Unexpected Orvieto

You’d think with all my planning, our trip would flow flawlessly. But if I learned one travel tip, it’s to plan on making mistakes. They’re frustrating, but sometimes they lead to unexpected experiences. And our day in Orvieto was ripe with them.

Orvieto is a hill town in Umbria built on top of a plug of a tuff, a porous volcanic rock. The town is famous for its ceramics, Classico wine and it’s an easy stop on our drive from Rome to Montepulciano.

Guidebooks suggest parking at the train station at the bottom of the hill and taking the funicular up into town. But we missed the train station and since the guidebooks also say to avoid driving into many hill towns, we parked at the first parking lot we found. Our journey up continued on switch-backing escalators, which tunneled inside the tuff hill and popped us out into Orvieto.

I saw the empty space in my bag where my guidebook and map should have been and the frustration crept in. All my research was sitting in the car. Pure luck gave us a glimpse of the Duomo, a beacon we followed into the center of town. The front entrance and its glittering façade were barracked off while a movie shot scenes of a funeral procession. We watched a few takes of actors sadly walking down the steps and then asked for a map in Tourist Information. No English maps that week, so we grabbed one in German and hoped for the best.

The Duomo in Orvieto

Since visiting the inside of the Duomo was postponed, we tried strolling the picturesque streets while perusing ceramic shops. I loved the ceramics covered in blue and orange design, but I was too busy yipping at Aaron to get Ada out of the road! or tell her no touching! I wasn’t feeling carefree like the other tourists and my frustration was building. Thankfully, we found an oasis in the shape of a playground at the edge of town.

My goal in Orvieto was to see St. Patrick’s Well, which was dug out in the 1500’s  and has a cool double helix spiral staircase. While Ada romped through the playground I searched my German map in vain; I couldn’t find the well. But there was a gravel road next to the playground that followed the edge of hill. No cars allowed and Ada could happily run, collect golden maple leaves and hug a few trees while Aaron and I enjoyed the fantastic views of Umbria.

And magically, St. Patrick’s Well was at the end of our gravel road. I thought I could simply peek over the edge and then be done, but Aaron convinced me to descend all 248 steps down the dark, damp spiral staircase.

St. Patrick's Well

At the bottom of the well, the sky was a wee white circle; Ada began to whimper and our parental guilt swept in. We ran 248 steps back up, singing her favorite cheerful songs, passing a group of women along the way. We stopped twice desperate to catch our breath, but another whimper ushered us upward and into fresh air. With burning legs and lungs, we collapsed against a wall, worried we’d traumatized her. She’d always fear the dark! Or spiral staircases! Dark holes! The women we passed soon arrived and one snide woman said with a smile “well, she didn’t like that, did she?”

Back at the Duomo and determined to see the stripped interior, we muffled Ada with a cookie, and sneaked through the side entrance.  Not even a cookie could stifle Ada’s love of candle light and stained glass. She took it out and exclaimed “OHHHH!” which, once again echoed beautifully throughout. In a fit of giggles, we slipped out and shared a hearty laugh. The laughter loosened my frustration and we continued on, eager to turn another unexpected corner.

Without a plan or our German map we walked and marveled at the tranquil streets; a refreshing break after a week in raucous Rome. We somehow found those escalators and tunneled down through the dark tuff, (without a whimper from Ada, no damage done) and finished our drive to Montepulciano, our home base for our week in Tuscany.