Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.
In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.
Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.
During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.
After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.
In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.
The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.
Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.