I'm in the car driving down winding Tuscan roads and I am still digesting, ever so sweetly, my visit to Cortona. It is a bright clear day and the sun is beaming through the window, warming my skin. I have music blasting, the windows are open, and I can smell heaven.
I am the luckiest woman alive...
I decide I want to explore Umbria so I take the day to wander in and out of towns so small that even in my little Nissan Micra I can reach out and touch the walls of buildings as I drive through tiny passages that I’m sure will eat me whole. They never do, of course, and I just keep going.
After stops for coffee and the occasional treat, I see a sign for Orvieto. By this time it is getting on toward dusk and this is generally my cue to find a place to set up shop for the night. I decide Orvieto is a place I'm meant to visit so I begin to make my way up into this hill town and once I've passed the rather ugly lower part of the town, I wind around the long hill, wrapping around it until I know I've arrived in the town center.
In front of me, on a little street that opens into a large piazza, are three men. It is obvious to me that they are three generations of men at that. I see a grandfather, a son, and a grandson. They walk close together and it is clear they share a lovely intimacy with one another. They walk so close that they touch, and occasionally an arm wanders up to pat a shoulder. I think to myself men in Italy are unafraid to show affection for one another. I am very taken by their animated style and they are obviously having a grand time together.
I pull up next to them in my little car and ask in a mixture of English and Italian if they can tell me where I can find a really beautiful place to stay for the night. I have thus far spent very little on my lodgings and I want to splurge a bit. I say I'd like something terribly romantic and charming. They all agree I should go to the “ancient palace”, the best place they say, the Grande Reale. After they've directed me how to get there I bid them goodbye and as I drive away I see these three men come back together and laugh and wave at me as I drive on. I think to myself I couldn't have met better people to greet me here. I just love warm and engaging men.
I find the Grand Hotel Reale and park out front. It is a large building that looks out onto the main Piazza. The scale and the location make it appear very regal to me. I wander inside, walk to my left and am immediately greeted by an enormous set of stairs with several landings. I walk up the stairs feeling as if I'm walking up to meet the queen. I expect a royal greeter to stop me when I get to the top, but instead I find a little man in an aging uniform sitting quietly at the desk alone. I introduce myself and tell him I'd like a room for the night. I can tell he's a bit surprised I'm traveling alone (I'm used to people looking past me to see if there is man trailing behind ) and I say I need a single with a tub. I am craving a hot bath and I am praying in a place like this I'll get a grand one.
I am expecting to pay a bit more for a room here and before he tells me the cost, he shows me to a room in the older part of the hotel very close to the front desk. I walk into a single room with one single bed, frescoes on the ceiling and antique furniture. He then proceeds to walk through this room into another room with a single bed, antique furniture, frescoes on the ceiling and a bathroom before us. He tells me that I can have both rooms as they are attached, but to only sleep in one bed. I then walk into the bathroom to find a tub that is so divine I know we'll be the best of friends. I actually let out a girlish squeal and do a little happy dance which proceeds to make my little man in uniform smile.
I am a happy girl.
After we make our way back to the front desk I ask the price. I am nervous as I think for sure this will be the place that sinks me. He tells me that the price for me for one night is 66 euros. Did he say 66 euros? It's July in Italy, I have not one but two rooms, and I am only being charged 66 euros? My god, what did I do to deserve this? I race down to get my bag out of my car, tuck it into my rooms (yes, rooms) and then I'm off to see Orvieto.
I like it here. I like the feel of it; I like the darkness of the alleys and the brightness of the piazzas. I like shopping on the main shopping street as they have Benetton and I always pick up a few things there when I come to Europe. There are sales on so I buy myself a pair of lovely white cotton slacks and a slinky little black top that I decide I will wear out for dinner that evening. Why not?
By the time I get back to my hotel I am tired from the day and getting very hungry. I bid good evening to Claudio, the manager at the front desk (and my man in uniform) and after his restaurant recommendation turns out to be an obvious tourist trap (I think he was trying to send business to a friend), I wander further up the street to find Hostaria Nonnamelia and the warmth of the creme tones, the candles everywhere and the cupboards of dishes and kitchen ware on display is wonderfully inviting. It is mine for the evening! I take a table that is half inside and half outside. It suits my mood. I order a half carafe of red wine, prosciutto con melone - that turns out to be the best I’ve ever had - and lamb. I decide this is my favorite restaurant thus far on my solo journey. Everything about it is welcoming to me. And it even somehow reminds me of California as it seems so unlike the more traditional restaurants in the area and has such a lovely airy feel to it.
After my espresso I decide to stroll the town for a while. I watch couples embracing, children being bratty with parents who stand before them saying "no!" in English and I see groups of women of a certain lovely age clearly traveling as a pack. Good for them I think. Good for them...
I make my way back to the Grande Reale, draw the hottest and deepest bath and sink in. I have all of the windows open and I can hear the night sounds of Orvieto pouring in. I am utterly content.
The next morning, as I am told they are not serving breakfast at the Grande Reale, I walk out into town to find a place for a decent cappuccino. I find the very best cafe I have found thus far on this trip
(I keep finding favorites in Orvieto), El Cafetal (Corso Cavour,58), a very progressive coffee house that has stacks of books upstairs and even offers poetry readings and the like. I decide that I would be a regular here if I was a local. It’s just up my alley.
I order a cappuccino and brioche and they are delivered to me upstairs. The cappuccino is fantastic. I am listening to fabulous music playing and I pop a sly smile as I notice the No Smoking signs everywhere. It is still legal to smoke in cafes at this time and this is the only one I’ve been to that makes it clear you're not welcome if you do. I like it here all the more for that reason.
The day is before me, I have money in my pocket as I've yet to spend over 85 euros a night for a room, and I am hungry to explore anything and everything. I like Orvieto. I decide I will return here one day and spend more time taking in all that it offers. I tell Claudio I will be back as I grab my bag and make my way back down those impressive stairs out onto the street. I say a quiet salute to the men who sent me here and I leave Orvieto with a full heart and a sense of wanderlust that is willing me forward.