- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

TARQUINIA, Italy — “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Robert Louis Stevenson no doubt was correct on a certain level, for dreams and fantasies (the preparation for any voyage) may well be more delightful than the experienced reality — but not always.

We’re on our way out of Rome for a day’s excursion into the province of Lazio, or Latium, of which Rome is the seat. All along the coast lie the remnants of Etruscan and Roman settlements, beginning with Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman seaport, now a pleasant place to visit ruins and enjoy a meal by the sea.

Castles, villas, lakes and mountains lace the interior, including Hadrian’s magnificent villa and park near Tivoli; the great abbeys and monasteries, many with exquisite frescoes; and the summer papal residence of Castel Gandolfo. Thermal baths are scattered throughout the region, thanks to the many hot springs known already in Roman times. Frascati and its fresh, light white wines are close by. There’s lots to see within a 40-mile radius of the capital.

We begin our day excursion with a visit to the Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano, about 25 miles from Rome. The fortified castle, still owned and occupied by the Odescalchi family, is shaped in an irregular quadrilateral form with one square and five cylindrical towers. It looks like something from a fairy tale or romance movie. The medieval castle (11th to 14th centuries) is filled with magnificent Renaissance furnishings; gorgeous frescoed walls and ceilings; and rooms of weapons, armor and paintings. Windows overlook Lake Bracciano and the verdant fields bordering the lake.

Tarquinia is the site of one of the major Etruscan cities. Its earliest archaeological remains date to the ninth century B.C. The necropolis is on a ridge to the southwest of the ancient city and contains the most important painted tombs in Etruria. About 150 painted rock-cut chamber tombs have been unearthed, many with well-preserved frescoes.

No one knows the origin of the Etruscans, but they probably migrated from Asia Minor about the 11th century B.C., settling along the western coast of central Italy in what today are the regions of Tuscany and Lazio. They disappeared, absorbed into the Roman Empire. Their language was not Indo-European and has never been deciphered completely. They were pirates and skilled traders and among the finest craftsmen the world has ever known. Sometimes called Tyrrhenians after one of their leaders, they gave their name to Italy’s glorious Tuscany and to the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The Etruscans were good at mining and using the iron, copper, tin and zinc found in the mountains of the area. They traded in olives, wine and grain, exchanging their products for the gold with which they made their exquisite jewelry.

The objects found in the tombs, as well as anything discovered in the ruins of the ancient cities, can be seen in Italy’s Etruscan museums. The choice collection is in Rome, in the Villa Giulia, where hundreds of beautiful objects are on view, ranging from the moving sarcophagus of a smiling, reclining husband and wife to endless decorated clay pots, vases and other receptacles.

“No cameras; no handbags,” the guide says sternly, eyeing my little Olympus and a just slightly larger shoulder bag. Fear of theft appears prevalent in Roman and Etruscan museums, and a visitor may enter the museum in Tarquinia only when denuded of journalists’ equipment. A pencil and notebook are OK.

The museum in Tarquinia, although much smaller than the Villa Giulia, has its own share of Etruscan beauty. In an outdoor gallery on the second floor stand a series of female sarcophagi (“eating up flesh”). One has stone rings on her stone fingers; another, of an older woman, has exposed ribs in a chest fraught with breathing difficulties; a third lies in peaceful beauty. They are touchingly human and seem alive in their realistic, carved resting places.

The museum has a small but excellent collection of granulated gold jewelry, some gold buttons so tiny that one marvels at the intricacy of the workmanship. There are numerous vases, both Greek and Etruscan, and clay pots with beautiful geometric designs.

At Cerveteri, once called Caere, the necropolis of round tombs spans the period from the Iron Age to the late Roman period, with the majority of tombs dating from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., when the town reached its peak and its power rivaled that of Athens and Corinth. Today, the necropolis is a well-kept park, a major attraction for tourists and schoolchildren.

Originally, the Etruscans cremated their dead and placed the ashes in large round stone receptacles, or urns. Gradually, cremation gave way to inhumation, especially in Tarquinia and Cerveteri. Large circular mounds (tumuli) were hewn into the soft, porous tufa. The entrance to the tomb was sealed with large stones; an “X” marked the entrance so that the family would know where to reopen the tomb for the next burial.

The tumuli have become overgrown with grasses, wildflowers and pine trees. The openings are no longer sealed, and iron ladders lead up and then down into the entrance to those tombs that are far below the surface of the ground. Not all of the mounds have been excavated.

Inside, the tombs resemble the interior of a house — and it is from these interiors that archaeologists have gleaned what life was like for the Etruscans. Carved into the tufa are beds and chairs, tables and wall decorations. Women were laid to rest on beds carved from the rock with a triangular roof shape beneath the head. Men lay with their heads on a carved pillow.

The tombs have been given names such as Tomb of the Capitals, Tomb of the Bas-Reliefs, Tomb of the Hut. In Tarquinia, where the tumuli are of rock, rather than porous tufa, the frescoes are better preserved. Here, the tombs are Tomb of the Lionesses, Tom of the Bulls, Tomb of the Leopards, reflecting the paintings rather than the carvings.

We stop for lunch on this lovely sunny day at the outskirts of Civitavecchia at the SunBay Park Hotel. On a pretty terrace overlooking a small harbor, protected from the sun by a wide awning, surrounded by pots of brightly blooming flowers, we refresh ourselves with glasses of cool Prosecco and delicious, thin, white pizza before moving on to the more serious business of grilled fish, roasted peppers and, of course, freshly made pasta.

“Veni, vidi, vici.” We, like Caesar, came to see and conquer, but Lazio conquered us. Caesar 1, Robert Louis Stevenson 0.

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