The village where we’re staying is not only close to Rome, but also to various intriguing little hut shapes on the map, which are marked as Etruscan necropolis, and that’s where I’m campaigning to go next. The Etruscans lived in Northern and Central Italy before the Romans came along, and had a highly sophisticated society which traded with Greece and the Middle-East, before being eventually subdued and assimilated into the superpower that was Rome. In particular they placed special importance on burial and built veritable cities of the dead.
Today we’ve decided to visit the necropolis of Cerveteri, and we’ll be reaching it via the shores of Lake Bracciano; Heather has already picked out our route (scenic, of course, and avoiding the motorway) and where we will be having lunch. We reach the sleepy little town of Anguillara Sabazia with our stomachs pleasantly rumbling, and take a little stroll along the lake shore, admiring some beautiful flowering trees and two guys paddle boarding with a puppy.
The lake is still and mirror-like, there are a few ducks and swans, it’s all very peaceful! We enjoy a rather great lunch (I have spectacular fish ravioli) before climbing the cobbled streets to the top of the village where the views are gorgeous and laundry waves peacefully in the breeze (drying laundry is a constant wherever you are in Italy – balconies, across narrow lanes, on railings, everywhere).
It’s time to carry on to Cerveteri, where we arrive mid afternoon and promptly get lost in the meandering streets of the medieval centre, before establishing (thank you Internet) that the necropolis is not in the town (retrospectively, duh!) and we need to get back in the car and drive there. When we arrive and finally enter the site, it’s almost deserted apart from one group of French teenagers who have been given free rein to explore the tombs, and are busy trying to freak each other out (without success) with stories of dead people.
About a tenth of the total area of the necropolis is accessible to visitors, and it is massive already! Really like wandering through a city of the dead; there are large hut-like stone constructions covered in grasses and trees, with gaping entrance doorways; smaller rectangular tombs; and even streets with terraced houses – except they’re not houses but tombs. The effect is quite magical, actually, and a little Indiana Jonesy, because visitors are free to clamber into the tombs and around them. Some tombs are marked on a little map and have explanatory panels, but others are just accessible without comment, and it’s kind of great too, because you really feel like you’re exploring without being led too much. Some of the bigger tombs are truly massive, with several chambers inside lined with bench-like stone beds (the actual tombs) – we learn that the deceased would be laid on them on beds of pebbles and wood, surrounded by all their treasured possessions, as the Etruscans believed that after death, they would carry on living in their tombs (hence why they’re like houses).
The tombs of Cerveteri are all pretty much unadorned, that is, they’re mostly empty stone chambers, some of which have a little carving here and there. One of the tombs has extensive war-themed decorations though, and representations of Scilla (remember her? The marine monster whose home town we visited just across from Sicily?) and Cerberus, the three-headed dog who inspired “Fluffy” in Harry Potter. We’re only allowed to look at that tomb through a glass door, to protect the paintings and carvings both from the elements and from pillaging idiots, who are apparently still numerous.
The thing is, I was convinced we were going to see extensive frescoes in those tombs – and that is why you should not trust a simple “Google Images” search of your travel destinations, friends, because Google Images lies and confuses places with other places. So despite the fact that the necropolis is super atmospheric and quite beautiful in a slightly forlorn way, I can’t help being disappointed by the lack of frescoes, and keep apologising profusely to Heather who doesn’t actually seem that fussed because she’s enjoying where we are! Zaza enjoys an extensive feed and play in the streets of the dead, which she seems to be finding particularly pleasant (and they are, all leafy and peaceful in the golden afternoon light). We are the last visitors to leave.
On the way back, we decide to check out the perched village of Sant’Oreste, which the AirBnB host had recommended we visit. It’s impressive and glorious in the sunset, and the views over the countryside are magnificent, all dappled greens and misty hills; but we cannot for the life of us find anywhere to have dinner in all those staircases and lanes and tiny piazzas, and the wind is bitingly cold. We retreat to the car and despondently search the Internet for a restaurant in the vicinity; it seems like there is one in a nearby village, and having parked the car under a towering medieval church we apprehensively search for the promised eatery… which we finally find! It’s a tiny trattoria whose owner is a great big moustachioed man; we enjoy perfectly good pasta while Eliza sits in a baby seat like a grown up child (for a few minutes), and the best damn dessert I’ve had in this whole trip (a pistachio semi-freddo, if you’re wondering).
The next morning, our last day in Torrita Tiberina, seeing that I’m still pining after frescoed tombs, Heather suggests we forego her plan of going back to Rome, to head to Tarquinia, to the North-West of Cerveteri almost on the sea side. That’s because Heather is lovely. I’m also immensely relieved to avoid another day in Rome, because even though we’ve loved it, I’m still scarred by the last evening we spent there and the train journey home with a screaming baby the whole time – I swear I spent that train journey staring at my own reflection in the train window watching new lines appear on my haggard face.
Arriving in Tarquinia, we manage to find the necropolis, where there are a large number of school groups having an extremely lively lunch break – sharing what we’re visiting with large groups of school children is to become somewhat common, as you will discover in our accounts of the coming days. There seems to be only a handful of adults supervising what looks like a thousand children, and they don’t seem too passionate about funereal art.
Anyway, we enter a field of wildflowers in which bizarre little concrete houses covered in red tiles are dotted around; these are the tombs which have had protective shelters built atop them, after the original hut-like ones were demolished to make way for crops in the past (that’s one hell of a demolition job, if you look at the density of tombs and the drawings that were made of this hill in the past – there were over twenty thousand tombs here!). For each tomb, you go down a flight of stairs very similar to the ones we’ve seen in Cerveteri, and peer through a glass door at the decorations inside. These paintings are more than two and a half thousand years old!
They are magnificent. We see banquets, dancers and musicians, hunters, all manners of domestic and exotic animals, lovers, and mythological figures. It’s interesting to see the evolution of style of painting through the years, but also the evolution of the beliefs: from the dead living on inside their tombs, all decked out with images of banquets and the like, to the influence of the Greeks: we see images of Charonte (the Greek call him Charon) ferrying the dead to the underworld, where they are led by female winged figures carrying torches (well hi there, precursors of angels), and the dead of their family are there welcoming them with open arms. All in all these seem pretty pleasant visions of the afterlife, and if I believed in an afterlife I’d be down with eternal banqueting and dancing, although that sounds a bit claustrophobic.
What with the beautiful ancient art and playing with Zaza in the wildflowers (friends, there is nothing like having your tiny feet touching plants, apparently), it’s half past three in the afternoon by the time we exit the site, and siesta is happening all around us, which means all the restaurants are closed. This is a shame because I’ve suddenly become preoccupied with a monthly event which requires immediate action. After pleading with the staff at one restaurant, they agree to serve us lasagne and salad even though they’re closed! All is well again, and we enjoy our lunch on a totally deserted piazza, watching pigeons take a bath in the bubbling fountain nearby, while three elderly ladies chain smoke their way around all the benches in the square.
We’ve got tickets to the national museum of Tarquinia, too, so we set off to hunt the building down, helped by surprisingly swish tourist information panels all over the town. The town itself is beautiful, in a way that feels almost unremarkable to us by now because we are spoiled – cobbled lanes, medieval towers, baroque church fronts, fountains, bits of ancient aqueducts… We find the museum surrounded by a crowd of animatedly chatting old men on benches, who stop to watch us pass and comment on our baby. Unfortunately, I’ve now become quite unwell with stomach and womb cramps so the museum is a bit of a blur of suffering, which is a shame because it houses a very beautiful collection of all the objects found in the tombs we’ve just visited. There are many carved life-size statues of reclining people in the likeness of the tombs’ occupants, and it’s surprising to see them lying there relaxed and nonchalant with their bellies hanging out – but I suppose if you believe that these guys are about to enjoy an eternity of reclining, they might as well be comfy doing that. It’s quite moving to see whole family trees represented, all of them found in the same tomb banqueting away through the centuries (until they were placed in the museum…).
There are carvings of all kinds which used to adorn the tombs: animals, mythological heroes, warriors, monsters, battles. There are also more ancient burial objects from before the Etruscans’ time in the Iron age, when people used to be cremated and placed in terracotta little replica houses, which slid inside stone capsules placed in hollows in the ground. There are many imported Greek vases too, which were a luxury item that the rich Etruscans were able to buy (as it turned out earlier, they also imported Greek artists to paint their tombs!), and beautiful jewellery.
Leaving the museum, I scoff some painkillers in the car before we set off on our journey back. We’ve decided to pay a return visit to our favourite restaurant in the area, the very one where we’d had that pivotal nice evening on the day I was having a “parenting is hard” crisis. They are delighted to see us back, and despite the fact that we order a starter to share, it really looks like they’ve given us double the portion because it just keeps coming and coming! At the end of the meal, the chef sends us a bottle of wine to take away, as a present! How adorable. Touched by this lovely attention, we leave full of happy feelings about the region of Rome – tomorrow we’re off North into Tuscany!