Unless you’ve chosen one of Italy’s Big Three – Rome, Florence or Venice – people will always ask you why you live wherever it is you live. I must admit that I do the same thing (although I also ask why about the Big Three) because there’s such a variety of reasons that push people to a particular town.
I chose Orvieto, which is in Umbria.
My first few times to Italy were via bicycle trips, the very first of which included Tuscany. Like millions of people before me, I immediately fell in love with the Tuscan countryside. I couldn’t imagine finding anything I liked more than its beautiful vistas.
My second bike trip was across Italy — from Fano, in the province of Le Marche on the Adriatic, to Porto Ercole in southern Tuscany on the Tyrrhenian Sea — passing right across Umbria. This middle-of-Italy swath is littered with picturesque hilltop towns, and I’ve seldom met a hilltop town that I haven’t adored. We stayed in Urbino, Gubbio, Spello, and Todi – all gorgeous and waiting for us in the sun at the end of our day’s ride.
And then we got to Orvieto. My introduction to the town was via a 2-1/2 mile winding uphill at the end of a difficult 30 mile bike ride in the rain….hardly the stuff Italian Dreams are made of. To add to the dreary welcome, the dark gold indigenous volcanic rock that forms the plateau on which the town sits is also the material of choice for the buildings, and this monochromatic look can most charitably be described as “melancholy” on a rainy day. In addition, much of the town was laid out during medieval times, meaning narrow streets and not much visible greenery. All of these pieces should have fit together to complete a somber picture of a fairly gloomy town.
However, here we must apply what I think of as the Charles/Camilla Syndrome. People were just amazed that Prince Charles could possibly have preferred the rather plain Camilla over the younger and more outwardly lovely Diana. But the fact remains that Camilla always had a certain inexplicable something that Charles absolutely adored.
That’s exactly how it is with Orvieto and me. As you can see from the photos above and below, it is actually quite lovely — particularly on a sunny day – but you couldn’t call it the most beautiful town around. I tried to love other places. I spent many vacations staying 3 or 4 days in a wide variety of perfectly polished hilltop towns in both Tuscany and Umbria. But I eventually noticed a pattern: I somehow managed to always fit in a couple of Orvieto days after I had tired of those other “pretty faces”. And I always felt “at home” when I arrived in Orvieto. I kept waiting for the day when a visit would be disappointing, but it never happened. Yet even today, I can’t put a finger on just why I think we go together so well.
I’m reminded of a winemaker in California who told us that of all his wines, his favorite was one of his whites. We asked why he liked it so much, expecting the usual wine-speak answer containing words like honeysuckle or ripe apricots, but he answered simply: “I don’t know; I just do.” So far, that’s better than any other answer I’ve been able to come up with — just in case you ever ask me why I love Orvieto.