The city of Orvieto rises on a cliff that dominates the plain, in which the rivers Palia and Chiani run shortly before meeting the Tiber. This enormous plateau of volcanic tufa that rises twenty to fifty metres from the plain, was created from volcanic eruptions depositing huge quantities of material. Reliable sources place the first human settlements as early as the 7th century B.C., but it is believed to have been inhabited since the Bronze and Iron Ages. During the Etruscan period the town, named Velzna, had a large urban development and wielded considerable influence within the region. There is a great deal of evidence to verify its Etruscan past in the excavated remains in the town and in the nearby necropolis. The ancient city of Orvieto reached the greatest heights between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., becoming a flourishing centre for trade and the arts, with military supremacy guaranteed by the strategic position afforded by the natural defences of the rock. However, in 264 B.C. the town was invaded and destroyed by the Romans and the surviving inhabitants were banished to Volsinii Niera, present-day Bolsena.
After having been annexed to the territories of Rome, Orvieto remained under its dominion until the decline of the Roman Empire in the west. It then became a free Comune and, following the conflicts between the Guelphs (papal faction) and Ghibellines (imperialist faction), it remained faithful to the Pope. Orvieto prospered over all of the medieval period, reaching the apex of development in the 13th century with the establishment of the General Council of the 400 and the election of the Capitano del Popolo or “Captain of the People.” It was also during this period that many of the major buildings and churches or religious buildings were realized, some of the most important being the “Palazzo dei Sette” in 1300, the “Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo” in the 12th century and the “Palazzo Soliano” in 1262. But above all is the famous Cathedral of Orvieto, begun in 1263, with its splendid gothic facade, wealth of decorations and magnificent internal chapels. In 1527, the unusual Well of Saint Patrick was built according to a plan by Antonio di Sangallo, the Younger.
Even though situated geographically in the province of Lazio, these two small cities have always had a strong connection with Umbria and above all, with Orvieto. Both, in fact, like Orvieto are situated in the same volcanic zone originating thousands of years ago. Bolsena moreover provided shelter for the Orvietan population when they were driven away after the Roman invasion of 264 B.C. In Bolsena in 1263, a well documented miracle happened that is recalled every year in Orvieto as the celebration of the Corpus Domini.
The north eastern shore of the lake was populated in 265 B.C. by the Etruscans who had been exiled from Velzna (current-day Orvieto). The lake of Bolsena (which has the same name as the town) is the second largest in central Italy and certainly the cleanest, and the largest volcanic lake in Europe, being formed from the main crater of a complex volcanic system. The waters of the lake are today as they were in Roman times, a rich source of fish that form the basis of many local recipes; fish like the coregone (a white lake fish), pike, perch, carp, tench and eels.
The perfectly preserved medieval town of Bolsena is dominated by the rocca or fortress with its four square towers built by the Orvietani in the 12th century. The fortress now houses Bolsena’s Territorial Museum with many interesting displays of artefacts from the Villanovan period, the Etruscans and Roman, as well as many didactic panels illustrating the fortunes and viccisitudes of the people who have inhabited the great basin of the lake.
Civita di Bagnoregio, is an enchanting place, where the time seems to have stopped. The small town is entirely isolated and is attainable only by a long pedestrian bridge in reinforced concrete. The cause of this isolation is through the progressive erosion of the hill on which it sits and of the neighbouring valley, causing the typical and strange land form shapes known as calanchi. The risk of further erosion continues still today, threatening the eventual loss of this small place. For this reason, Civita is called "the dying city". Inside the town there remains still a number of medieval houses, the church of Saint Donato (situated in the main square), the Bishop's Palace, an oil mill from the 1500s, the house where Saint Bonaventura was born and the door of Santa Maria, with two lions that hold between the feet a human head (in memory of a popular rebellion by the inhabitants of Civita against the Monaldeschi, a powerful Orvietan family.