One of my favorite ways to travel and discovering a country is by car. Public transportation is a good way to travel, but if you want to immerse yourself in the culture and go off the beaten path, then it is important to get away from the tourist crowds. But sometimes with public transportation that is not possible, so the best option is to rent a car.
I am lucky to have a husband who enjoys driving and doesn’t get stressed out when driving in countries with chaotic traffic, such as Italy. We find driving in Europe to be relatively easy and safe. This was our first road trip in Europe and because it was during winter I was a little bit nervous about the road conditions, especially to drive in the snow or black ice. However, the roads were in a great condition and with not too much traffic.
We read about Italy’s beautiful hill towns and wanted to squeeze one or two of them in this trip. Our first stop was Orvieto, in the region of Umbria. Because of it’s location, just off the freeway between Florence and Rome, Orvieto was the perfect place to stop, grab lunch and do a bit of sightseeing in just the few hours we had available.
Picturesque Orvieto is situated on a big chunk of volcanic rock called tuff, overlooking the beautiful Umbrian plains. This city is ready to be discovered, enjoyed and experienced. During high season it is smart to leave the car at the base (free parking) and take a handy funicular to the top. But because we went during low season, we decided to go all the way up and take our chances finding parking there.
To our surprise, we arrived during the Orvieto Winter Jazz Festival. We took a peek at the venue and listened to the music briefly, but because we didn’t have much time, we decided to skip the festival since it was not free and wander around the town. Just a few steps further we found Orvieto’s Christmas Market. There we spent most of the time, tasting local wine and artisan beer. Lunch was 4 slices of pizza for only 3.50EUR.
Before we realized it, it was time to go. We fell in love with this city (and I know I probably say this about every city we visit), but we definitely left with the desire of returning to this charming hill town very soon.
What to see?
- The Duomo – One of the most beautiful cathedral in Italy with the great San Brizio chapel which houses frescoes by Luca Signorelli (approximately 1500) with stunning depictions religious and apocalyptic scenes.
- Pozzo St. Patrick – A great ingenious medieval monument
- Torre del Moro – The “clock of the city” with a panoramic terrace
- Orvieto Underground -series of 440 caves that has been used for millennia by locals for various purposes, including as WWII bomb shelters, refrigerators, wells, etc.
Just 40 km. north of Rome lies the eccentric medieval hill town of Calcata. In the 1930s, the government ordered to evacuate this town for fear that the volcanic cliffs the ancient community was built upon would collapse. They started building a new town, called Calcata Nuova which wasn’t finished until the 1960s. The previous residents started to slowly migrate to Calcata Nuova leaving the historic town empty. Hippies and artists heard about this nearly abandoned medieval hill town near Rome and began moving there. The locals who still had their properties there were happy to finally sell their former houses at bargain prices. The hippies brought this town back to life and opened art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Still until this day the cliff hasn’t collapsed (knock on wood) and it is still enjoyed by the locals and visitors.
We learned about this town while listening to an interview to travel writer David Farley who wrote the book “An Irreverent Curiosity: in Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town“. What is that strangest relic Farley speaks about in his book? Nothing less than the Santo Prepuzio or Jesus’ own foreskin.
This interview really caught our attention and since we were going to be in the area we added Calcata to our list of places to visit. Getting there was not easy. We took a detour using backroads and that was a bad idea. The roads were not paved and the ride was a little bumpy. I have to confess that at some point I started to have my doubts about whether that was a good idea or not. Until finally there it was. Perched high atop a cake-shaped stump of tan volcanic rock . Once we arrived to this incredibly small and walkable town, we were fascinated by the simplicity and humbleness of the way of living there.
After finding a place to leave the car, we headed to the “downtown”. On our way there we were stopped by an Italian couple who wanted to pet Diego and Valentina. They also have a French Bulldog and said his looked just like our Valentina. They immediately took their phones out and showed us some pictures. We asked them for recommendations for a good place to have lunch. Without hesitation the woman said “Ristorante Opera! You have to try it”
Following the local’s recommendation, we headed to Ristorante Opera. They let us in with our two dogs. Inside, a couple was sitting also with their French Bulldog who was hiding under the table. We asked if it was OK to seat next to them. Valentina and Diego had a new friend to play with while we had lunch. The couple next to us recommended the daily special. We closed our menu and told the server we wanted exactly what our “neighbors” ordered. And oh boy, we were not disappointed. The homemade pasta with a special white ragu sauce was something out of this world. The house wine complimented the food perfectly and to end in a great note, we had their house dessert.
This town is very thriving, especially during the weekends where locals, mostly from Rome come to spend the day or the weekend, walking in the cobblestones and eating in the restaurants. The girls sitting next to us were actually from Rome. They said they go to Calcata at least one weekend a month and every year they spend New Year’s in Calcata. But still, I was surprised to know that not every Roman knows about this town. When I told my classmate, who is Italian and from Rome, that we went to Calcata, she was so surprised to hear about it and said she had to Google it because she never heard of it before. Apparently Calcata is still a well kept secret getaway for some locals.
The biggest attraction is the town itself so after lunch, we went for a “passeggiata”. Historic Calcata is so small that it is possible to see it all in an hour or less. We enjoyed getting lost in the cobblestone streets, looking at the handmade crafts made by the bohemian artists that now live there. Although very small, here you will find a variety of restaurants, small shops, even art galleries, a museum and of course, a church. We didn’t find Jesus’ foreskin because apparently it was stolen years ago, but we brought with us very pleasant memories from this mysterious and probably Italy’s grooviest hill town. If you are driving to or from Rome, you can swing by Calcata in no time. I promise you won’t be disappointed.