When the wonders of ancient Rome overwhelm, it’s a pleasant change of pace to head out of the city to relax for a day in a more pastoral environment. One direction, north up the A-12 toll road, leads tourists to the quiet countryside where Etruscans formerly roamed.
The Etruscans were inhabitants of a wide swath of central Italy before the birth of Rome and supplied its earliest kings, the dynasty of the Tarquins, centuries before Rome became a power. Now, the Etruscans have vanished, long since assimilated by the Romans, but their memory lives in place names such as Tuscany and the remains of their civilization in Etruria, as the area to the north and northwest of Rome is known.
There are vast remnants of cities in the area, but the most interesting sites for a day trip are near Cerveteri and Tarquinia where an endless assortment of tombs give a testament to the past. Carved into rock (some still in use by modern-day locals for storage), built individually, or dug underground, it seems as though the Etruscans must have spent most of their time preparing for the afterlife.
First on the short route is a stop at Cerveteri, about 21 miles north on the A-12 from the ring road surrounding Rome. Not far from the little town is a UNESCO World Heritage site: Banditaccia, a city of the dead made up of strange round-domed stone buildings, and others looking like modern storage units, lining lanes furrowed by the wheels of ancient hearses and chariots of relatives visiting the deceased. The earliest of the thousand tombs in this ghost town date from the seventh century BC. The tombs are empty, although some still retain stucco decorations depicting everyday objects: tools, arms, and personal items. You can enter through a vestibule to stretch out on one of the stone benches carved to hold sarcophagi if you’re weary, but don’t expect comfort.
In the warm season the tombs are grass-covered, but in autumn and winter they are carpeted with the pink shooting-star flowers of tiny wild cyclamens. Ivy, umbrella pines, and tall cypress trees, still typically found in Italian cemeteries, complete the peaceful scene. At any season the area is a lovely spot for a picnic. But even if you only stroll along the lanes, you can enjoy a sense of a people who remain mysterious, their written language still mostly undecipherable and their origins unknown.
Tarquinia, the second stop, another 28 miles up the A-12, has been thriving since the sixth century BC. The tourist office has an excellent website in English, where you can find information about openings, exhibits, dining, and more. The two main sights are the Monterozzi Necropolis, another UNESCO site set on a bare, windswept ridge just outside the town, and the National Museum on the main piazza.
The most famous tombs, with their vivid frescoes covering walls and even ceilings, are open from March to October on a guided tour. Religious rites, fishing, and myths are depicted in still-vivid color, but the most interesting are the parties. While Cerveteri gives a sense of melancholy, many of the Monterozzi tombs depict the dead being sent off in high style with no weeping angels in sight. Both sexes are enjoying drinking, sporting contests, dancing, music, and sex of interesting varieties; the Etruscans apparently knew how to throw great wakes and weren’t bashful about depicting their lusty pleasures.
The National Museum is located in the Gothic-style Palazzo Vitelleschi, built in 1439. While the most extensive selection of Etruscan art is in Rome at the Villa Giulia with displays of intricate gold jewelry and the famous Sarcophagus of the Spouses, the Tarquinia museum is crammed with its own selection of treasures. Sarcophagi fill several rooms. One has a dog resting at its owner’s feet. The men and women look perfectly content as they half-recline Roman-style, sometimes holding a flat cup as though waiting for another dipper of wine while watching the party going on into the wee hours.
The museum is only three floors and a lovely courtyard, but there is plenty to see beyond the sarcophagi, including near life-size terra-cotta winged horses taken from a temple and several reconstructed tombs with their original frescoes. Daily life is also represented with ex votos — little clay models of body parts that needed healing by priests, containers for ashes made in the shape of their homes, kitchen tools, and loads of painted pots and vases in a Greek style (beware: some designs aren’t suitable for children).
Don’t Forget to Eat
When it’s time for lunch or dinner, there are numerous choices to eat in the center of Tarquinia.
Directly across from the museum in Piazza Cavour is Napule E, a good place for pizza. For a more traditional meal, Italian friends highly recommend Ambaradam, located at Giacomo Mateotti 14, with seasonal menus from both the land and the sea. Tagiatelle with asparagus, pachini tomatoes, and prawns accompanied by wine from nearby Villa Puri is one example of their offerings. Another highly-rated restaurant is Ristorante Cocca & Mi, via Antica 54 near Piazza San Martino.
There are dozens of guidebooks on the area, but if you are looking for something of a travelogue, D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, first published in 1932 and still in print, is fascinating. Etruria hasn’t changed much, but his descriptions of the dreadful food makes one realize that Italy wasn’t always famous for culinary delights.
It is possible to use public transportation for this trip but not efficient if you are pressed for time. There is a bus from Rome to Cerveteri and then a local bus to the tombs. Tarquinia is served by a train and then local bus, or by a bus directly from Rome. Check with a tourist office in Rome for schedules and connections.
The most convenient way to enjoy the day is to rent a car and proceed at your own pace, but there is at least one tour company, Your Italy Tours, that offers a private car and driver for a 9-hour trip to both the tombs at Cerveteri and the museum and tombs at Tarquinia. To avoid disappointment, be sure to check opening hours; museums are usually closed on Mondays.
A number of companies offer day tours to the area from the Civitavecchia cruise terminal, the port for Rome. They can be found on the web.
Photo credits: candido33, Sergio D’Afflitto, AlMare, Tarquina Museum, Lalupa and Mike Wilson.