Viewing Orvieto from a distance is quite spectacular, truly an “intact” ancient medieval city perched high on a hill of volcanic rock. Beneath the walled city is an underground network of tunnels and caves, dating back thousands of years, and still in existence today – just below the winding, cobblestones streets, artisan shops, trendy shops and cafes. The main “Duomo” of the city center is a beautiful, Gothic Cathedral. Orvieto’s nickname ,“citta bomboniera”, means “little gem” (quite appropriate!).
Orvieto’s origins trace back to the Etruscan period, around 600 -800 BC. Walking around a city with structures from this period is VERY surreal!!! The Etruscans used the intricate network of caves and tunnels underneath the surface to survive, and hide from enemy attacks……which actually worked for hundreds of years….until the Romans ultimately conquered them around 200 BC and destroyed this city, along with the entire Etruscan civilization. However the network of caves and tunnels still existed (although abandoned)……and the city was rebuilt during the Middle Ages. It became a thriving, active city during the Medieval period and continued to flourish for hundreds of years. The underground caves and tunnels were used for shelters and hideouts during many battles and wars throughout history. Since then, the city has continued to grow and survive, changing with the times “above ground”, while the network of caves and tunnels remain intact below ground.
Today, the caves and tunnels still exist, but most sections are privately owned by the businesses and its residents, directly under each property. The caves provide a perfect storage area for wine with the cool temperatures, but sometimes the caves are used as a sort of “basement”, for storage of other household items as well. One favorite “find” in Orvieto was le grotte del Lunaro, a restaurant which has an entrance from street level, but steps leading down into an open dining area, actually a portion of the cave which had been renovated and decorated in the most interesting, charming fashion. Service was great, as well as the wine and food ….. especially the homemade black truffle pasta! Oh my!
Orvieto retains so much character and charm within its city walls, it is easy to see why it has become a popular tourist “day-trip” from the larger cities. Also, there are a few strong advantages for Orvieto tourism: one, the town sits conveniently on a train line between Florence and Rome……and two, it sits right in the middle of the rolling, picturesque hills of Umbria, a significant wine-producing region. We visited one small winery, Madonna del Latte, a rather new winery for this region, but they have already produced some award-winning wines from their vineyards. The owner, Leon, gave us a wonderful tour and tasting, while sharing much of the region’s history and his wine-making passion. He also served some marvelous local cheeses and prosciutto along with the wines. We enjoyed talking with others from Finland and Germany at the winery……a wonderful way to spend Friday afternoon!
After three nights, we were a little sad to leave Orvieto and our lovely bed and breakfast, Casa Selita, which is situated in an olive grove just beyond the walls of Orvieto. For easy access into town, there is a path uphill through the grove, leading into the city. Along this path into the city, you are treated to lovely panoramic views of the Umbrian hillside. We loved making this trek up to the city and back, as well as spending time in the bustling streets of Orvieto, both night and day. We met many warm, welcoming people, including a very nice bar owner/musician, a Frenchman named Antonio. He enjoyed giving us some local wine recommendations.
As our train pulled away from the Orvieto station, heading toward Rome, we sipped our strong espresso and talked about returning to this area again, wishfully dreaming about renting a villa for the entire summer!
Some friends suggested we avoid Venice. When researching and gathering information for our big trip, we had to decide where to focus our time, knowing we could not see everything. With limited time and so many wonderful places in Italy, we did consider focusing on other areas.
But…now that we have experienced this unique city for ourselves, let me make one thing clear: I AM SO GLAD WE KEPT VENICE IN THE PLAN!!
The truth is, we just could not bring ourselves to leave it out. After weighing our options, we both could not imagine a trip to Italy without seeing this iconic city on the water. And honestly, it even surpassed our expectations, it is so special and different, unlike any other place on earth!
On arrival, we found a bustling, loud, busy train station (hello, Italy!) and made our way to a water taxi platform, amongst throngs of tourists….it seemed as if 3-4 cruise ships had just disembarked nearby! Immediately we took notice of water and boats, water and boats, everywhere, all around us……no cars, no “traffic” as we know it. Even bikes and scooters are forbidden in Venice. What a nice change for a few days – only boats and walking!!!
Upon following a few VERY narrow passageways into a bigger square, we found Hotel Saturnia and our lovely room, with a beautiful bouquet of yellow lilies, from the staff for our 30th anniversary. What a welcome!!!
Making our way through the “maze” of streets, we found our way to the main piazza, the truly magnificently St. Mark’s Square…. with impressive architecture all around, and so very beautiful and magical at sunset! Many people of different nationalities all around, cafes with classical musicians, and……pigeons, pigeons, pigeons!
As the hours passed in Venice, the charm grew and grew. Venice is only TWO miles wide, a very surprising fact, because the curving waterways form a complicated maze of canals, streets, and bridges throughout the city, making it very easy to get lost, and very easy to walk much more than two miles!
Yes, it was very crowded, and yes, sometimes people approached us to “give” us things (such as flowers) for money in return…..sometimes to the point of annoyance….but hey, it’s midsummer, it’s a huge tourist destination, so you deal with the little annoyances alongside with the great things, right?
We enjoyed discovering the local Venetian custom of “cichetti” (small plates, similar to tapas) and wine, traditionally served at bacaros, small bars, many times with standing room only. We toured a few bacaros and learned more about the popular local food scene with Venice Urban Adventures. One of the bacaros has been in existence since the 1400’s!
The history of Venice is rich and fascinating, with original settlements on this network of numerous islands and “swamp” land, dating back to the ancient times of barbarians. The early settlers eventually learned methods to build sturdy structures among the land, between narrow canals and waterways. One historic, mind-blowing discovery for me…..within St. Mark’s Basilica, the actual bones of Mark are kept (yes, “THE” Apostle Mark who wrote one of the four Christian gospels!). We learned this, along with other fascinating facts, on a tour of the Basilica and Doges Palace with Walks of Italy. To condense a long legend regarding the bones…..since Mark was declared the Patron Saint of Venice, a group of Venetians undertook a mission to steal the bones of Mark, which were buried in Egypt. They “tricked” a group of Muslim guards who were safeguarding the bones, by covering the bones with pork (forbidden by the Muslims). The Venetians were successful in this mission, and brought the bones back to be kept in the Basilica, where they remain today. WOW – true or not, a fascinating story, depicted in one of the murals of the Basilica.
The art and frescoes within the Basilica and Doge’s palace are all very beautiful and fascinating, each telling a detailed story, either involving religion, history of Venice, or combination of both.
In Doge’s palace, in addition to the former elaborate government and court rooms, there is also the former prison and torture chambers. The notorious Casanova was kept in this prison for almost one year, before he became the only prisoner to successfully escape, by planning his escape route past the guards during a time of a celebration at the palace.
The famous “Bridge of Sighs” can be viewed from inside the Doges Palace, through a small little window, which prisoners would pass by on their way to incarceration. Sadly, the family members (usually wife and children) would stand on the bridge and wave their final “goodbyes” as the prisoner was led down into the lower level prison.
As I wandered around this very unique city, I found myself wondering what day-to-day life would be like in Venice. No cars to run errands and transport groceries?? No moving vans to transport furniture and household items?? No cars, no driver’s liscenses, no DMV?? Is there a test to become licensed to drive a boat on the waterways?? These questions and more swirled through my mind as I tried to imagine life in this special city. I would love to explore and learn much more about Venice, I am certainly intrigued……hopefully, there will be another opportunity to return to this amazing city on the water.
Lake Lugano is situated right on the border of Switzerland and Italy, with many charming villages on both the Swiss and Italian sides of the lake. We decided to take a ferry from Lugano to explore one of the nearby villages, Morcote. The ferry ride offered more stunning views of the Lake Lugano coastline. Many Europeons may take a summer “holiday”, or have a vacation home, on this lake, and it is easy to understand the attraction.
There are no adequate words to describe Morcote: simply a very old, very quaint, hillside Italian village (although still part of Switzerland). We fell in love with the beautiful foliage and outdoor cafes along the waterfront, the narrow cobblestone alleyways connecting the homes, and the stunning historic church overlooking the town.
We decided to climb the MANY steps up to the church, situated on the very top of the village, above the rooftops. Wow, what a steep, long, winding, climb to the top, but we made it, pausing along the way to catch our breath, and observe some spectacular views over the city. Reflecting inside the alters of the church, walking along the path of incredibly beautiful gardens and elaborate gravesites, it felt like stepping back into an ancient, wonderful fairytale.
On on the ferry ride back, we met a very kind young Swiss man who was almost finished with his hike around the perimeter of Switzerland! He spoke perfect English, with an “almost” American accent…….we shared a quick toast and “cheers” with him before he disembarked to finish his trek throughout the mountains. It made us feel a little silly, for being so proud of our “big climb” up the steps to the church and top of the village!
As our train crept deeper into Southern Switzerland, we noticed a change. Alpine beauty was still prevalent all around, but the distinct “Swiss-German” look of the houses and rooftops gradually started to shift into more “box” style, flat-roof homes, as well as more palm trees and lush vegetation ….. palm trees in Switzerland?
Our train guide explained that we were transitioning from the “Swiss-German” section into the “Swiss-Italian” section of the country. Switzerland is unique – a small country with 26 distinct “cantons”, and four national languages (German, Italian, French, and Romansh). Even though English is not an “official” language, it seems that most everyone understands it, and thankfully, English is often printed on menus, directions, etc……we learned that Swiss schools made English mandatory as a second language to all students in 1974.
From the moment we stepped off the train into Lugano, it truly felt as if we were stepping into Italy, not another Swiss town. Italian cars, Italian architecture, Italian voices, as well as pizzerias and gelato stands everywhere! Lake Lugano offers a Mediterranean, beach town vibe, with plenty of upscale shopping boutiques and jewelry stores.
When planning our itinerary, we decided to spend a few days in Lugano for several reasons. First, it is a convenient stop on the way from central Switzerland into Italy. Second, our research led us to discover that an annual jazz music festival , ‘Estival, would be taking place during the weekend. Our first evening, as we strolled to the main square, Piazza della Riforma, we found all types of food trucks and vendors surrounding the streets, with activity and restaurants crowded and busy well into the night. (Sunset does not occur until 9:30, and it seems very common for people to start dining around then.)
Each evening in Lugano, after a busy day of walking and touring, it was so nice to stroll toward the piazza and hear the soothing sound of live jazz music. At our hotel, International du Lac, we noticed some of the jazz musicians sitting nearby at breakfast one morning!
Speaking of the hotel, it is a very old, historic hotel in the heart of Lugano. It feels like stepping back in time, with the decor and furnishings, with many reminders of past history through framed pictures and mementos on the walls. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful (and thankfully able to communicate with us language-challenged Americans). The pool area and surrounding gardens are so picturesque. We feel very fortunate to experience this special place. Saving all those travel miles were worth it! (I keep pinching myself!)
Booking the Gotthard Panorama Express for our travel from Lucerne into southern Switzerland was one of the BEST travel decisions we made! The journey started with a ferry in Lucerne and traveled south along the lake, passing by many picturesque villages and towering mountains. In Fleulin, we changed to a Panoramic Express train for an unforgettable, winding path into southern Switzerland. The scenery was stunning in every direction, as the train passed by valleys, waterfalls, and towering snow capped mountains. It was challenging to see the full expansive views in every direction, much less capture it all by cellphone camera! Many pictures were taken, but they do not even capture the full magnificence of the landscape. The journey ended in the Swiss-Italian region of Ticino, and we disembarked at the city of Lugano. I would highly recommend the Gotthard Panorama Express to anyone traveling through southern Switzerland!
Mount Pilatus towers majestically over Lucerne, providing a stunning backdrop to this picturesque town. We were lucky enough to have a fantastic view of the mountain from the balcony of our room at Hotel des Alpes.
On our first full day in Lucerne, we decided to take a round trip tour to the mountain and back, through Best of Switzerland Tours. The trip began with a bus ride to the gondola station, then a gondola ride up to the summit. We rode in the gondola with a nice older couple from Spain.
An intersting side story about the mountain’s name: Our tour guide explained that Mt. Pilatus was actually named after Pontius Pilate from the Bible. According to Swiss legend, after Pontius Pilate betrayed Jesus, he was so distraught that he committed suicide. His body surfaced in a lake near Rome, but they did not want his body nearby…so his body was brought north, where it was buried near this mountain. Legend claims that the top of the mountain ridges even form into the shape of his face.
Once at the Summit, we marveled at all the amazing scenery before enjoying a quick bite to eat from the cafe (roasted potatoes, mixed salad, and apple strudel). Then we made our way to the “dragon’s loop”, a loop around part of the mountain, through tunnels dug through the mountain. In ancient times, there were stories of dragons living in the tunnels and crevices of the mountain, so the dragon became the “symbol” of Pilatus. There were also many steep steps and overlook points, offering amazing panoramic views of mountains and Lake Lucerne.
After glancing in the hotel which sits on top of the Summit, we made our way to the Cogwheel train, steepest in the world and dating back to the late 1800’s, for a descent down the other side of Mount Pilatus to Lake Lucerne and town of Kierns. On the Cogwheel, we chatted with a nice young family from Florida, with two exhausted children falling asleep from the mountain activity and jet lag.
In Kierns, we boarded a steamboat for a ride along the lake, back to Lucerne. We passed many quaint lakeside communities along the way, and met another couple from California. Glenn starts conversations with everyone! We both believe that connecting with others, learning about others, is one of the joys of travel.