Tripping to Tarquinia, Italy’s well-kept secret

The picturesque city is full of archeology, architecture and award-winning pizza

italy370 (photo credit: Norma Davidoff )
(photo credit: Norma Davidoff )
TARQUINA, Italy – Tarquinia: The very name is evocative. Despite having been to Italy seven times, I had never heard of Tarquinia until last summer. But will spreading the word spoil this gem? Where is Tarquinia? In the province of Lazio, less than 90 minutes north of Rome.
Grassy mounds of the mysterious Etruscan people, buried for thousands of years, grand villas and gardens, prize-winning pizza and a medieval city that charms. A population of perhaps 17,000 in winter swells to 40,000 in summer, as Italians flock to its beaches.
There I was amid 38 bell towers – the higher the tower, the wealthier the family.
These towers are from the Middle Ages.
But that is recent considering that the warlike Etruscans flourished here from the 8th to the 5th century BCE. Their burial tombs were like Egypt’s – graves were about taking it with you, be it bones, wheels, food, drink, makeup, or sacred objects. So far archaeologists have found 6,400 tombs! Anthropologists and archeologists “dig” Tarquinia.
On my way to the mounds, I stopped at the National Museum of Tarquinia, in the 15th-century Palazzo Vitelleschi, cool and comforting on a hot day. Marvelous lions from the 4th century BCE dutifully protect the dead. Terracotta winged horses, originally red, white and yellow, are now faded, but their pose infuses them with vitality.
More evidence of these ancient, hard-tocategorize people was on display: candelabras, vessels, a helmet, small sculptures...
and the classic Greek vases of black and orange. Mystery solved, as this indicates trade with Greece and Egypt, too.
None other than the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence, who disliked museums, was nevertheless entranced with this one. “If I must have museums, let them be small, and above all, let them be local,” he said.
Lawrence may have been referring to the fact that Villa Giulia, in Rome (not local), has some of the very best Etruscan treasures.
It is superbly renovated – sleek, light and airy. Don’t miss it, but don’t miss Tarquinia either, the true home of these rare objects.
We next explored the tombs of those still-dead Etruscans. Below several acres of undulating grassy hills were the circular burial houses. Late in the day, to avoid the summer sun, we slipped down into several tombs.
At the Tomb of the Hunter, a guide explained the high social standing of the person who commissioned this sepulcher, in which we see animals hunted. The stone containers date from the Early Iron age. Yet the Tomb of the Jugglers was discovered only in the 1960s.
Then we stooped low to get to the most famous tomb: the Hunters and Fishermen.
One room in the tomb has paintings of hunting, the other fishing. Simple, but not primitive. Birds, dolphins, people: all pulse with energy and movement. No wonder this is a World Heritage site! Amid these ancient events are new happenings.
Jeremy Irons was filming in Tarquinia for a television series, The Borgias. In the harbor are the remains of the Costa cruise ship that foundered on the rocks.
But that is depressing. Let’s eat.
IT IS Saturday night in Tarquinia. At the Arcadia Restaurant, dining al fresco, classical music wafts over from City Hall. This is living, breathing City Hall, whose main room has vibrant frescoes painted in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Tarquinia is a truly medieval city. The fountain in the town square still pours forth. Clusters of houses, many small, some grand, all aged, are still in use. Churches abound. And, of course, those bell towers, even more than San Gimagnano, famous for its bell towers. The Church of San Martino was built in 1051 CE; its doors – stark, simple, black-and-white trim – signal its age. Homes on cobblestone streets stand at unexpected angles. That lends a cozy, communal feel. Poet Titta Marini lived in one of them; now a square is named for him.
On our walk in Old Town we came to a particularly beautiful, romanticallylit church, surrounded by Castello Park. Named Santa Maria, this is where The Borgias was shot. Who could resist such a setting? Inside the church sanctuary, white rose petals were strewn over the stone floor, the remnants of a wedding that took place just hours earlier. Through spaces in huge stone pillars and with moonlight descending from the domed ceiling, I see the 12th-century church’s lovingly restored dark wood pews. In this intimate, elegant space, they all bear names – Ottavia, Draghi, Arcangela, Abbelino, Folgari – families that worshipped here for perhaps 19 centuries! I climb worn stairs to the bell tower and onto the balcony for views of the park below. A rock band plays in the distance.
It turns out that this is a private park, whose owner, Bruno, shares it with the townspeople. He invited us to visit and sip wine from his own vineyard. Well past midnight, we depart to sleep easily in soft country air.
The next day we’re awakened by Sunday church bells. We set out for Villa Lante in Viterbo. Large gray stones make up the villa, another place of wealth and power. It doesn’t seem over 800 years old.
The entrance hall is a stunner. Frescoes fill the whole room. This feels like entering another world.
But soon we’re back in the villa’s formal gardens. Sternly symmetrical, the idea here is that man tames nature. The garden was ablaze with hydrangeas, rhododendron and azaleas. Actually these are garden rooms. In the 16th century, this part was built so that the vast expanse could be used for eating outdoors. All about were loggias, long stone tables, and grotesques with fascinating stone faces. I wanted to picnic right there.
Instead, we were off to another famed villa: the Palazzo Farnese. It looks like three separate palaces stacked together. Under a Della Robbia blue sky, we walked through the grassy moat into the outdoor atrium.
Frescoes in soft exquisite colors everywhere.
This is the home of the Farns family, whose name is written in the courtyard.
The frescoes, by Antonio Tempesta, seem like imitations of famous ones in Pompeii.
Then we see the hands-down best part: a winding staircase; the walls covered with an elaborate fresco. Built in 1520, these herringbone- pattern steps were designed for horses. Up these stairs rode men on horseback or in carriages to reach their rooms.
Suddenly we hear fireworks. It is 12:50 p.m., and a wedding has just ended. No time to throw rice; we’re off to a pizza extravaganza. In Caprarola, a town of red tile roofs and small streets, we dined at an unassuming pizzeria. But i2 Gallozzi’s thincrust pizzas are award winners. We sat down to a flurry of pizzas, one more ravishing than the next. One had pumpkin flowers, another salmon, a third, anchovy, and then a vegetable pizza with cherry tomatoes and arugula. Dayenu (enough!).
But no; it was time to try the pizza that took first prize at the World Championship Pizza contest, a four-cheese pizza with porcini mushroom cream, created by owner and pizza maker Patrizio Moretti. We say thanks and applaud. Dayenu.
But no: It is time for a dessert pizza – a nutella of homemade hazelnuts and chocolate. Dayenu? No. Next biscotti, chestnuts in cream, amaretti and biscotti.
In Italy, it was the Lord’s Day, and it sure was ours, too.
Stuffed, we drove through a field of sunflowers to meet more Etruscans at Cerveteri.
Through the umbrella pines, olive trees, and cypresses, we glimpse round stone huts. How eerie this City of the Dead, where sacrifices were performed and where whole families were buried, with their belongings, in a single tomb, nine centuries before the Common Era.
Videos explain that sculptures and sarcophagi were pieced together again after earthquakes, water, rats and countless centuries nearly destroyed them. The Central Tomb can hold 19 sarcophagi.
One tomb contained Greek vases; another held skeletons. Pottery depicts wrestlers, discus throwers and runners. We are seeing the joy of life and the sorrow of death.
It is haunting.
On the way back to town, we are close to the Mediterranean and Tarquinia’s beaches, crowded with families, many from Rome.
Ten kilometers of beaches, bars, restaurants and apartments line the blocks of Lido da Tarquinia. I look forward to returning to them, and to frescoes, marble sarcophagi, medieval houses, and, of course, pizza. Now I know where to go to avoid