Orvieto, Italy – Part One

Departing from the Termini Train Station in Rome, I arrived an hour ahead of time to scope out the situation and “learn the ropes.” This was my first train trip in Europe and being alone, I was a little apprehensive. The station was deserted the first 50 minutes, then rapidly filled up as I discovered that in Italy, the platform is announced only minutes before departure. With 26 platforms to choose from, I positioned myself nervously in the center of Termini so the moment the train was announced, I could make my way quickly to board. I had an assigned car and seat so felt confident that I would be okay.

The train arrived, the doors opened, and it was absolute MAYHEM! People were everywhere, coming in and out, pushing and shoving. I looked for my assigned car and realized it was all the way at the other end from where I was standing! I began to make my way with my enormous suitcase and carry-ons and people began to yell at me and motion for me to jump on. I looked up and down the platform and it was empty! Everyone was on board and the train was about to depart. The purser was leaning out and angrily waving at me to GET ON THE TRAIN! I couldn’t understand what he was yelling, but his body language certainly told me all I needed to know.

I tried to get on the next open door but my suitcase was just too much and people began to grab my things and help me. An elderly, hefty woman grabbed my arm and yanked me up onto the train, just as the doors closed on my rear end!

Mortified, I vowed I would NEVER carry this much stuff with me again. The train pulled out of the station and I tried so hard to make my way through the crowded cars with my heavy bags, but finally gave up on my nice seat in first class and plopped down in a car that had no air-conditioning and no frills! I got plenty of dirty looks and realized I must have been a real spectacle! “Enough,” I said to myself. I can do much better than this and I won’t be intimidated by this mishap. I have to get a little more savvy for the rest of the trip!

I settled in and focused on the Umbrian countryside as my train bounced its way toward Orvieto.

90 minutes later, we pulled into the station at the foot of Orvieto and I quickly got off before the doors snapped shut. The next thing I had to conquer was lugging everything to the funicolare and riding up the steep incline to the city gates of Orvieto, perched high on the bluff above me.

More than 20 years ago, I stopped in Orvieto for just one afternoon and made a silent promise to myself that one day I would return. I barely remembered it, but the one thing I do recall is how I felt when I had my first look at the Duomo. I wanted to feel that way again.

I was fortunate to find an art retreat here with Adventures in Italy, a travel company operated by Michelle Logue. This particular retreat was being led by artist Jacqueline Newbold, a watercolor artist that I have admired for many years. Through Michelle’s excellent step-by-step (literally) instructions, I was able to make my way from the train station, up the funicular, to a bus, and then from the Duomo, I walked through the magical streets of Orvieto to the convent where we were staying.

 

As I rang the bell at the giant doors of the San Lodovico Convent, my mind travelled back to my years as a Catholic school girl in starched uniform and polished oxfords. A small, elderly, stout nun opened the door and stood there sizing me up and looking disapprovingly at my gigantic suitcase and pile of luggage. She pursed her lips and spoke something in Italian as she turned and walked off. I assumed I was to follow her, which I obediently did, the whole time telling her that I was traveling through Italy for 5 weeks and that is why I had so much luggage. While I knew she didn’t understand a word I said, I think I was only trying to justify my heavy load to myself and anyone who would listen. We made our way through courtyards and hallways and room after room to an itty bitty elevator and up and across until I finally got to my room. She chattered in ItaIian, shoved my giant bag inside and off she went!

Dripping in sweat and in desperate need of a shower, I looked around at my room. It was simple and cozy with two narrow beds, a desk, a chair and a picture of Our Lady on the wall. The large window opened up onto a beautiful view of crumbling tiled rooftops and a neglected garden. It was absolutely perfect! I instantly felt the grace of thousands of prayers that must have been said by the occupants of this cell over the centuries. It was peaceful and exactly what I needed!

Michelle, our host, greeted me and showed me around a bit. There was time for a shower and little nap before meeting the group in the courtyard downstairs.

After brief introductions with Jacqueline and the attendees, we headed off for our first meal together. I was pleased that this group of women were friendly and kind and we chatted animatedly as the food kept coming and the wine kept flowing. Italy was experiencing an unusual heat wave for September and the air was still and muggy. But even a little sweat could not take away from the excitement of our group.

The following morning I got lost several times on my way down multiple staircases to the dining hall. One needed to go down, then up, then around then down then up again, making our way through narrow corridors and dead ends. The convent was over 400 years old – an ancient labyrinth of cells and chapels, doorways leading to nowhere and windows bricked up to create more rooms. It was like a scavenger hunt to find our way around every day. I finally stumbled upon the dining room in the basement and much to my surprise, the room next door had incredibly well preserved frescoes on the walls that must have dated back centuries. I never could find out much about the place but it would be a wonderful subject to research one day.

Our first morning of instruction, Jacqueline Newbold sent us off to sketch privately in and around the convent to warm up. She is such a wonderful teacher and so generous with her talent. I spent a few hours looking and sketching and came up with this as my first artist’s view of the convent:

Throughout our week of classes, Jacqueline did many demonstrations and was a patient teacher. My favorite piece that week was a beautiful Orvieto door that she helped us capture beautifully. We also painted Orvieto atop its perch, but I found it impossible to capture the incredible golden light of this city and the magnificence of The Duomo.

I feel so fortunate to have spent the week with this amazing group of women, led by our instructor Jacqueline Newbold and our host and curator, Michelle Logue of Adventures in Italy.

To be continued . . .

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