There are so many charming ancient hilltop villages in Umbria and Tuscany that you’d be forgiven for thinking that they all blur into one but we found that each one has a charm of their own and something special to recommend them.
Take Orvieto for example. First of all, to reach this small town dramatically perched high on a cliff, we had to take an exciting ride on a funicular – a cable car that travels slowly up the steep slope to the top.
Once we arrived at the top and had walked into the main square we were immediately struck by the imposing and immense 13th century cathedral – the dramatic walls of which are of white travertine marble stripes alternated with narrow greenish-black basalt bands.
But the thing that most fascinated us was the vast maze of 1200 caves, grottoes, tunnels, passageways and cisterns lying immediately under the town which was only rediscovered in the 1980s following a landslipe in the middle of the historical centre.
This hidden labyrinth was first used in Etruscan times (6th – 5th centuries BC) and was developed and reused over the centuries for various purposes including pigeon rearing, wine storage, as an olive oil mill, workshops and even as a means of escape during times of siege.
We went on two trips underground – one to a series of caves under a private dwelling (Pozzo della Cava) where we saw wells, public cisterns, a medieval ceramic workshop and rubbish pits, wine cellars and various archeological finds such as tools.
Later we booked a tour with a guide near the cathedral that took us down into a much more extensive part of the intricate network of caves and tunnels. Here we saw among other things, many dovecotes, wells and the olive oil mill, complete with millstones, grinders, presses, fireplace and mangers for the animals.
Our next stop was another attractive hilltop village, this time in Tuscany -Montepulciano which was also memorable for its own reasons.
As we walked up from the carpark towards the historic centre we were greeted by a wonderful, four-times life-size sculpture of a horse. Every detail is perfect and the horse looks poised to take off from its plinth and trot down the road.
It came as no surprise to us that the sculpture was originally conceived by Leonardo da Vinci who closely studied horse anatomy and casting techniques for its completion. Unfortunately the horse was never cast. A clay model was completed in 1491 but the 70 tonnes of bronze prepared ready for casting was actually used to make canons to defend the city of Milan from the French.
The horse was finally cast in bronze according to Leonardo’s precise drawings and method and was brought to Montepulciano for the “Leonardo Visions” exhibition in 2017.
We entered the ancient city walls through the imposing Porta al Prato gate and were immediately struck by the fabulous architecture and the numerous marvellous looking cafes and bars.
While wandering round the mostly pedestrianised streets and alleyways we discovered preparations for a huge bike race – the GFNY Italia which was to take place the following day – were in full swing. There were people in Lycra everywhere!
We managed to infiltrate GFNY HQ and found ourselves wandering around the registration area where riders were collecting their numbers and information packs and having their official photos taken.
Thanking goodness that it weren’t one of the 1,200 riders who had to cycle 108 km the next day with 2,000 metres of climbing!
With this thought in mind we retired to a beautiful little bar high up on a terrace with a panoramic view over the beautiful countryside of Tuscany.