Italian Hill Towns & the Best Gelato Yet

Last weekend, I took a day trip to Orvieto, Bagnoregio, and Civita with some friends.  All three are beautiful Italian hill towns – perfect for a quick jaunt out of Rome.  Our first destination was Orvieto, which is an affordable hour-long train ride from Rome.  Since we wanted to make it to all three towns in a single day, we left bright and early Saturday morning.

Starting the day off right: a cappuccino from a cafe by Termini (Rome’s main train station)

Cream and chocolate filled cornetti

Upon arriving at Orvieto’s train station, which is located at the bottom of the hill on which the town is perched, we rode the funicular up to the top.

Orvieto’s funicular

We just missed the bus to the town center (which you could also walk to, we were just lazy and short on time), so we explored the old fortress remains right next to the funicular station, whence you can catch great views of the valley below.

Valley view from Orvieto

Valley view from Orvieto

Valley view from Orvieto

Valley view from Orvieto

Panorama

After we had our fill of admiring the view and taking innumerable pictures, we caught the bus to Orvieto’s central square, which is home to its grand cathedral.

Orvieto’s Duomo (cathedral)

The Duomo, as it’s called, boasts an incredibly ornate, gape-worthy façade.  It glitters in the sunlight and is somewhat mesmerizing – the more you stare up at it and its sheer size, the more you notice the intricate details and skilled workmanship.  Mosaics cover nearly every flat surface, and are even embedded in the curved arches and straight columns.

The Duomo

Close-up of Orvieto’s facade

Close-up of Orvieto’s facade

Close-up of Orvieto’s facade, with representations of two of the Evangelists – Matthew (winged man/angel) and Mark (winged lion)

I found the four panels of biblical illustrations carved in marble in the lower portion of the façade most interesting.  They depict Genesis, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Revelation/the Last Judgment, respectively.  The detail is amazing, and it’s cool to be able to spot familiar scenes.  According to Wikipedia, these panels are among the most famous of 14th century sculpture.  I’m not surprised.

Scenes from Genesis

We didn’t go into the cathedral, but explored Orvieto and looked for a place to eat lunch instead.  It was a pretty little town, similar to other Italian towns I’ve visited, but with its own feel and character as well.  Turns out Orvieto was the first non-coastal town I went to – maybe that’s what set it apart.  I’ll be going to another (Siena) this weekend, so we’ll see!

Streets of Orvieto

For lunch, we consulted Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook and found a relatively reasonable restaurant with a good sounding menu.  I had the cheese-filled tortellini with tomato sauce.

Tortellini for lunch!

We also tried the Classico white wine, because Orvieto is known for three things: ceramics, its cathedral, and Classico wine.

The Orvieto Classico

Then, it was off to Bagnoregio by bus and from there to Civita by foot.  There’s quite literally nothing to do in Bagnoregio this time of year – we didn’t see anyone in the streets, all the shops were closed, and the town was eerily silent.  Similarly, Civita doesn’t offer much, but because it’s much more of a tourist destination there are a number of restaurants and souvenir shops.  So why go to Civita?

Because this is it:

Civita

As you can see, Civita is a tiny town that’s only accessible by footbridge.  It sits like an island in the middle of a giant valley – it’s been carved out over the centuries by rivers on either side (which may or may not still be in existence).  Architecturally, Civita is stuck in the Middle Ages, unlike it’s Renaissance neighbor Bagnoregio.  There are few native Civitans left, as most abandoned the town after an earthquake in the late 17th century.

“Civita: the dying town”

Civita

On the footbridge to Civita

In Civita

Civita

View from Civita

Civita: stuck in the Middle Ages

“Dining room in Etruscan cave”

After about an hour and a half of exploring, we headed back to Bagnoregio to catch our bus back to Orvieto.

One last look at Civita

We got back to the bus stop with 20 minutes to spare, so we walked around the block to see what was around.  Just down the street we spotted L’Arte di Pane, a bakery recommended by Rick Steves.  The small shop was overflowing with customers, and a little one stood in the beaded curtain doorway while a multitude of families picked out pastries.  Baked goods were just what I was craving, so I promptly began eyeing the cases for the most delicious looking ones.  By the time it was my turn to order, I had decided on a giant cream-filled pastry, two small cookies, and a mini marmalade tart.  The cream puff-like dessert was my favorite.  It was hands down the best cream filling I’ve had yet – a little lemony, not too sweet, and smooth and custardy.  And the outer shell was bready, not flaky, and fresh.  I can see why Rick Steves recommends the bakery.  If you don’t go, you’re really missing out.  Let’s just say I’m really glad we got to the bus stop early and had time to explore the surrounding streets!

Best. Cream filling. Ever.

Back in Orvieto, we had an hour to kill before our train back to Rome.  Orvieto at night is actually quite different than during the day – there were noticeably more people, vendors set up on the streets, and a generally livelier atmosphere.  We browsed a street full of artisan craft stalls, ranging from leather goods to jewelry to cute hand-stitched key chains and animal figurines.  Everything was so enticing – I found myself trying to think of potential gift recipients for the unique pieces.  Sadly, I was relatively unsuccessful; buying for others is harder than it seems.

But, something I was completely successful in: discovering my favorite gelato!  I had actually planned to go to the Cinque Terre with a friend that weekend, but we canceled our trip at the last minute (the trails between the towns are closed, there was a forecast of rain, and we had an exhausting week).  I mention this because I was supposed to look for a special gelateria in Vernazza that has an amazing flavor called the Cinque Terre Special, which was a highlight of my family’s trip there more than a decade ago.  Despite the canceled trip, I still found an incredible gelato place – in Orvieto!  It’s a self-proclaimed artisanal gelateria called La Musa, and it’s located on the main road up from the funicular station.

Gelateria La Musa!

Of course, they have a flavor called “La Musa” – it’s a combination of ricotta (yes, cheese), cinnamon, and chocolate flakes.  I knew I had to try it when I heard the owner say “ricotta” (a staple in my Italian diet and one of my new favorite cheeses).

“La Musa” flavor

It was unlike any gelato I’ve ever tried.  It reminded me very much of horchata, a cinnamony Mexican rice drink, but that might’ve just been because of the cinnamon.  The point is that it had a great flavor.  Creamy like non-fruit gelato typically is, but with the unexpected addition of a spice.  And paired perfectly with a little chocolatey crunch in every bite.  Mmm.  I’ll probably never find a flavor like that anywhere else.  I also tried their nocciola (hazelnut), which was up there with the nocciola gelato I had in Sorrento.  It’s hard to capture a real nutty flavor in gelato, but La Musa managed to do it and do it well.  Or maybe the deliciousness of their namesake flavor gave me a rosier impression of the nocciola… Who knows.  All I know is that that piccolo cono was the best I’ve had yet.

So delicious!

Soon, it was time to head down to the train station via the funicular (our third ride of the day!).  And that marked the end of our day trip to Orvieto, Bagnoregio, and Civita.

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