Monday, July 8, 2019

Days 53 & 54 - Ficulle to Orvieto

In many ways, today’s stage was very similar to yesterday’s stage. We began in a hill town, hiked down to the valley below, walked beside train tracks for a while,and then ended the day hiking up a steep hill to another hill town.

We spent a considerable amount of time on asphalt. The early part of the day was extremely humid, and a dense haze/fog obscured the peaks on the opposite side of the valley. We had made an earlier start, so conditions were reasonably good at the beginning. I am still waiting for the forecasted break in the heat wave to materialize.

Mary of the Creek

Midway through the hike, we encountered Ponte Iulio, Pope Julius’ bridge. This was originally a Roman bridge, but it was rebuilt during the reign of the pope. Today it is in fairly poor condition.

Ponte Iulio

We closed out the day with a long, steep climb up the hill to Orvieto. The city is placed on top of a hill of tufa, and is surrounded on all sides by cliffs. It was a vigorous hike to end the day.

Approaching Orvieto

Orvieto is a gorgeous city of stone. All of the buildings are made of tufa blocks, and since the layout has changed little since the Middle Ages, it makes a most favorable impression. We had heard that it was a favorite tourist destination and likely to be swamped by people. This was not our experience. Either there were not many tourists around during our visit, or the city absorbed them with aplomb.

We took our last rest day here, and in the early morning, eager to see as much as we could before the heat became oppressive, we began our exploration. At the eastern end of the town we found the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St Patrick’s Well).

This well was commissioned by Pope Clement VII in 1527. The pope had fled to Orvieto for security after Rome had been sacked by a germanic army. Because Rome no longer seemed a safe place for the pontiff, plans were made to create a refuge for him in Orvieto.

Orvieto was very difficult to storm, but it was essential that it have a secure source of water. Consequently, the pope ordered the well.

It took ten years to carve this extraordinary well out of the stone. It is 53 meters deep and a consistent 13 meters wide all the way to the bottom. Not only that, it is lined with two circular staircases hewn out of the rock, a double helix of stairs. One staircase is for traffic descending, the other for ascending traffic. The staircases are wide enough for mules holding water jugs, which was the primary method of bringing water to the surface.

Well Windows

We descended into the gloom. Windows have been cut between the central shaft of the well and the stone staircases, so you can mark your progress as you descend. It also became cool very quickly, a pleasant change from the muggy weather at the top.

We reached the bottom, where there is a pool of water, filled with tourist coins. We were able to look back up the central shaft to the surface. I think a chain of buckets and windlasses would have been a more effective way to transport water than mules. In either case, the pope was never forced to take refuge in the city, so the labor was possibly in vain. It is amazing though. A Latin inscription on the well summarizes the effort nicely: what nature failed to supply, hard work provided.

The View from the Bottom

We then made our way to the area around the Duomo. There we visited the Etruscan museum and were treated to a wide range of artifacts discovered in and around the city. Orvieto began its life as the Etruscan city of Velzna. It has a rich archeological heritage and many fine objects were on display in the museum.

Today's Etruscan Selfie

One of the most fascinating aspects of Orvieto are the excavations beneath the city. The volcanic material that forms the base of the city is extremely soft, and for millennia, the residents have been burrowing beneath the surface. It is estimated that there are more than 1,200 cave complexes beneath the city, many of them reached from the basements of  the houses and buildings.

Our next stop was a tour of underground Orvieto. We went below the city into two caves. The first cave complex contained a medieval olive press --- olives are picked and the fruit is pressed during the winter, so this underground cave was an ideal place for this work. We also saw an Etruscan well that was used to supply the city during a siege.

The second cave complex consisted of rows of square boxes carved into the stone, roosts for pigeons. The birds were given free lodging, and they supplied guano and meat for the owners of the caves. The caves were fascinating and we enjoyed the tour immensely.

Stone Pigeon Boxes

The day was becoming insupportably hot, so we ended our tour with a visit to the Duomo. Mary was quite taken with the exterior of the building, which uses two different colors of stone to create a “lego” effect, very similar to the cathedral in Siena. The front is magnificent, and I was particularly absorbed by the carved bas-relief figures illustrating the major events in the Genesis story.

Bas-relief, Duomo Exterior

The interior was fine, but a little subdued, except for the chapel of the Madonna of Saint Brictio. This chapel is rather stunning. It features the work of Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli. His Last Judgement in the chapel is said to have been a source of inspiration for Michelangelo’s similar piece in the Sistine Chapel.


The day had grown too hot for sane people to be about. After a fine pizza lunch, we retired to our apartment to rest, wash clothes, and write blog entries.

Duomo Exterior

Orvieto will be our last rest stop. From here it is eight days to Rome

Today’s Distance: 24 KM

Total Distance: 1037.4 KM

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