Road trip update: On our way through Orvieto

Travel days aren’t the most glamorous part of a tour. The best you can hope for is an interesting rest stop.

Orvieto was just that. It’s the medieval city on a hill you see in every travel guidebook – the one that announces, “Now you’re in Europe!”

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(OK, technically it’s on a volcanic tuff, but you get the picture.)

Since we’re suckers for authenticity, we quickly veered off the beaten path into its narrow side streets, dragging our three kids behind us.

Poor things. All they wanted was gelato; instead, they were getting a crash course in Italian history.

After a while, the bilingual signs reverted back to Italian and the tourist-trap souvenir shops and stores selling ceramics vanished. We were in a residential part of town.

The only hazards were the random mopeds that appeared out of nowhere, seeming to take aim at our smallest child. Erysse was tethered to my leg for the rest of the afternoon.

These quiet streets are what we had hoped to see in Rome. I’m sure they exist there. I would have given anything for a moment of quiet, away from the crowd of tourists, the ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke, the swarms of Vespas – and now, finally, we had found it.

Orvieto offers a stunning 360-degree view of the Umbrian countryside: farms with olive trees and vineyards, simple but elegant homes, and the occasional castle. From up here, it looks like you stepped into a time machine and went back a century. Or, from a certain angle, a millennium.

I would like to say we came away with some profound observation about Italy. We did not.

You don’t go on a tour like this and leave with any special insight. Almost everything you do and see is carefully planned, with the possible exception of “lunch on your own.”

On our solo lunch in Orvieto, we realized that you have to get out of Rome to discover the real Italy.

Then again, is there any place where that isn’t true?

7 thoughts on “Road trip update: On our way through Orvieto

  1. Orvieto is one of the (many)  jewels of Italy, and to best see/know/understand and appreciate the country you really need to get out of the big cities.  That said, there are neighborhoods throughout Rome, where the Italians live, that are not filled with noise or tourists or cigarette smoke. 

  2. Chris, I hope you trekked down and back up the well in Orvieto! Another of my favorite places is Pienza. If you haven’t been there you’ll find it even more tranquil than Orvieto.


  3. When the
    train frpm Rome pulled into Orvieto on our 1999 trip to Italy, I asked (in My Best Italian) a news vendor in
    the station “Where is the Hertz car rental agency?” Pointing across the
    street to the funicular railway, he said something about “ascending.”

    Now, Orvieto is a medieval town built on the top of a dormant volcanic
    hill and it hardly would make any sense to put the car rental office up
    there, would it? But up the mountain we went. Reaching the top, I
    asked (in My Best Italian) a bus driver if he was headed anywhere near
    the Hertz office. He wagged his finger at me, said “No, signore,” and drove off.

    By now it was noon and I knew that the Hertz office would soon close for the three hour afternoon siesta. Problemo grande!

    We caught
    the next bus to the Tourist Information office where I asked the TI Lady
    if she knew the location of the Hertz office. She shook her head no. I
    pulled out my railpass and showed it to her. Seeing the picture of a
    train on the cover of the pass she exclaimed: “Il treno, il treno!” “No, signora, La Machina (“The Machine”—meaning “the car”)!” I explained, pointing to the page where the car rental company name was printed. “Ah, ‘Ertz!”
    the TI Lady said. Oops! That’s right: Italians don’t pronounce the
    leading “H” in a word! Since every tourist “ascends” Orvieto to see
    the cathedral maybe the newsvendor at the station thought I was saying
    “church” instead of “Hertz.” No problemo.

    The TI Lady
    called the ‘Ertz Lady who fetched us in our rental car, drove us down
    the hill to her office, and after some back and forth (in My Best
    Italian and Her Best English) we completed the paperwork. Were we
    through getting lost in Italy that day?

    Far from it.

    It was now
    about 1:15 pm. We were starving so the ‘Ertz Lady phoned a local
    restaurant to make a lunch reservation for us. Gesturing toward the top
    of the hill and speaking (in a mélange of Italian and Her Best English)
    she pointed out the garage where we should park before “ascending” and
    walking to the restaurant. But by the time left the car we had
    forgotten which way she had said to turn. No problemo. This is not a very big place. I figured the restaurant must be near the cathedral, so turning right, off we went.

    After a
    half hour of forced marching, we had found no sign of the restaurant,
    despite the fact that there were signs everywhere showing the direction
    to everything. By now, my wife’s stomach was rumbling like a not so
    quiescent volcano. Trailing me by a few yards, she loudly insisted that
    we just find a place to get a “damned sandwich.” But swinging my arm
    forward in a “tomahawk chop,” I continued my quest to find the illusive
    “Il Grotto” and our waiting table. At last, we spotted an arrow
    pointing down into the bowels of the earth and the entry to the
    underground eatery.

    blue jeans, sneakers, a TravelSmith “army field jacket” and a baseball
    cap, I approached two tuxedo-clad waiters and proclaimed (in My Best
    Italian): “We have a reservation!” With looks of disbelief, they
    consulted the reservation book, confirmed that Signor and Signora Jordan
    did indeed have a prenotazione, and escorted us past tables
    filled with Italians “dressed to the nines” to a cozy nook where we were
    fed an absolutely wonderful meal.

    finishing lunch, we stepped outside only to discover that the parking
    garage was next to the restaurant! We spent some time leisurely
    visiting the sights we had missed during our earlier peripatetic race
    around the town, and then drove down the hill and onto the northbound
    Autostrada. An hour later, we bumped our way up a dirt road and into
    the yard of the Umbrian agritourismo where we would spend the next two nights.

    (The foregoing is an excerpt from the copyrighted story “Why Real Men Don’t Ask Directions in Italian” which appears on my travel blog, Tales Told From The Road).

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