Orvieto’s ancient 12th century city walls are still the crown of the Umbrian landscape, and since the beginning the story of her people has been a marriage of tradition and innovation. From the Renaissance to the installation of the very first internet router, the Orvietani have sought to strike a balance between the idyllic pastoralism of their past and the flowering promise of modern Italian life that infuses its cobblestone streets and dining tables.
Today, Valentina Zanchi and her nephew Luis Eduardo Zanchi Pachano are at the center of the journey to shepherd Orvieto’s legacy into the future. Their roots run deep; Valentina left the Urbs Vetus and moved to Rome when she was 10. She returned in 2002 when her mother bought the building that would become her business. Luis was born in Caracas, Venezuela, where his Orvietani grandfather—Valentina’s uncle—had moved, and Luis reconnected with her in 2015.
Together, they run Affittacamere Valentina, a suite of contemporary luxury guest houses set just off the Piazza del Popolo in the historic Quartiere Corsica. Everybody knows everybody in Orvieto, but the pair are particularly well established as entrepreneurs and advocates for local interests and organizations. Along with other community leaders, they are making sure Orvieto is filled with memory as well as opportunities for new vitality and growth, so the sweet life of the Italian countryside can continue to be celebrated in style and comfort by residents and visitors alike.
We sat down with Valentina and Luis to talk about life in Orvieto today, and its exciting resurgence as a dining, historical, and cultural hot spot in the region.
OM: Tell us about your life in Umbria.
Valentina: I love Orvieto! It’s a small city and it has a gentle pace of life, so it’s comfortable for everyone and has plenty of space for quiet when you’re away from the livelier piazzas. Most people buy houses here to live, not to rent out, so the local community is very strong and it makes for a wonderful, authentic atmosphere. At only an hour from Rome and 1.5 hours from Florence, it’s an easy day trip to go to those big places so you never feel out of touch.
OM: Has it changed a lot since you grew up here?
Valentina: Yes and no. Do you know the gelateria in the Duomo piazza?
OM: Oh yes.
Valentina: I was born in that house next to the chocolate and cream. I went to Rome to study, but it’s impossible to forget the people, the streets, and the atmosphere of my childhood. There are still local butchers, grocers, bakers, and craftspeople you run into every day. You say “good morning” and “good evening” when you pass in the street, and their food, cups, and linens are on your table when you come home.
Luis: It’s also a very welcoming place—we know everybody, and we take care of each other. Orvieto was a very important city in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and a lot of Italy’s biggest politicians came to eat in Valentina’s grandmother’s restaurant. But they’ve always had a local community mentality. When I first arrived, it didn’t take long for everyone to start saying “hello.” The people of Orvieto might not know you, but they know your face, and after a while you become one of the many faces of Orvieto.
OM: How did you start Affittacamere Valentina?
Valentina: Affittacamere were a new idea in Italy when I moved back to Orvieto. The big difference between a hotel and an affittacamere is that hotels have a restaurant, but in Orvieto you don’t need such a big production. You can easily take a two minute walk in the morning, find a local caffé, and enjoy a cornetto and a cappuccino. We have restaurants in town that have been here over 100 years making traditional Orvietano chocolates, torta di semolino, and fresh pastas and sandwiches with local fruits, cheeses, and meats. It’s what we do in Italy, it’s how we like to live, and it’s what people want to experience when they come here.
Luis: Also, some of the best produce in the world comes from the farms around us, and Umbrian cuisine and wine is on the menu in the restaurants every evening. Umbricelli is our pasta, and it’s handmade with only flour and water. We have gnocchi as well. The tomato and pancetta sauce here is very special, there are local sausages, we do guanciale with sage and balsamic vinegar, and the Umbrian cinghiale in white wine is a unique and delicious preparation.
Valentina: Have you heard of Rick Steves? I worked on his guidebook for 10 or 12 years, and I would get calls from visitors all the time about when our farmer’s market was open in the piazza. Believe it or not, people in Rome have a hard time getting fresh tomatoes—in Italy!—and people take the trains from all around just to buy vegetables that were picked that morning.
Luis: One of my favorite things to do is forage for wild mushrooms, and there are porcini and many other varieties hiding in the fields and forests among the chestnuts and truffles. Many days I come back with a basket full of mushrooms, and we clean them and cook them fresh that night.
OM: What can you tell us about the history and culture of Orvieto?
Valentina: Obviously we have the Duomo di Orvieto which is stunning, as well as the Orvieto Underground and St Patrick’s Well. Many people also don’t realize that the Claudio Faina Museum is one of the best and most important Etruscan museums in the world.
We also have wonderful cultural events in the area. The Umbria Jazz Festival happens every July, and of course we have Orvieto Musica right here in town at the beginning of summer.
OM: Tell us about your relationship with OM.
Valentina: We help house the students and faculty who come from around the world to fill our city with such beautiful music. We want to welcome them into Orvieto, and give them the best experience of Italy while they’re preparing for their concerts.
Luis: We’re also often the first faces the students see when they arrive. We pick them up, assist them with their luggage, show them the best places to explore and where to eat, and help them navigate the culture and the language.
Valentina: We’re even talking with Kim about having the students join a cooking class next year. It’s another of the many valuable things here in Orvieto they can add to their artistry and take with them when they go home.
OM: What impact does the festival have on the community?
Valentina: It’s perfetto por Orvieto, because this is a place where old and new have always met. The festival is an opportunity to show the world some of the traditional Italian lifestyle and values that are harder and harder to find these days. And for us, we have the privilege of sharing our town and culture with amazing international performers from all over the world.
It’s a wonderful marriage for Orvieto Musica and the Orvietani. We can tell people: “Come from Florence! Come from Rome! Visit for the day, see a wonderful concert, eat an incredible meal, and of course, stay with us at Affittacamere Valentina for the night!”