“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman
Day number due in Orvieto. This town is slowly stealing my heart. Not because of the thrill that usually automatically comes from encountering another culture—usually known as the honeymoon period of culture shock—but because of the genuineness and personality that the town possesses. In talking to one of the locals who helps out with the program, I realized this town is in some ways a tourist destination, but at the same time it does not carry the same commercial and superficial façade that most tourist towns possess. Part of it may be the fact that the town has stood for over a thousand years, and with that age, I don’t think it’s possible for it to appear commercial without ripping down the old architecture and putting up new commercial hotels. But I think it’s also the people who make up the town, running local family businesses and the like, that keep an original flavor in the town. There is a mix of the modern and the ancient—cars zip down the cobblestone alleys (does this program allow me to drive?), and in the mornings you’ll find runners tracing paths that lead them next to medieval arches or storage rooms under the fort, some of which contain petrified trees within the cliff.
Today I went to mass at a 1000 year old church. How many people can say they’ve done that? San Giovanale has stood in the town since 1004. And interestingly, it did not feel very unfamiliar. It was all in Italian, of course, but the structure is the same. The service is steeped in tradition, which adds to the atmosphere of intent worship, and the frescoes on the wall remind the worshipper of the historic nature that the religion carries with it.
One of the main attractions in Orvieto is the Duomo, the Italian cathedral that, though not at the center of the city, is the heart of the city’s life. We’ve visited it twice in the past two days. It is striking to walk through the town’s narrow alleyways, with its two and three-story houses clustered together, and then stumble out into the piazza in front of the Duomo and see it piercing the sky, its spires soaring far above any of the roofs of the houses, its walls flat, but with subtle depth in architecture. The part of the Duomo that caught my attention most when I first saw it was the paintings that adorn the front of it. Massive frescoes that are high up off the ground add a colorful life to the stone of the structure. The thing that it reminded me the most of, ironically, was the intricate artwork that can be seen on temples in Taiwanese culture. A similar caliber of care and devotion was put into both of these places, much to same intent, but to two entirely different ends and in different contexts, not to mention different religions. As a child, I think I often associated elaborate architecture and paintings in churches with idol-worship, because that was I where I saw it most. But the way it is done here in Orvieto, and the way that the frescoes were used in San Giovanale, shows how much artwork like this can enhance worship. I had intended to accompany this post with a picture of the Duomo, but unfortunately the internet is slow enough that in 20 minutes the upload had only reached 11%, so I have given up. Hopefully soon I will be able to post some pictures.