Life in Orvieto transpires along the animated Corso Cavour, cutting through the center of town. If you take the funicular up from the lower town, you’ll begin your walk through Orvieto at the eastern end of the street. In the very center of town rises the Torre del Moro, a 13th-century show of civic might that provides views across all the territory the medieval city controlled, stretching east to the Apennines and west to the Mediterranean. The tower’s bell is a familiar sound to locals—it has rung every 15 minutes for the past 700 years. Just to the north is Piazza del Popolo, where the Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People) ruled from the formidable, crenellated Palazzo del Popolo. The square is filled with market stalls on Thursday and Saturday mornings. Via del Duomo leads south from the tower to Orvieto’s masterwork, one of the most celebrated cathedrals in Italy.

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Orvieto’s other great wonder is the volcanic plug upon which it sits. The Orvietani have been burrowing into the soft tufo (tufa) and pozzolano stone under their feet for thousands of years. The Etruscans hollowed out cisterns to collect rainwater, sank wells to seek out groundwater, and carved public plumbing systems into the rocky foundations. The practice was continued by the Romans, the people of the Middle Ages (who also used some defunct wells as rubbish dumps), and even Renaissance Pope Clement VII.

Through the ages, the man-made cavern system has also been used for wine and oil production and storage, artisan workshops, escape tunnels for nobility, and quarries for tufa building blocks and the pozzolano dust to cement them with. The last tunneling and the closing of the last pozzolano mine occurred in the late 19th century.

To look at the city’s tufa foundations, take a hike along the rupe, a path that encircles the base of the cliff. (The tourist office can supply a map.) A landmark along the path is the Necropoli Etrusca di Crocifisso del Tufo.

Orvieto's Liquid Gold

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The plains and low hills around Orvieto grow the grapes -- verdello, grechetto, and Tuscan varietals trebbiano and malvasia -- that go into one of Italy's great wines, a pale straw-colored DOC white called simply Orvieto Classico. A well-rounded and judiciously juicy white (often with a hint of crushed almonds), it goes great with lunch and has one of the longest documented histories of any wine in Italy. Orvieto's wine trade is still a cornerstone of the area's economy. Most Orvieto Classico you'll run across is secco (dry), but you can also find bottles of the more traditional abboccato (semidry/semisweet), amabile (medium sweet), and dolce (sweet) varieties. The secco was created for export to satisfy the general public accustomed to the taste of bad chardonnay, and the sweeter varieties are treats seldom exported, so try them while you can. You may want to steer clear of big-name labels like Bigi -- a perfectly fine wine, but one widely exported abroad -- in favor of the smaller producers you can get only here.

To sample a glass (or buy a bottle) with a pastry or panino, drop by the Cantina Foresi, Piazza Duomo 2 (tel. 0763-341-611). Ask to see the small, moldy cellar carved directly into the tufo. You can also tipple on a visit to one of Orvieto's friendliest shopkeepers at his enoteca/trattoria above the Pozzo della Cava excavations at La Bottega del Pozzo, Via della Cava 26 (tel. 0763-342-373; www.pozzodellacava.it) -- it sells its own bottles for 7€. To visit a vineyard/winery or two, click on this link for suggested places and contact info.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.