Out on a limb from the rest of Umbria, ORVIETO is perfectly placed between Rome and Florence to serve as a historical picnic for tour operators. Visitors flood into the town, drawn by the Duomo, one of the greatest Gothic buildings in Italy. However, once its facade and Signorelli’s frescoes have been admired, the town’s not quite as exciting as guides and word of mouth make out. This is partly to do with the gloominess of the dark volcanic rock from which Orvieto is built, and, more poetically, because it harbours something of the characteristic brooding atmosphere of Etruscan towns (it was one of the twelve-strong federation of Etruscan cities). Two thousand years on, it’s not difficult to detect a more laidback atmosphere in the cities east of the Tiber – founded by the Umbrians, a sunnier and easier-going people. All the same Orvieto is likeable, the setting superb, the Duomo unmissable, and the rest of the town good for a couple of hours’ visit. And you could always indulge in its renowned white wine if you’re stuck with time on your hands. Over New Year there’s also the Umbria Jazz Winter festival: five days of marching bands and jazz performances.
It is the first impressions of Orvieto from afar that tend to linger; its position is almost as remarkable and famous as its cathedral. The town, rising 300m sheer from the valley floor, sits on a tabletop plug of volcanic lava, one of four such remnants in the vicinity. It starts to look fairly average again from the dismal town around the train station, but hit the twisting 3km road up to the old centre and you begin to get a sense of its drama and one-off weirdness. Orvieto’s old centre is compact and walkable: all of the main sights are within a twenty-minute stroll of the Duomo.