Personal Journeys


February 06, 2005|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

An Italian town on a higher level

By Shelley Puhak


As the train approached, the jutting tuft of rock took shape and became a walled, turreted town breaking up the blue of the Umbrian sky. This was my first glimpse of Orvieto, Italy.

I learned of Orvieto through a co-worker who used to live in Italy. He asked what cities my husband and I would visit during our coming trip. I told him Rome and Venice were on the list.

"Oh, of course. But you must absolutely see Orvieto."

I soon found out why.

As Tuscany becomes more crowded and expensive, the quiet Umbrian towns to the south should be considered for a visit. Orvieto rises more than a thousand feet from the Paglia River, and is located an hour north of Rome by train.

Because of its imposing height, the city has always been revered as a sacred site and a ready-made fortress. Orvieto is home to many fifth-century Etruscan ruins, a grand Italian Gothic cathedral and a Franciscan convent probably founded by Assisi himself. The city was also the hideout of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome in 1527.

Orvieto's elevation also means the town offers wonderful panoramic views of the Umbrian countryside, with its many olive groves and vineyards. The warm shades of sunrise and sunset linger on the city walls. Breezes waft up, scenting the town with the honeysuckle that climbs the mountainside.

The town is small enough so that you can leisurely walk the rim in an afternoon. The restaurant locations generally fall into two categories: romantic underground caves or open palazzos set on overlooks. Everywhere, the tomatoes are scarlet, the mozzarella is plump, the fish is flaky and the famous Orvieto Classico wine is crisp, dry and inexpensive.

We took my co-worker's advice and stayed for three days, instead of just doing a day-trip. Most of the other tourists were gone by nightfall, and we were left with a quiet town and its cobblestone streets.

On our last night, we decided to copy the locals by getting a cone of creamy homemade gelato and strolling down to the main square, the Piazza della Repubblica. The piazza was crowded with children playing tag, groups of older men puffing on pipes and couples holding hands. Across the street, a cafe singer belted out the radio songs of my New Wave childhood, "Tainted Love," "Time after Time" and "Karma Chameleon."

After an impromptu sing-along, my husband and I walked out to the nearest overlook, inhaled the honeysuckle breeze and stared up at the stars, scattered like salt on dark velvet.

"We have to leave," my husband said.

It wasn't a statement, but a question.

Shelley Puhak lives in Baltimore.

My Best Shot

Richard Madow, Owings Mills

A spiritual experience

The Olgas, in the Australian Outback, are a group of more than 30 rounded red masses of rock rising out of the desert plain that the Aborigines call Kata Tjuta. They are a sacred part of Aboriginal life, steeped in their tradition of "Dreamtime" -- the oral story of history. It's easy to see why these rocks seem so magical. Depending on the time of day, they can appear to change colors, and actually seem to have light emanating from them. Catching the light during a beautiful sunset in such an incredibly remote place was a spiritual experience that will be hard to forget.

Readers Recommend


Dick Steiner, Millersville

On a recent trip to Australia, my family and I visited the Blue Mountains region, which is about an hour's drive north of Sydney. The area offers Grand Canyon-like scenery, quaint towns and breathtaking views. A rock formation called the Three Sisters and the surrounding mountains have a blue haze over them from all the eucalyptus tree oil in the air.

Rapid City, S.D.

Joe A. Swisher, Aberdeen

In downtown Rapid City, the Prairie Edge store is dedicated solely to Indian culture -- art, history, supplies and handmade products. You can buy leather, beads and supplies to make your own products, or you can buy actual finished products. The store has a catalog and Web site, but if you're out that way, it's well worth a stop.

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