Arguably the most fascinating site in Orvieto is a guided tour of the extensive underground tunnels built into the Tufa rock on which the city sits. And when I say extensive, I mean extensive. To date, over 1200 caves and tunnels have been discovered underneath the city, many of which were unknown until a landslide in the 1970’s opened up one side of the cliff.
Orvieto’s human history goes back at least 3000 years, and the geological history, millions of years more. Sitting in the middle of the valley, the massive rock, whose sheer cliffs reach up 100m, is topped by a medieval city of ancient buildings, towers, and churches. Looking around the rolling hills of the Umbrian countryside, you have to wonder how that rock came to be.
Several million years ago, most of central Italy was covered by a shallow sea and indeed, many fossils and even complete seashells can still be found buried in the valley clay bottom and the sandstone hills nearby. About 500,000 years ago, as the sea drained, the area had many active volcanoes and it is believed that a giant volcanic plug was blasted from what is now Bolsena Lake, about 20 km southwest of the city, and landed on the clay sea bed. The rock is primarily made up of two kinds of rock – the porous brown tufa stone as well as a friable grey rock made of compressed ash called Pozzolana.
The first people to inhabit this plateau were the Etruscans as far back as the 6th century BC, whose name gave the province of Tuscany its name. Etruria covered a large territory in Italy and due in part to its strategic location and rich valley soil, Velzna, as Orvieto was then called, was one of the most important cities of the region.
The Etruscan people had a fairly advanced civilization as is evidenced in their art, pottery, bronze work, and black earthenware called bucchero which has been excavated from the tunnels as well as the burial sites and can now be found in many museums and galleries in the area.
Because the city was built on solid rock, the only way to find water was the dig wells by hand to depths of up to 130 feet. The inhabitants found it relatively easy to dig in the rock and they dug many caves, grottos, storage areas, and even garbage dumps below ground. When the Romans invaded in 264BC, the Etruscans were able fight them off for 2 years because of the protective underground tunnels they had built, the easy access to water, and steep, impenetrable walls of the rock. Eventually however, they lost their battle and the Romans forced them out of the city and destroyed most signs of their civilization.
After the fall of the Romans, the city passed through several hands, until around 1000AD when the first church San Giovenale was built. Orvieto enjoyed a resurgence during the middle ages, with the population expanding to over 30,000. The underground tunnels were revitalized and expanded and were used for the storage of food and wine because of the constant cool temperatures, as well as for housing animals. Many caves along the outer edges of the cliffs had access for pigeons and the caves are still dotted with small holes that were used as nest. Pigeon is still a popular regional dish in Orvieto – I did not try it. 🙂
In the 1200’s, the incredible Pozzo di San Patrizio (St Patrick’s Well) was built with a double-helix staircase wrapping around it. The complex staircase allowed a pony to walk all the way down to the bottom, fill up with water, cross the bridge at the bottom, and then walk up the other stair case without meeting another coming down. For a few euros, you can walk down the staircase to the bottom of the well and it’s hard to imagine how the people could have built such an amazing structure during that time period.
Most of the tunnels were undiscovered until a massive earthquake in the 1970’s sheared off the side of a cliff near the Duomo and opened up the side of the hill. Subsequent investigations found over a 1000 tunnels and caves throughout the entire city. They are built on three levels of the stone with staircases and tunnels connecting the levels.
Most of the tunnels are private property of the homes or stores above them but several are available for tours. One self-guided tour is owned privately, and the other is owned by the city. As part of our “Key to the City” ticket, we took the guided tour of three levels of tunnels near the main Piazza Duomo. The tour is offered in Italian and English several times a day and you need to sign up ahead of time at an office across from the Duomo. The tour takes about 45 minutes and the guide was knowledgable and interesting. All signs of Etruscan life are gone now, but we were able to see some remnants of life in the middle ages including an ancient stone used to press olives. Several sections were steep and narrow so if you suffer from claustrophobia, you may only want to visit part of the caves.
We also paid 3 euros to walk through the tunnels and the old well of Pozzo Della Cava which contained a number of interesting artefacts and pottery reproductions. The information signs were in Italian and English (possibly more?) and at the end of the tour, the owner pulled me into his small restaurant adjacent to the tour to show me a glass floor view a view of the caves under one of the tables. I was confused at the time and thought he was just trying to get me to come in to buy lunch so we had a good laugh as well.
If you walk along the base of the rock, you can often see access to caves, most with locked gates, and apparently many are still used by the locals as cool storage for food and other items. In addition, some of the tunnels found a new use as bomb shelters during WWII and so they have been an important part of Orvieto’s history for three distinct time periods.
If you only have a short time in Orvieto, the underground cave tour should definitely be on your to-do list. It is interesting for all ages and then later, you will be amazed to think about what is under your feet as you wander through the city nibbling on your gelato.
If you have more time, and are interested in learning more, several of Orvieto’s museums have a wide variety of pottery and other artefacts from both the Etruscan time period as well as the middle ages. On the north side of the city, you can also visit the Etruscan Necropolis to see where, and how, they buried their dead.
As a final note, look closely at the buildings in Orvieto. Most are built with the same porous tufa rock on which they stand.