by Alexandra


(the Duomo)

Autumn has arrived. For a while I was in denial that it would come at all, and I couldn’t understand why Italians insisted on wearing jackets and scarves when it was sunny and 25 degrees. But yesterday morning there was a dramatic storm – thunder and lightening, and such heavy rain that I was drenched even after a two minute dash to Linari for coffee.

The weather didn’t really put me in the mood for a day trip, but I’d booked tickets to Orvieto, so I went to Termini and got the train, hoping that Umbria would be less rainy. About an hour and twenty minutes later, after arriving in Orvieto and getting the funicular up to the historic centre, I discovered that it was indeed less rainy, but also freezing. My cardigan suddenly seemed inadequate, and it felt like punishment for laughing at all the scarf-wearing-Italians, who were now appropriately dressed. But stopping off at a cafe for a cornetto warmed me up a bit, and I spent most of the day walking briskly round Orvieto, so I didn’t feel too cold after that.

My first impressions of Orvieto – yellow and grey buildings, cats and Americans everywhere. Too many Americans, as at times it seemed like they outnumbered the Italians. I’d expected Orvieto to be inundated with tourists, and it was, but it was easy enough to escape the crowds and find empty streets, lonely churches.

Of course, the main reason people come to Orvieto is to see the famous Duomo. I fortunately ignored all the signs and decided to find my own way there, which meant my first sight of the Duomo was a sudden appearance at the end of the street, approaching it head-on, rather than coming from behind. The facade is spectacular and wonderfully over the top, but the rest of the building is actually quite ugly.

I did a circuit of the food market next to the Duomo, sampling as much mozzarella and olive oil as I could, and then went on a tour of Orvieto’s underground caves. Apparently houses in Orvieto all have their own private caves, built in medieval times and generally used as wine cellars. In the past the town was really overcrowded, and it was more effort to go down to the valley than to use the space below them, so these caves were used as spaces for making olive oil or keeping animals. Underground donkeys! And pigeons – lots and lots of pigeons, which were one of the main sources of food. We were shown these pigeon caves and also an amazing, claustrophobia-inducing Etruscan well, 80 metres deep. There was a moment, going down a steep, narrow flight of steps, when I asked myself why I was voluntarily going so far underground when I’m really claustrophobic, but it was worth it. I knew very little about Orvieto’s history beforehand, and it gives you an insight into the strange, subterranean lives people had hundreds of years ago.

But I think my main memory of Orvieto – and it’s so often the case, wherever I go in Italy – will be the churches. Not the Duomo, but the small, dark churches that the tourists don’t seem to know about. One was San Lorenzo de’Arari, a church with a single row of pews and no candles. The paintings were peeling off the walls, and it felt like it might be haunted. The only sign that it was still used were the flowers by the altar, and the only information on the noticeboard was a sheet of paper in…Moldovan? The only words I could make out were “Air Moldova”.


The other church was (I think) on Via Corso Cavour, but I can’t remember the name. It’s a hexagonal building with an exterior so plain that you might not even realise it was a church, if you didn’t look closely. My favourite buildings are the ones that look like nothing special from the outside, but inside…


It reminded me of a theatre more than a church, and I loved the shades of yellow and pink, which gave it a sense of light and warmth that isn’t really evident from the pictures I took. I sat there for a while and was the only visitor, apart from a woman who came in briefly to pray.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around Orvieto, walking around the outer edges for views of the countryside, and eventually running out of energy and ideas. I wished I’d brought a notebook or something to read. It’s not that there isn’t enough to do in Orvieto, just that I was tired, didn’t want to spend any more money, and wished I’d booked an earlier train.

During my weary walk towards the end of the day, I was moved to hear a busker singing I Giardini di Marzo. Not very well, but I’ve been on a Lucio Battisti binge recently and I’ve become slightly obsessed with that song. I can tell that years later, hearing it is going to remind me of my first few weeks in Italy, so it was nice to hear it unexpectedly while walking through Orvieto.

Arriving back at Termini was exciting, being back in the buzz of Rome. For me, Termini is one of the most exciting places in the world. I love big train stations in general, but in London, for example, the major destinations are spread out over several main stations. Termini, on the other hand, feels like the centre of everything. When I see “Venezia S. L.” on the departure board I’m overcome by the urge to get on that train, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to resist. I adore Venice, and as the novel I’m writing is set there, I really need to go back as soon as possible.

As well as the trains going all across Italy, there are also the international trains. After I got off the train at Termini I had a long walk down the platform past the sleeper train to Vienna. Seeing a train going to Vienna, and catching glimpses of travellers settling into their cabins, is enough to give me serious wanderlust. Train travel is much more thrilling than flying, though sadly I doubt I’d be able to afford tickets for a sleeper train to Vienna. I didn’t even enjoy my experience of a sleeper train that much, travelling from Madrid to Lisbon, as I didn’t get any sleep. Though there’s still some uncertainty about my dream/vision of Apollo in the middle of the night…but that’s another story. Anyway, I doubt I’ll be getting on a trans-European train any time soon, but Venice is a possibility.