Adventures in Italy: Day 10 Chianciano, Orvieto, Sorrento

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April 11th 2017
Published: April 11th 2017
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Italy, Day 10, Thursday, October 13, Chianciano to Orvieto to Sorrento.

Chianciano provided a rosy-pink and blue-gray sunrise over the valley on our last day. We packed a weeks' worth of clothing and purchases into our suitcases for our journey south to Orvieto and finally Sorrento before heading down to breakfast. As we were leaving the hotel, Abdu, the wonderful hotel manager, gave me kisses goodbye. I felt like I was leaving a good friend.

As we left Tuscany we headed due south on E35 passing more farms and vineyards under overcast skies before coming into the ancient city of Orvieto in the Province of Terni in southwestern Umbria.
Ben described Orvieto as a ‘slow city embracing the slow food movement’, and he said the white wines of Orvieto are particularly prized.

The city itself is perched atop a large volcanic butte and indeed we see a good number of castles and protective stone walls nearby made from the local volcanic tuff found along the steep butte. The location of Orvieto is significant allowing the city to control the road between Florence and Rome. Long before the Roman involvement, the site of Orvieto was an Etruscan acropolis.

Over the centuries, Orvieto’s relationship with the papacy has been close but even though it was under papal control, it was years before it was officially added to the Papal States. It remained a papal possession until 1860, when it was annexed to the newly unified Italy.

In order to reach the summit where the cathedral is located we took a funicular (a hillside train) from the valley, where a bus met us to take us the rest of the way up to the massive cathedral.

On November 15, 1290 Pope Nicholas IV broke ground for the monumental Cathedral of Orvieto. This imposing Cathedral, or Duomo*, was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The architecture reminded me a great deal of the Cathedral of Siena with its gleaming white travertine and shades of green and black basalt in stripes along the cathedral walls. Inside the cathedral I saw more resemblances to the Siena cathedral with its high ceiling supported by many large basalt striped columns and interior facades. It took almost three centuries to complete the cathedral.

The enormous Duomo has 2 small chapels inside, one with frescoes depicting the life of Christ as well as some smaller painted stories depicting works of famous writers such as Dante, (Dante's Inferno), Homer, Horace, Ovid and Virgil. Inside the vault of the chapel we found Christ in Judgment by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli on the ceiling high above. The beautiful Last Judgement frescoes by Luca Signiorelli such as his famous The Elect being Led to Paradise, The Preaching of the Antichrist and his horrific fresco of The Damned taken to Hell and received by Demons make imposing statements along the walls. Signiorelli’s last work in this cathedral is a Pieta that includes the image of his son Antonio who died from the plague while Signiorelli was completing the frescoes. In the large cathedral there are numerous icons, statues and other works of art from the 13th century.

In the middle of the 13th century when the popes moved to Orvieto to escape the conflict in Rome, they constructed a Papal Palace (also known as Palazzo Soliano) to the right of the cathedral and expanded it to include the bishop’s residence. St Thomas Aquinas arrived in Orvieto in 1261 where he became a lector at the Convent of San Domenico. After a miracle of blood appearing on a corporal used by Peter of Prague, a doubting priest, Pope Urban IV commissioned St Thomas Aquinas to compose the Proper for a Mass and an Office honoring the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ.

To complete this imposing property, a large and grand building was constructed in 1359 for the cathedral’s administrative offices. This already large building was later expanded to include Etruscan artifacts found around this former Etruscan capitol. In 1896, at the end of its use as a papal residence, it was redesigned and used as a museum that is open to visitors today. Works that are no longer needed in the main cathedral are displayed here including important art works, reliquaries, and pieces of the original construction that was removed during restoration. The masterpieces of the MODO or the Opera del Duomo Museum, combines a collection of four medieval museums that host more remarkable works by the extraordinary talents of these times. I think the 16th century painting Magdalene (1504) by Luca Signorelli is the most memorable of these. This entire site is being considered as a World Heritage Site.

*At this point I feel the need to clarify the differences between a Cathedral, Duomo and Basilica (because I didn’t know and thought some of you might not know either). After doing a little research this is what I came up with: Duomo is a contraction of "Domus Dei," Latin for "House of God”. A Cathedral is the same as a Duomo but is the seat of a bishop. A Basilica can be as large or larger than a Duomo but it's not a church related to any bishop. Also a Basillica refers to a building or Catholic church, with a long nave flanked by colonnades that run to a semicircular apse at the far end and two side aisles. An then another source claims it is the Pope who gives a church the designation of ‘Basilica’, not the architecture. Got it? Good.

I would have really enjoyed a tour of the underground city that has over 1200 tunnels, galleries, ancient wells that kept the city from starvation during the Roman siege, stairs, quarries, special rooms, cellars, and surprise passageways. I learned there are even niches for pigeon roosts! These tunnels connected many homes of noble families, providing a means of escape when needed.

By the time we left Orvieto it was very damp and cold, probably in the 50s (F) with heavy clouds adding to the chill outside. We were all looking forward to the sun and warmth of Sorrento. Sadly this comfort was still hours away since there was NO HEAT on the bus! My feet were freezing and Dave's cold was getting worse. Everyone seemed to be coughing or sneezing. Finally, as we left the north and passed into the southern portion of Italy, the sun came out and it became much warmer.

There are many towns whose boundaries merge into one another from Naples to Sorrento. Ben told us that in this area there are many Roman ruins that can be accessed for a euro or two but they are in various states of restoration. Our bus passed through many tunnels called galleries that Ben said have helped speed up traffic. Some of the tunnels are quite lengthy.

As we progressed further south, the mountains soon began to take on a more conical shape. Ben pointed out a small mountain with the ‘so called’ profile of Mussolini's face on its side in the distance. Not a pure likeness. The Autostrada, the main north south highway partially owned by Mr Benetton (of the clothing fame) runs south from Milan through to Salerno. We stopped at the Pit Stop on the Autostrada in Salerno to stretch and feel the warmth of the south seep into our cold bones.

The Golden Mile known as the Miglio d’ Oro includes the magnificent Bay of Naples where Mount Vesuvius reigns supreme. Some 122 villas form the Association of Vesuvian Villas, stunning examples of Bourbon Architecture. Each had been known for their magnificent gardens, or parks with glass houses, ornamental pools, fountains and aviaries. They were once considered elite but Ben informs us that this area has been overdeveloped and the charm has been lost. Ben also tells us this is where cameos were made.

When we approached the Bay of Naples, there was palpable excitement as we all craned our necks for the first view of Mount Vesuvius, intermittently visible from the road. Legend has it that the vial of blood of Sant Giniatto will liquefy if something bad should happen like a war or Vesuvius erupting. I am wondering where this vial is located.

The journey from Naples to Sorrento did not seem that long
Sorrento, Italy and the Bay of NaplesSorrento, Italy and the Bay of NaplesSorrento, Italy and the Bay of Naples

Our base for the next week.
because soon we found our bus winding around switchbacks affording views of villas and churches with spectacular views of the Bay of Naples. After much anticipation our bus deposited this cold and tired group at the Cesare Augusto Hotel in Sorrento, our home for the next week. We (along with other tour groups) checked into the hotel en masse and as soon as we were settled, Ben gave us a quick tour of the essentials of the city such as ATMs, laundromats and good restaurants. Time to warm up, eat and relax.


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