Orvieto: The High Fortress Of Umbria

The ancient walled city of Orvieto, Italy sits high on a bed of volcanic stone among the rolling fields and vineyards of Umbria.

Steep windy roads overlooking miles of green fields lead up to Orvieto’s fortified stone facade, where visitors can step beyond the walled threshold to find a city rooted in rich history. Orvieto is impressive even from a distance—it sits high above the rural farmlands of Italy’s Umbria region, a rocky protrusion in the vibrant natural landscape. Known for its papal ties, striking duomo, Etruscan roots, and world-renowned white wine, Orvieto encompasses the best of Italy beyond its centuries-old walls.

Etruscan settlers were the first to call Orvieto home in the pre-Roman era, and many of their tombs are still accessible on the northern side of the city’s cliff face. The Crocifisso del Tufo dates back to the sixth century BC and serves as the final resting place for individual families from the city’s original civilization. Orvieto’s archaeological museum, Museo Claudio Faina e Museo Civico, houses many Etruscan artifacts uncovered throughout years of construction and expansion within the city walls.

Orvietom Umbria
Photo by valtercirillo via Pixabay

Orvieto was ultimately annexed by Rome and became a self-governing commune in the Middle Ages under heavy papal influence. By the thirteenth century, three papal palaces were constructed after several visits by Pope Benedict VII, whose nephew, Filippo Alberici, served as Consul of the city-state. Orvieto became a cultural and religious hub throughout the medieval period, housing influential popes and philosophers like Pope Urban IV and Thomas Aquinas. The territory was officially added to the Papal States until 1860 at the time of the Italian Unification.

The Duomo di Orvieto is considered by locals to be the most beautiful in all of Italy, and indeed, its colorful frescoes and striped travertine and basalt exterior are famed and revered not only within the city walls, but all across the country. Five separate artists worked tirelessly on the cathedral’s elaborate design over the course of 200 years to create a masterpiece hidden behind Orvieto’s towering defensive walls.

Duomo di Orvieto
Duomo di Orvieto. Photo by Layne Deakins

Another architectural wonder within Orvieto is the Pozzo di San Patrizio, a 175 foot well entirely unassuming from its cylindrical stone exterior. Built by Florentine architect-engineer Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the well was commissioned by Pope Clement VII, who fled to Orvieto after the sack of Rome in 1527. The well shaft is surrounded by double helix staircases, which once allowed a procession of mules to carry buckets to and from the bottom without crossing paths. The structure’s name is translated to “Saint Patrick’s Well,” inspired by legends of Saint Patrick’s Basilica in Ireland, a similar subterranean cave and well said to reach all the way to the depths of Purgatory.

Perhaps most acclaimed is Orvieto’s wine industry, which accounts for 80 percent of Umbria’s vineyard area. The grapes used for Orvieto wine are grown in rich tuffaceous soils and bedrock along the Paglia river and are fermented to create high-quality blends with a dry, peachy flavor. Orvieto’s white wine is shipped internationally and enjoyed by wine-lovers near and far with a selection of variants all embodying the fruitful, acidic terrain of Umbria’s fortress city.

Pozzo di San Patrizio
Pozzo di San Patrizio. Photo by pozzodisanpatrizio_official via Instagram

Whether stopping for a day trip or settling in for a long visit, a tour of Orvieto is one steeped in culture and history from antiquity to the present. The allure of Orvieto is easy to understand even outside of its stony bluffs, but beyond the imposing citadel, visitors can find a true hidden gem at the very heart of Italy.

Layne Deakins

Content Editor Associate

Layne is a Pennsylvania native who enjoys adventuring in nature, traveling, writing, eating, and spending precious time with her cat. Fluent in Italian, Layne jumps at every opportunity to explore the world around her, and she’s always planning for her next trip back to Italy.

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