’t begin in Rome, as many would be led to believe. The Roman historian Lily, stated it was imported from the Achaeans who colonized the Campania region of southern Italy. However, the majority ancient historians chronicle its beginnings as a uniquely Etruscans enterprise from northwestern Italy.
What I find intriguing and especially more so, for my better-half; is the power which Etruscan women held in their culture. Unlike their Roman and Greek sisters, who were not allowed to freely mingle with the opposite sex or to own property, these women had much more control over their destiny. It’s surprising the Roman’s question the morality of Etruscan customs, labeling it as scandalous and more promiscuous than their own. This was primarily due to Etruscan women empowerment, who could freely chose their mate, own property and have a say in politics. This concept equality and of liberation had to wait until the 20th century for many women in the western world.
One of my favorite Duomos (cathedral) of Italy is the stunning Gothic one found in Orvieto. Construction of this impressive house of worship began in 1290 and it took over three centuries to complete. Intricate, textured forms of the facade are partly accented with brilliant gold leaf, which projects illuminated light onto viewers even during an overcast day. A multitude of Biblical scenes are marvelously painted in relief and beautifully incorporated into the dazzling front entrance.
It’s interesting to note the sites of churches and cathedrals in Italy, were once the very same sites used for earlier pagan temples and places of worship. This practice of building over existing sacred sites has been done since prehistoric times and was continued by the conquering Spanish in the New World — as seen in places where Central and South American indigenous people had previously settled and worshiped.
For me, Orvieto was the most intriguing of the places we visited in the charming country of Italy. This ancient citadel’s isolated location allowed it to preserve and retain much of its architectural essence and unique character. Orvieto has a sense of mystery that I’ve never experienced in any other place and because of this, I hope to return their soon to explore more of its hidden wonders.