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Where Time Stands Still:
Orvieto and CivitÓ di Bagnoregio

Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack...the rumbling of the tracks keeps its steady beat as we pass through the rural Italian landscape. Forested hillsides and vineyards, lush farmland, streams, and mountains off to the east, paint a perfect picture as I gaze from the coach. Speeding by, fields of picked corn and sunflowers become a blur of yellow. Suddenly, the hillside fortress of Orvieto sits majestically on a volcanic tufa summit to the west. Rising 1,000 feet above the River Paglia, its walls seem unbreachable as they encircle the town -- our headquarters for our few days in Umbria.

A "Lift" to the Past

We arrive at the train station that sits at the base of the cliff and take the funicular up to old Orvieto. Our first try to secure lodging at a "pensione" is not successful, and we are directed to the Hotel Duomo. It’s easy to lose our way in the maze of cobblestone streets, so we stop at the post office and I ask in my broken Italian, "Dov’Ŕ l’Albergo Duomo?" With a few gestures and nods of understanding, we are on our way. The Hotel Duomo is a little bit funky. Our room has a balcony overlooking a flowered courtyard, with a bird’s-eye view of the cathedral (Duomo). The mattress is soft; but for L50,000, it’s a steal. And a gelato shop is right behind it -- definitely the place to stop for a snack.

Wandering through the medieval town, we find churches in nearly every neighborhood -- a small hexagonal chapel that is cozy and inviting, and a large Baroque church that is ornately decorated. But as we turn a corner, we are taken back by the grandeur of the Duomo as it looms before us. One of the greatest Romanesque-Gothic buildings in Italy, its ornate facade is made of horizontal black and white striped marble. Life-sized sculpted figures are tucked into niches, and its interior frescoes depict the end of the world. Surrounding the main doors, panels carved in the 14th-century tell stories from Genesis.

Once an Etruscan stronghold, Orvieto has many archeological findings. A visit to the Etruscan Museum near the cathedral proves fascinating. We view an old Etruscan tomb, located halfway down St. Patrick’s well, and an old olive press. If you like the underground, Orvieto has lots to explore.

Evening in Orvieto is peaceful, since most of the tourists leave. But the square in front of the Duomo becomes lively with the young locals. Strains of Louis Armstrong from a juke box serenade us as we seek out a place to eat. The cuisine of the Tipica Etruscan Trattoria looks interesting and we dine on minestrone, tortellini, and a Classico Orvieto wine. Bene!

An Artist’s Dream: CivitÓ di Bagnoregio

Sunny skies awaken us at 8:00 a.m.. We hurry our breakfast so we can catch the 9:00 bus to Bagnoregio. Today we take a scenic trip through the hillside country, dotted with vineyards and olive groves. The small, pinnacle town of CivitÓ di Bagnoregio is our final destination.

About a mile from the Bagnoregio bus stop is the 1-mile long donkey path that links CivitÓ to the rest of Italy. Perched above a steep canyon, 2500-year-old CivitÓ di Bagnoregio has only 15 permanent residents. There are no cars, no pollution, no lodging, a few shops, and only one restaurant. Today, the town is planning for a religious feast and is bustling with activity, preparing its piazza and historic church for the celebration. Excited children line the church aisles with greenery and arrange flowers in artistic designs. Banners, put up in front of the church, are festive and ablaze with colors. Two young boys race up the stairs to the campanile to peal out the noontime Angelus. This is the heartbeat of the village.

While waiting in the square for the sole restaurant, Al Forno, to open, the sites and sounds of medieval CivitÓ are lively. Two boys are exercising their horse in the piazza, encouraging it to jump over a pole positioned on two chairs, while their neighbors and merchants yell "Bravo!" for their horsemanship. And ahh, our lunch at Al Forno -- such a special corner of CivitÓ -- tucked away under vines, with red and white checkered tablecloths, is a feast of mushroom fettucini. Topped off by delicious gelato for dessert, it is a simple, yet elegant fare.

Wandering the cobbled streets lined with stone homes and vacation villas of rich Italians, we admire the expansive canyon view. Near the church, a cozy wine cellar is tucked away, with stump chairs on its dirt floors. In a cellar that dates back to Etruscan times, we enjoy its cool dampness as we sip the local vintage.

Adventure yet to come

Reluctantly, we bid our good-byes to CivitÓ di Bagnoregio and trek back to the bus stop. Within minutes, a drizzle turns into a downpour! An old Italian merchant, coming to check out his appliance store, invites us in for shelter, and tells us of a flood eight years ago that ruined his shop. Suddenly, a river of water, mud and debris, starts floating down, and the street turns into a torrent. Cars throw off water 3-to-4 feet high, while people rush for cover. We will ever be indebted to our good Samaritan who rescued us in this "flash flood."

As quickly as it started, the rain abates. We climb aboard our coach and wind our way back towards Orvieto. Today’s memories will be treasured. It’s not often we get to experience such a special slice of Italian life.

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                  Rita Furnanz

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