This is my first TR on Fodor; I gathered so many helpful ideas in the weeks before our trip I wanted to post some information that might be helpful to others. I and my partner have been to Italy several times before and on this trip we wanted to focus mainly on smaller cities with smaller crowds, but we did want to end up nevertheless in Rome for a few days on the final leg. We organized the route so that we could go by train on short hops in an arc from Rome to Orvieto – Arezzo – Lucca, and then loop back in one journey from Lucca to Rome. I will skip over the areas that have been so heavily covered on these forums and instead give some comments on places and events which have not been discussed so much.
A few thoughts about the trip in general:
TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES FOR ITALY
In spite of the economic crisis now ripping through Italy, we encountered zero glitches. Everything worked perfectly, no strikes, no disruption, and the bits of Umbria and Tuscany which we visited were not visibly hit by the economic slowdown or high unemployment that you read about. This was true even in Rome. However, in conversations with hotel staff in several places we heard repeatedly about government corruption, public frustrations, joblessness, budget cuts affecting the schools (in Lucca, a prosperous place, students apparently have to bring their own toilet paper to school because of the budget squeeze). It felt like a strange disconnect between the beautiful reality we were experiencing in our tourist bubble and the tougher realities which the citizens themselves have to face daily. In spite of these troubles, the people we encountered were gracious, friendly, and seemingly content with their lives. Plus the people living in the Umbrian and Tuscan smaller places seem to retain a gentler mood than one might find in big cities.
I speak grade C-plus Italian, and this really helps (obviously) to connect with people. We encountered great friendliness and courtesy everywhere (this is my ninth trip to Italy over 45 years, I am a staunch Italophile). We were told five times – Five! – that we did not need to tip or that we were ordering too much food, that a smaller number of plates would be sufficient.
I studied up on my Italian in the months before our trip and I used the language option on Tripadvisor to learn phrases which we would use frequently. In the top right corner of TA is a language menu bar. Pull it down and pick Italian. Then go back to the hotels, restaurants, and sights and skim what the Italian posters are saying, and write down the useful phrases. Also, to practice listening to Italian, go to Youtube and enter search words such as "Viaggio in Orvieto" or whatever and you will pull up many brief travel programs produced by the towns and tourist agencies as well as those created by Italian tourists. You can play these over and over again, pause them, replay a difficult phrase, etc. It's a handy way to brush up.
ITALIAN RESTAURANT CUSTOMS
It has been said many times on this site by many knowledgeable Fodorites that it’s so important to understand the restaurant customs in Italy. But maybe I can say it once more? Most of the good restaurants are small-ish family-run places. They plan on only one seating (or maybe at a stretch two) per night, beginning around 8:30-9:00 p.m. Reservations always help them plan their food preparation. They like to go home after 11:00 p.m. So…arriving at 7:30 p.m. and seeing lots of empty tables and being refused a place is not a sign of rudeness. All the tables are reserved. And if the waiter is grouchy if we arrive at 10:30 p.m. for a late dinner, it’s because he does not want to start a new seating that late and anyway the kitchen may be shutting down.
We enjoyed much live music during the trip. A group of young American opera students (from Kansas?) were giving free concerts in Orvieto and elsewhere and they sang arias from The Marriage of Figaro in the Orvieto streets. Another group of American opera students and their teachers were having classes in one of the barracks buildings along the ramparts of Lucca, doors open, with the passersby welcome to stop outside and enjoy the practice sessions. The Chester County Voices Abroad choir gave a beautiful concert in Santa Maria Corte Orlandini in Lucca (we heard them again three days later just by luck in Santa Agnese in Agone, Piazza Navona, Rome). The concert “Puccini e la sua Lucca” was very beautiful although a bit pricey and a bit brief (there has been grousing about this on Tripadvisor, but it cannot be inexpensive for the town to schedule two operatic singers and a pianist every evening of the year, the piper must be paid…) And a real highlight of the trip was the guided tour cum Baroque music mini-concert through several rooms of the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj in Rome. Magnificent. A real puzzle why there is practically no mention of this marvel in any of the standard guidebooks. More on this below.
RESTAURANT HIGH POINTS
Enoteca al Duomo in Orvieto; La Fromaggiera and Il Cantuccio in Arezzo; Cantine Bernardini in Lucca; Osteria del Pegno, Enoteca Provincia Romana and Abruzzi in Rome. Umbrichelli (thick hand-made spaghetti using only wheat, salt, and water), anchovies, truffles, Vermentino, Vernaccia, Orvieto = YES. Lampredotto (intestines of unweaned calves) = NO.
I bought the first leg of our trip, from Rome Termini to Orvieto, so we would not have to fiddle with the ticket machine on arriving from the airport or stand in line for the tickets. It cost a little more, via the Raileurope site, but it was definitely worth it, especially considering that we were tired from the flight and Termini was hot and stuffy and we were grumpy. I bought a couple of other legs of our train trip online, but only the fast Freccia legs. The others were regionale trains so I simply bought them as we went along.
* * * * * * *
We flew from Montreal (we live in northern Vermont in the summer so using Air Transat from Montreal nonstop to Rome is relatively inexpensive, easy and fast). We landed in Rome at noon on June 19. We took the Leonardo Express from the airport to Termini (we almost forgot to “convalidare i biglietti prima di salire”—punch your ticket in the green and white machine before boarding). Weather was hot and heavy and Termini was a mass of tired, perspiring humanity waiting for trains. I thought uh-oh, we have an unpleasant two weeks ahead of us. We hopped a one-hour train to Orvieto and the weather cleared and the remainder of the trip had sunny days with slightly cool breezes and evening temperatures in the low 70s. No rain at all except a brief pleasant drizzle one morning in Lucca.
Much has been written about Orvieto on travel sites, a great little gem on top of an eroded volcano, so I will try not to repeat things which have been covered thoroughly here and on other sites. We stayed two nights. The old centro is 950 feet above sea level, easily reachable by a funicular just opposite the train station in the lower town. From the funicular station at the southeast of the centro we had an easy 15-minute walk to the Hotel Duomo, just a half block from the side of the Duomo piazza. This is a fine hotel: spacious comfortable room and bath, pleasant management, good prices, good breakfast. We will go there again.
The immense Duomo, with its Signorelli frescoes and packed with other treasures, is a marvel. The Museo Archeologico and the Museo Claudio Faino have excellent collections of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman pottery, statues, temple ornaments, and a two reconstructed Etruscan tombs with the original frescoes. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has superb medieval and early Renaissance works. We spent a lot of time in the cathedral and the museums.
Late one afternoon we walked down many stairs built on the vertical walls of the plateau to visit the Etruscan cemetery (the Necropoli Etrusca, also called the Crocifisso del Tufo). The walk down to the cemetery begins at the Porta Vivaria on the north side of the centro. At some places the stairs join a landing bolted into the side of the cliff, teetering way over the countryside below. Spectacular views. The path winds down the face of the cliff, and after you take a not-very-well-marked zigzag you reach the cemetery. The cemetery is a government archeological park with a small, well designed visitors center. There are detailed exhibits in Italian and English. The cemetery itself, dating from the 6th – 5th cent. BCE, is like a small village. Stone mausoleums, about 8 or 10 feet high, line rectangular paths. The names of each family is carved in Etruscan letters on the lintel of the entry door (the Etruscans used a modified Greek alphabet). It is very moving to walk through these lanes and peer into these chambers, and then when you look up you see medieval Orvieto on the top of the plateau.
One very sunny afternoon we had a late lunch at the Enoteca al Duomo, at an umbrella’d table overlooking the side of the cathedral. The enoteca is owned by a very nice thirty-something couple who moved from Rome three years ago. This was one of those simple peak experiences one enjoys when travelling: a big antipasto plate for two, a dish of white anchovies sprinkled with grated white truffles (trumpet roll -- yes!!) and a bottle of cool Orvieto. Then we went to the gelateria next door for some gelato to round off the lunch.
We took the Orvieto Underground tour after buying our tickets from the delightful Australian-Italian woman at the tourist information office opposite the Duomo. Our guide took our group of 15 deep into some of the tunnels and caves. They were dug by the Etruscans (5th cent. BCE) and then again by the medieval city folk. They were used for olive oil processing, rope-making, storage, pigeon-raising, and even shelter for hospital patients during World War II. There are 1200 tunnels penetrating the volcanic tufa platform on which the centro rests. The town has built thick steel and concrete support columns inside some of these tunnels to prevent the centro from collapsing. (Our guide said that part of the main street did in fact collapse in the 1970s.) One doesn’t want to think about the many tons of Duomo resting on this Swiss cheese of tufo.
I got up early our first morning and wandered over to the little park south of the Duomo. A splendid view of the Umbrian countryside, sun rising, birds chirping. Too beautiful.
A pleasant little spot just across from the Duomo is the Caffetteria [ = coffee and snack bar] Hescanas. We stopped by one morning for an espresso, again in the afternoon for a glass of white wine, and then again on our last night in Orvieto, about 10 p.m., for a final goodbye drink on the terrace overlooking the Duomo. (What were we drinking during this Orvieto visit? Lots of Orvieto, Vernaccia, and Vermentino.) Families were lounging around in the evening, kids were running and shouting and tossing Frisbees. The Duomo was brightly floodlit, all pink and violet colored, under the full moon. Wow. Back to the Caffetteria Hescanas: This is a simple little family-run place, with a self-service cafeteria buffet for lunch. It’s full of postcards, video games, old-fashioned tourist knick-knacks (I bought a Pope Francis refrigerator magnet). It’s not sleek or elegant at all and for that reason we really enjoyed it as a spot to just relax in front of the massiveness of the Duomo. However…it has received scathing reviews recently from Italians on Tripadvisor and I can’t fathom why. We always had a nice welcome when we visited. So once again, some TA skepticism is advised.
A restaurant advisory: we went to Zeppelin one night, on the advice of a friend who stayed three weeks in Orvieto four years ago for a training seminar. In 2009 he went there regularly for dinner and the place was excellent. Today it is not. Do not go here. The chef apparently is focusing on his new cooking school for Americans, with the quality of the food in free-fall. When we entered at 9 p.m. there was one, uno, customer, a young American tourist. During our meal two English visitors arrived. That’s it. The courtyard was closed, unkempt, full of weeds. The food was mediocre, with a micro-waved aura. Looking into the kitchen I saw two young Americans cooking with an Italian. Our very conscientious Italian server spoke pretty good American English, which—you guessed it—he said he learned from the Americans working in the restaurant. A real disappointment.
We were sorry to leave Orvieto. I could easily have spent another day here and I hope to return. On our last morning my partner visited the Pozzo di San Patricio (a Renaissance well with double spiral staircases dug deep into the rock) while I had an espresso in the garden next to the funicular station on the edge of the centro. Then we descended to the lower town and boarded the late morning train for a 90-minute ride to our next stop, Arezzo. (To be continued…)
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