Most Italian hill towns are so small the only thing to do is stroll the streets, take in the atmosphere and of course eat. I once spent two lovely days in Colle Val d’Elsa, a tiny town across from San Gimignano in Tuscany, but when you ask me what sights to see I’d be hard pressed to give specifics. The sight to see is the entire town itself: The massive bricks that make up the ancient roads, the way they were built into the geography, the small artisanal shops, the bridges, churches, windows and doors.
On first glance, Orvieto isn’t much different. A small town perched atop a rock, its charm is in its peculiarity, its atmosphere. After visiting the magnificent Duomo, I imagined that all that was left to do was stroll.
Turns out I was wrong.
Despite its size, Orvieto has many things for a visitor to see or do. There’s a double-helix well to explore, a 7 km path that circles the entire city, the Duomo and various other churches. Then, when the owner of our Airbnb rental suggested the Orvieto Underground I knew we had to explore it. I was thrilled to get a new perspective of the town.
Orvieto really is built atop a rock. Perched onto a large butte, the ground beneath it, and thus many of its buildings, are built with the native volcanic rock called tuff, (tufa in Italian). The rock is relatively soft and easy to dig, and over the course of centuries that rock has been carved out. At first the underground caves were grottos formed naturally, but villagers soon discovered the use of these underground caves. From roughly 400 caves Orvieto authorities have now found and identified more than 1,200 caves, tunnels, and cisterns under the streets and buildings of Orvieto. There are so many caves, in fact, that at once point the structure of the town itself was at risk.
It’s as if the entire city of Orvieto was rebuilt underground, a mirrored version of itself not unlike something you’d find in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
Nearly every structure in Orvieto has a cave somewhere below it. Not least of which to obtain the material to build the house, but also for the convenience. Rich families had caves that served as an underground escape route from the city in event of a siege. Turns out that this “city in the sky” as it’s often called, had a rough history of attacks and sieges. They had to be prepared. Great walls were built and deep wells dug underground – they needed to ensure that water was available even if the city was cut off.
They also needed to be sure they had a constant supply of food, even when the farms and hunting available outside of the city limits was no longer viable. The best solution to this? Pigeons.
Archeologists have found dozens of underground chambers filled with hundreds and hundreds of pigeon holes carved into the soft rock. These holes served as the nest, and a small window into the fresh air (remember, it’s built on a hill) allowed the pigeons to come and go freely. The pigeon chambers were owned by individual merchants who made a very profitably business on the birds. The pigeons flew out to feed themselves whenever necessary, produced multiple babies per year and were virtually self-sufficient. In this way, Orvieto was sure to always have a source of meat no matter what history had in store.
Orvieto has always been under the control of the Papal power, and eventually the pope shut the pigeon chambers down. He claimed that the open windows into the chambers allowed attackers in too easily, but it seems like a suspiciously good excuse to close down a profitable black market and a possible entrance into the city that avoided the Pope’s high entrance taxes.
In any case, the caves have had many uses besides raising pigeons. At one point in the Middle Ages the town’s population was so high that space was an issue. They decided to keep the houses where they stood and use the caves as places of work. On the tour we saw the remains of an olive oil mill, a mine and various wells dug nearly 2,500 years ago during the time of the Etruscans and used well into the Middle Ages. Though it’s hard to imagine sitting at an office desk punching numbers surrounded on all sides by rock, at the time the caves kept a constant temperature that proved warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. The perfect solution for air-conditioning-less Middle Ages.
During the Renaissance the authorities woke up to the danger of all that digging. The tuff material was too soft, too unstable, and the citizens were rarely following the safety parameters put in place. The vast majority of the caves were closed and restoration done where needed. Even in recent years pillars have been built to support the weight of the city above and hopefully block any harm done by previous centuries.
Though most speed in to Orvieto, stroll the streets, see the Duomo and leave, the city merits a bit more of your time. Stay overnight, explore the nooks and crannies, go underground. A town is the sum of its history, and Orvieto’s underground is as important as the city itself. Though the pigeon chambers are no longer in use, you’ll still find pigeon (piccione) gracing many a menu in Orvieto. I suggest the stuffed pigeon with olives!
How to See It
You can buy tickets for the Orvieto Underground tour at the tourist information office at 23 Piazza Duomo. Tickets cost 6 euro for adults. A guide will lead you to the entrance of the grottos just beyond the Duomo. There are quite a few steps and at one point a set of very narrow steps, but nobody got stuck on our tour. Hear about life with the Etruscans 600 years before Christ, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and the 1900s all from the perspective of the underground city. The tour takes roughly 45 minutes.