Orvieto sprawls down a hillside in western Umbria. Cable cars, trains and buses run from the lower town up to the top of the mountain where medieval Orvieto is. You can also park just outside the city and walk in (up). This is Orvieto's central square where we had our morning gelato (it could be a tradition). This time around David had pear
, Melanie had zabaglione
and we both had chocolate
which is one less colored bit of text to put on this page.
Orvieto's cathedral is something to see. Something like this. Alternating black and white marble layers make it rather distinctive from a distance.
The façade is supposedly just as spectacular, although it's hard to tell with all this scaffolding. There appears to be some brightly colored paintings under there. Like many of the hill towns in central Italy, Orvieto's shops sell sausages, wines and pottery - all of them made locally.
The narrow streets are nice to wander but we found Orvieto to be a bit more crowded with tour groups than some of the other towns, possibly because of it's easy proximity to the main Rome-Florence highways.
From Orvieto we headed towards Siena and the Chianti wine region of central Tuscany. Our next stop was Montepulciano, mostly famous for wines of the same name.
Montepulciano has several stores in cave-like cellars on the lower floors of buildings. Local wines, cheeses and sausages can not only be purchased here, but sampled as well! Be sure to check out the wild boar sausages made in the region. Also of local origin is the cheese known as Pecorino which comes in two basic varieties before being flavored with any number of herbs and spices. We left Montepulciano with enough supplies for several days worth of picnics.
If you can find your way up to the main square in Montepulciano, the Piazza Grande, there's a wealth of medieval stone buildings like the town hall shown here.
Several overlooks high up in Montepulciano provide great views of the surrounding countryside which looks much like Tuscany is supposed to look - rumpled, verdant and inviting.
Pienza is a tiny town which had the good fortune to be the birthplace of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, later known as Pope Pius II who renamed the town in his own honor (popes can do that) in the 15th century. He also lavished it in papal wealth resulting in a flurry of impressive buildings dating from that period. It's a very accessible town on foot and surprisingly level for this part of Tuscany.
The back of the town (so to speak) is buttressed up above the farmlands which drop quickly away. The entire town can be explored on foot in as little as an hour but you'll want to take your time.
Little alleys lead to practically hidden cafes (get a map at the tourist office). We spent an hour or so here eating assorted bruschetta and watching Pienzan daily life.
We're told Pienza can become rather infested with tourists at certain times although it was nearly deserted while we were in town. We stayed until dusk or so before leaving for our hotel/villa outside Siena (see the Siena page).
Technically we visited San Gimignano the following day but it's included here because it fits the theme so well. A fascinating town, in medieval times families proved their wealth here by building towers successively higher and higher (sort of like New York today). 13 of the original 70 or so remain giving the town a very odd appearance from a distance. Definitely a major stop on the tour bus route, San Gimignano doesn't really feature a whole lot to see other than the town itself. Of all the medieval hill towns in Tuscany, this one feels the most antiquated. The high stone walls and towers give the feeling of being inside a castle and at night when only a few well spaced street lights provide light it feels even older. The main road through town (shown here) is lined with shops and restaurants. Side streets are practically deserted.
More gelato. At the south city gate is a Gelateria Artisinale which in our opinion is the second best in Italy (that we know of - the best is in Pisa). Here we sampled cappuchino
. As we did so many times while in Tuscany, we had an entire meal consisting solely of salami and cheese sample platters. Oh, and maybe a fruit tart.