ORVIETO, Italy — In trekking through the "big three" of Italy--Rome, Florence and Venice--there is so much to absorb that even veteran museum-goers may overdose on the stories of antiquity and the treasures of the Renaissance.
So we exhaust ourselves, collecting sore muscles and headaches along with the memories. For a different kind of experience, consider a visit to one of the "little three"--Orvieto, Viterbo and Spoleto.
Just over an hour's drive north of Rome, these compact medieval cities offer a delightful change of pace, a chance to stroll leisurely through history preserved.
Of the three, Orvieto, perched atop a pillar of tufo (volcanic rock) just off the Autostrada del Sole (A1), probably makes the best base and provides the most amenities.
Orvieto boasts a magnificent cathedral, an immense structure that reflects the efforts of its creators: 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaicists.
The cathedral, or duomo , which dominates the vast Piazza del Duomo it faces, is adorned by a striking facade of colorful mosaics that glitter in the sunlight, and contains a panoply of frescoes that vividly depict the Destruction of the World, the Resurrection of the Flesh, the Doings of the Antichrist, the Damned, the Blessed and the Last Judgment.
Into the Middle Ages
Despite its impressiveness, it is not the cathedral nor even its famed white wine that make Orvieto such a worthwhile attraction.
That distinction belongs to its winding, cobblestoned streets, its sturdy stone buildings and its picturesque arches, topped by brown-tiled roofs.
Walks through the quiet passageways permit entrance to the Middle Ages, when Orvieto was a papal stronghold and Pope Clement VII ordered a 200-foot-deep well dug through the volcanic rock to supply drinking water during a siege.
The siege never occurred, but the shaft, called St. Patrick's Well--Pozzo di San Patrizio, has served the tourist trade instead, since admission is charged those interested in taking the 248 steps to its bottom.
Aside from the ubiquitous souvenir and ristorante directional signs that seem indigenous to the Italian landscape, this snug city of 25,000 has made few capitulations to contemporary life, a prime reason for exploring its quaint old quarters by day or night.
After dark, in fact, ornate streetlights throw mysterious shadows across the parapets and ramparts, inciting the imagination to picture the bygone clashes of duelists and the rendezvous of lovers.
Such fantasies can be abetted considerably each summer when Orvieto celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi.
The festival's highlight is a procession through the town by hundreds of marchers wearing colorful, medieval costumes representing the community's four ancient quarters: Olmo, Serancia, Corsice and Santa Maria della Stella.
More frequent reminders of Orvieto's heritage can be appreciated twice weekly on outdoor market days when fruits, vegetables, foodstuffs and pottery are sold under multicolored tents in the Piazza del Popolo.
An affinity for ceramics goes back to Orvieto's origins as an Etruscan settlement, and potters' wares are on display throughout the city.
Despite its preoccupation with the past, Orvieto maintains modern facilities behind its historic facades.
There is a range of hotels and pensioni --the Maitani, only yards from the Piazza del Duomo, is comfortable, although not inexpensive--and a variety of good restaurants in all price categories.
While the view from Orvieto across the Paglia River valley is spectacular, the view of Orvieto is no less extraordinary.
Best sites are along the twisting highway that leads to Montefiascone, where from about two miles away, the turreted town rises from the swirling wisps of fog like some mystic isle.
Daylong Side Trip
The route to Montefiascone, which necessitates negotiating a series of hairpin curves, does double-duty, since it is also the way to Viterbo, another medieval city that constitutes a pleasant daylong side trip.
Less than 30 miles from Orvieto, Viterbo to the south contains twice the population, but lends itself more readily to discovery. Its medieval district, San Pellegrino, is concentrated along the via of the same name.
This well-preserved quarter, with its narrow, winding streets, contains numerous metal-working establishments.
Among the district's attractions is La Zaffera, a splendid restaurant with a beautiful garden, as well as a reasonably priced companion trattoria with its tree-edged patio.
In addition to San Pellegrino, Viterbo houses a number of interesting buildings, fountains and piazza within its sturdy walls. The best anecdote doubtless involves the papal palace during the 13th Century, when Viterbo was a familiar residence of Popes.
In 1226, Pope Clement IV died in the city. While the task of replacing him fell on the Roman Catholic Church, the site of that activity was Viterbo.