Orvieto’s Hidden City

March 21, 2013 / Art & Archaeology
Orvieto, Umbria
orvieto-underground1Orvieto, one of the most dramatically sited cities in Italy, is perched atop a massive cliff of volcanic rock called tufa. First settled by Etruscans, it sits on its invincible rock right beside the main road between Rome and Florence.

The hidden city, a labyrinth beneath its surface, was a long-kept secret. Dug deep into the tufa, it has wells, tunnels, stairways, long passages and vast cellars used for many reasons over the centuries. From pressing olives to raising pigeons to workshops for ceramics, shops and storage spaces, the caves were repurposed many times.

So far, a census of over 1,200 caves has been recorded with many more yet to be explored. Two are now open to the public with a guided tour and well worth a visit.

orvieto-underground4Etruscans dug their wells 45 meters deep; later pigeon rooms were carved out, lined with hundreds of niches. Pigeons were a cheap source of food, flying outside to feed, returning to the caves and breeding every month. Pigeon is still a favored dish in Orvieto.

Palaces and common homes all had stairs leading down to their own cave, many with escape routes outside the city walls. During WWII the Duomo was protected by decree, but the hospital was not. Patients came down a secret passage to shelter during bombing raids. Residents today still use their caves for storage.

Once it was discovered that the tufa was an excellent source of building mortar, enterprising entrepreneurs began to “mine” the tufa during the Middle Ages. One can easily see the difference between the vaults and wells created by the Etruscans and the later mining efforts. The mining was so extensive that pillars had to be built before Orvieto collapsed!



Colleen Simpson

by Colleen Simpson

Colleen followed a long-held dream and made a home in Piegaro, which is a pristine medieval glass-making village south of Lago Trasimeno in Umbria. She is the innkeeper at www.anticavetreria.net.

12 Responses to “Orvieto’s Hidden City”

  1. Colleen, Another great article. Thanks for sharing and keep the “Notes” coming. I have visited Orvieto many times and have taken the underground tour, which is well worth the very small entry fee. Then at sunset my favorite thing to do is sit at the little cafe across from the Duomo with a glass of wine and watch this beautiful church change colors as the sun goes down.

  2. Great article. I’m always fascinated by the cave systems and tunnels found all over Italy. And the creative ways they were used. thanks for sharing this.

  3. Orvieto itsef is one of the hidden gems of Europe. We spend our time in Italy in Panicale, a Piegaro neighbor overlooking Lago Trasimeno. Grand part of the unverse.

  4. Being in the wine trade I get to visit many such gems as Orvietto. Great article, what’s next? So many wonderful Italian cities to choose from! :-)

  5. Ginny Siggia

    I adore caves and cryptic places, and visited the fascinating “Narni Sotterranea” in 2010. My ideal vacation would include visits to several such places, even making that the focus of the trip. Orvieto is definitely on the list for the next visit.

  6. William Strangio

    I used Orvieto as a “base camp” for a week because it is a wonderful place to explore and also its not far from Rome. Siena,
    San Gimignano, Assisi, Lago Trasimeno as well as the other sites in Umbria and Tuscany.

  7. mattea francesco

    I remember viewing this town from a bus on our way to Florence…I was mesmerized and intrigued by the rock shapes as we passed…I remember asking what town that was in the distance and being told a little of its history by our guide….would have loved to stop and explore…perhaps on a return trip….it’s amazing because that view never left me….

  8. Joan Schmelzle

    I enjoyed the article. I “did” the underground tour when I spent a day or two in Orvieto a 5 or 6 years ago. It is indeed worth the time.

  9. Ciao, Colleen!
    I enjoyed your article as well. Although I have been to Orvieto twice (and cannot wait to return!), somehow there wasn’t enough time to do the underground tour (ok, I’m a little queasy about being under the ground, too!)…but next time…

  10. Allan Mahnke

    This blog came the day after we had decided to spend a couple of days in Orvieto this fall.

    Many thanks!

  11. Larry Marini


    Flying to Italy a few years ago, I was sitting next to a Pathologist from Texas flying to his adopted town ( city ) of Orvieto. He filled me in on the beauty and history of this town.

    Being born south of Rome and still having a beautiful paternal home in a small town, I was intrigued. I decided to visit a cousin in the Umbria-Marche regions and passed by Orvieto, North of Rome.

    The Town stands majestically on a hillside and it’s slopes are now full of new hokes overlooking the highway, and countryside. One of these days I hope to return to my home land and visit this town. It has been on my mind sice then.


  12. William Strangio

    Going to Orvieto by train has advantages over driving. Parking is limited and most of the streets are not open for through travel. Coming out of the train station towards the mountain,
    cross the street and walk towards the hillside cable car that
    lifts you to the top station which is adjacent to the Pope’s well
    and a small parking area. The local small bus stops at the upper
    station. The bus’s route goes to the Cathedral(main site). in addition the underground tour office is in front of the church is an interesting Etruscan museum, plus interesting shops. The
    Popes Palazzo and the main shopping street is the north of the
    Cathedral piazza. Try it you will like ikt!


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