Thought by some to be the Etruscan acropolis Velzna built between 800 and 900 B.C., the city of Orvieto sits atop a butte formed of volcanic tuff in southwestern Umbria, the “green heart” of Italy. Its strategic location on the road between Florence and Rome, combined with sheer cliffs and impenetrable walls made from tufa quarried from the very rock that supports it, Orvieto has held strategic importance from its founding to 19th century.
From the time the Romans razed the city in 263 B.C. and relocated its inhabitants to Bolsena, to its incorporation in to the Papal State in the 15th century, ending with its annex to the Italian Kingdom in 1860, Orvieto has a long and storied history that not only includes war, occupation and bloodshed, but also miracles, significant feats of engineering and priceless archaeological discoveries. It remains to this day a fascinating visit for the amateur archaeologist, architecture enthusiast, ceramics collector, wine connoisseur and religious pilgrim.
A labyrinth of tunnels beneath the city center, only fairly recently rediscovered, shed light on the importance the citizens of Orvieto placed on self reliance and preservation. Many of the large houses in the city sat atop their own private escape routes dug deep in to the soft rock, that would lead them away from danger should the city come under siege. A honeycomb of passages and grottoes perforate the rock beneath the city and give us small glimpses in to the minds and lives of the people who dug them.
At present, the majority of the underground city is privately owned by residents and shops who hold the properties above them, and some are accessible via shops or restaurants. Many are still in use as household wine cellars and temperature controlled storage (the caves remain a constant 57 degrees F). There is, however, a small area of the underground that is owned by the city and can be explored by the public via guided tour.
The 45 minute tour begins with a five minute walk from the ticket office to the entrance to the grottoes. Once in the underground, visitors are able to explore the caverns and learn about the long history of the city and its inhabitants.
From the beginning of Orvieto’s history, the citizens of the city have capitalized on the attributes of the tuff on which they lived, for the past 2,500 years they have dug themselves storage rooms, wells, olive presses, workshops, pigeon cotes and pozzolana quarries, an ingredient used to make cement.
Seemingly endless passages lead to rooms and grottoes that bare the marks of their makers. Some rooms exhibit remains of what may have been Etruscan temples or alters. Others were once workshops used in the middle ages to produce the unique ceramics that bolstered Orvieto’s wealth and importance.
Pigeon cotes built in to the walls provided the citizens with revenue and a renewable source of protein. Today, pigeon is still featured on the menu of many restaurants in Orvieto. Some of the ladders used to access the top levels of the cotes are carved from the vertical rock using alternating hand and foot holds.
In areas where the tunnels run parallel with the walls of the city, natural sunlight permeates the underground through small windows carved out to allow pigeons access to the outside.
The most recent digging that had been done in the Underground was during WWII when the citizens of Orvieto built bomb shelters, no doubt, should Orvieto or the region ever come under enemy fire again, the people will continue to take refuge in the ancient underground city.
The tour to the Underground, along with the above ground sites of the city make Orvieto a must see for any traveler who happens to be in the region.