Italy is a cherished luxury travel destination -- so much so, that travelers can feel lost amidst hordes of tourists. The antidote is close by: the small city of Tarquinia northwest of Rome.
Tarquinia is only an hour northwest of Rome on Italy's railroad system, Trenitalia. It is suitable for a day trip by train or car, or for a visit of a night or two.
As close as Tarquinia is to Rome, it is another world. Tarquinia's world is the world of honest, everyday. small-town Italy. In Tarquinia, the pace is serene, and the experience real. You are living the life of a Tarquinian, not as a walking wallet in amongst Rome's tourism hordes.
Tarquinia's off-the-beaten-path authenticity alone would make it a luxury travel destination for travelers who seek real life wherever they go. But Tarquinia has so much more to offer visitors.
If you're ever had the sensation of being pushed along in a moving mass of tourists in Rome, Florence, or Venice, Tarquinia is the antidote.
Visitors to Tarquinia never feel like they're on a stage set of Italy. Tarquinians appreciate every single visitor and treat them very well. You will not feel exploited or devalued here.
And you will see real Italian life close-up, not the tourist version. In Tarquinia, the day-to-day life of an Italian town unfolds around you. Walking down Tarquinia's winding Renaissance-era streets or sunning in the piazza, you will see all sorts of sights, so human that they are thrilling.
In the space of a couple of hours on one summer afternoon, I witnessed:
- A church parade with priests hoisting banners of the local saint, the Madonna di Valverde
- A young newlywed couple and their wedding party emerging from a church
- An impromptu, raucous parade of cars, its inhabitants shouting over Italy's soccer win over Germany
- Children racing through the piazza on their bikes, followed by their barking dogs
- And all the characters you'd expect in an Italian town: leggy teenage girls in big sunglasses; young men on their motorbikes; smartly suited businesspeople checking their iPhones; couples meeting for kisses and a quick café coffee; widows in traditional black; bakers rushing by with baskets of bread to deliver; and solitary women feeding the pigeons and doves
- Did I glimpse a single tour bus or gaggle of tourists in Nike sneakers? No
Tarquinia is within easy day-trip distance of Rome, an hour by train. But there's so much to see here, it's worth spending a night or two.
Tarquinia offers a variety of hotels, none of them at the luxury level. But Valle del Marta, named for the local river valley, is very pleasant. It is a quiet resort that adjoins an organic farm. Both are owned by the same longtime Tarquinian family.
The hotel is laid out along a serene park-like lawn and trees. Every suite's furnished patio overlooks this tranquil view. Inside, the décor is old-fashioned but comfortable, with a canopied bed, large wooden armoire, and a spare bathroom. Wifi is free.
Valle del Marta's common spaces are social and well-designed. Guests enjoy a buffet breakfast indoors or outside on a poolside patio. There's a comfortable lobby, a small spa, and two pools: a splash pool and a narrow lap pool that accommodates one happy swimmer
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Tarquinia's profoundly affecting Italian vistas take many forms.
Tarquinia's imposing natural setting is up a hill from the beach (il Lido di Tarquinia) and amidst lush countryside, with rolling hills, a turquoise sky, and caressing sunshine.
Tarquinia's spectacular architectural wealth spans the centuries from medieval times onward. This bounty includes:
- A medieval monastery and fort, lit at night for mystery and glamour
- Soaring churches from Gothic and Renaissance times
- 1Renaissance palazzos where nobles lived (one is now Tarquinia's grandly frescoes city hall
- A Renaissance city square (piazza) complete with a photogenic fountain
- And unspoiled old streets, yours for poetic promenades
Certain city buses are free. Indeed, Tarquinia values its visitors.
Tarquinia is a vividly historic location, with world-renowned archeology. It is so old, it is older than Rome! Tarquinia – then Tarchuna -- was the biggest city in the Etruscan empire, Etruria. Some marvelous facts about Tarquinia's past:
- Nobody knows who the Etruscans were, since their language is now undecipherable. (Everything we know about them is from their graves.) One theory is that Etruscans came from Troy in Greece, another is that they were indigenous people. Their rich copper and iron mines created trade and wealth, and the Etruscan civilization prospered for centuries.
- The Etruscan Empire spread out over much of northern and central Italy in the last millennium BC, and founded place names such as Tusca (now Tuscany) and Perusia (Perugia). The conquering Romans removed the last Etruscan king, Luscius Tarquinius Superbus, in 509BC, and established the Roman Republic.
- The Etruscans traded mainly with ancient Greece, and miported many elements of Hellenic culture: the 12 Olympian gods, advances architecture like irrigation and sewage; cultivation of olives and grapes, winemaking, and the Greek alphabet, which became our Roman alphabet
- Etruscan society was more egalitarian than the Roman civilization that followed it. Women were highly respected. And Etruscan family tombs (which you will read more about below) were decorated like theaters, hunting lodges, and banquet halls showing an appreciation for the good life
Friends, Romans, conquerors. In more recent centuries, Tarquinia became a literary center, with authors beating a path of Tarquinia to steep in its mystery and history. Among the famous writers drawn to Tarquinia's enigmatic Etruscan past, its legends, and its beauty:
- Henri Bleyle Stendhal, the great 19th-century French novelist who penned The Red and the Black, was for a time a diplomat in Rome. He became enchanted with Tarquinia, then known as Corneto, and authored a long article about its recently discovered Etruscan tombs. He also wrote of a Corneto-born cardinal who double-dealt between the Pope and Henry VIII, and was even accused of murdering the Pontiff
- D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist most famed for Lady Chatterley's Lover, visited Tarquinia extensively in the years between World Wars I and II. Here, he penned Sketches of Etruscan Places and other Italian essays, comparing an idealized Etruscan society with the impending terrors of Fascism
- Lawrence's friend and fellow Englishman Aldous Huxley, was enraptured by Etruscan tomb paintings
- Titto Marini, Tarquinia's native son, was a poet who lived here his entire long life. He died in 1980, leaving his poems, his essays, and his fountain-laden estate for everyone's enjoyment
The Etruscans celebrated death as another stage of life. Their cast cemeteries, scattered in and around Tarquinia, have survived. These Necropoli have neighborhoods, streets, trees, and beautiful view.
Inside the Necropoli are series of elaborate family tombs, furnished with cot-like benches for new arrivals. Their walls are painted with intricate scenes that illustrate the family's tastes and philosophies: they may depicts hunting scenes, or parties with music or dancing, or parades of mythological animals.
When a relative needed to move in, the family would open the tomb for a party that was a celebration of life and the hereafter.
Monterozzi Necropolis, a UNESCO World Hertiage Site, is the cemetery right in Tarquinia, a short walk from the piazza. This 3,000-year-old marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its setting alone, overlooking a perfect Italian landscape of golden fields, is enough to warrant a visit.
But here's the incredible thing about Monterozzi Necropolis. It is composed of intricate underground tombs dug right into the stone – hundreds of them, containing thousands of graves.
Every family had a tomb; some were patterned after the family's house. The newly departed were laid on stone beds and gently moved as needed. Two hundred of the tombs still display their elaborately painted walls. These frescoes reveal the character of the family: pious, fun-loving, cultivated, close-knit, or status-conscious. Many murals reveal Etruscans feasting or embracing. This vanished civilization enjoyed its time on Earth.
There's another Etruscan city about an hour from Tarquinia. Also a UNESCO World Hertiage Site, Cerveteri is a necropolis that's a metropolis. Cerveteri is a 2800-year-old cemetery city laid out like a town. It has neighborhoods, walking streets. plazas, parks, and lookouts. And of course, family homes. (Confusingly, Cerveteri is also called Banditaccia and by its Etruscan name, Caere.)
Cerveteri's most famous "homes" are built under dome-like soft volcanic rock structures, tumuli, that resemble giant mushrooms.
Inside, the homes are all different. It is believed that they were designed and decorated to resembles the families' homes, none of which have survived over the millennia.
These tombs feature various rooms with seating for funeral events. They are still richly embellished with frescoes of daily or fantasy scenes. And they have shelves and niches for family treasures such as Greek urns and jewelry – some of which is still present.
The most-visited tombs at Cerveteri is the "Tomb of Reliefs," the final resting place of members of the powerful Matuna family. To reach this marvel, you walk down a long stairway cut into the rock, and reach an entrance hall with Greek-style columns. This is the main burial chamber, with beds and ledges for nearly 50 Matunas. The beds feature carved pillows whose red pain is still visible, 2600 years later. Niches once held oil lamps and funerary offerings – some art objects and some items from daily life. The walls are painted with objects of the Matuna's day-to-day life, such as kitchen utensils and fishing nets. The message conveyed is "Family, you are home."
Many treasures of Tarquinia's tombs are on dislpay in the town's well-curated museums. These are very worth spending some time at:
The Tarquinia National Museum is situated in the gracefully porticoes, Renaissance-era Palazzo Vitelleschi on Tarquinia's main Piazza Cavour. The museum is devoted to objects discovered in the necropolis.
- Highlights of the Tarquinia National Museum include stone sargophagi; delicately worked gold jewelry; pottery and vases of Greek origin, some depicting X-rated activities
- The museum's masterpiece, which draws viewers the world over, is a stone relief pair of nearly life-size horses. Once gracing an Etruscan temple, these steeds are probably the two most spectacular works of Etruscan art
- The other Etruscan treasure is the funerary sculpture of a beaming Etruscan husband and wife, seen at the end of this article
The Tarquinia Ceramic Museum (Museo della Ceramica d'Uso a Corneto) is devoted not to Etruscans but to much later times: the medieval and Renaissance periods. The museum contains hundreds of objects, mostly used in day-to-day life in Corneto, Tarquinia's name in these times. The collection is strong on painted pottery and dishes. A reconstruction of a 500-year-old kitchen is not to be missed.
Villa Lante, a half-hour's drive from Tarquinia, presents yet another era of its history: the late Renaissance. This magnificent estate and garden, which rivals anything in France, was built in the 1500s. The garden was originally a country villa for the bishop of Viterbo, and was constructed mainly by two of them both. The first, Cardinal Gambara, was a scholarly man in later life. The second was the 17-year-old nephew of the pope.
These men created Villa Lante, and it is not the usual sedate garden. The older cardinal engaged a famous architect of his era, Giacomo Barozzi, who was known as "Il Vignola".
It Vignola's vision for Villa Lante was predicated on waterworks. They were state-of-the-art for their time, much like an estate today with its own Pilates gym and heliport. Il Vignola's design wowed onlookers with complicated features (like fountains cascading down a hillside) and with surprises (like massive stone Neptunes or grotesque, mask-like faces commanding the waters).
Villa Lante's most enchanting features are still its cascading fountains and stepped grottoes with chutes of water.
Villa Lante's story did not end there. The property was sold to the Duke of Lante in the 1700s. In the late 1800s, it was owned by an American heiress straight out of a Henry James novel. The villa was heavily damaged by Allied bombings of Rome during World War II. It was patiently restored by its subsequent owner.
Villa Lante is the main attraction in the charming old town of Bagnaia near the city of Viterbo. Villa Lante offers free admission, and welcomes picnickers.
Near Tarquinia: Villa Farnese, a Popes' Palace
Villa Farnese, not far from Villa Lante, is another easy trip from Tarquinia. It was the local estate of one of the Italian Renaissance's most powerful, respected, and feared families, which married into royal lines and produced popes.
The mansion and estate that comprise Villa Farnese captivates art lovers.(The Farnese Gallery, in Rome, is a treasure house of Italian painting.)
Villa Farnese is like a crash course in Renaissance architecture and art. From the outside, the Villa Farnese is impressive, lording it over the town of Caprarola. Its architecture is magnificent, and the art inside is exhilarating.
The Villa Farnese was built as securely and solidly as a fort to defend the controversial, super-rich Farnese family from its enemies. The building as is done in a rather severe late-Renaissance style called Mannerism, with a solid, blocky, rectangular aspect and less-ornamented embellishments. The effect is handsome and forbidding.
Inside, Villa Farnese is a palace. It has airy proportions and formal, spiral staircases (five of them). Its numerous reception salons, ballrooms, and banquet rooms bespeak of royal life. And its many private suites suggest the dynastic power of the Farneses.
The main attraction of Villa Farnese are its incredible frescoes and paintings, on every wall and ceiling. These paintings depict landmark events in the lives of Alexander the Great and of course the Farneses. One wall displays a map of the world as known in 1574, and above it the constellations of the heavens.
Villa Farnese's gardens are equally arresting. The garden villa called the Casinio is today an official residence of the President of Italy. But the Villa Farnese is a museum with frequent concerts. It is just as impressive today as when the Farneses were at the height of their power.
Tarquinia is a stronghold of honest Italian cooking. Visitors will find an array of Italian restaurants, many serving local dishes and house-made pastas.
My favorite Tarquinia restaurant was Ambaradam, a heart-and-soul Italian restaurant/ Dining is indoors in a centuries-old, space, or outdoors on Tarquinia's central Piazza Cavour. This is a restaurant to love, with generous portions of delicious food; fresh salumeria appetizer platters will be enough for many diners.
But then you'd miss the seafood linguine. Service is respectful, and the Tarquinia people-watching is unparalleled. everyone comes to Ambaradam, from luxury travelers into wn for a night or two to young parents showing their toddlers how to twirl pasta.
If you dine at Ambaradam, you will congratulate yourself on having found the true local place in this vivid Italian town.
When in Caprarola, or following a visit to Villa Farnese, do as the Caprarolese do, and eat at Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi. For pizza connoisseurs, it will be just as much a pilgrimage as a visit to Villa Farnese is for art lovers.
Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi is owned by two brothers of the Gallozzi family. It resembles a friendly pub, complete with numerous Italian, German, and English beers on tap. But of course the main event is the pizza, baked in a massive, multi-level, wood-fired brick oven. What you can expect at Pizzeria 2 Gallozzi:
- Pizza that merits its award for Italy's best, based on a national competition (this pie is a four-cheese pizza with nutty fontina cheese and creamy musheooms
- Dozens of thin-crust pies with toppings ranging from traditional (prosciutto) to modern (arugula)
- The pizzeria's well-known dessert pizza, with Nutella, chestnuts, and walnuts
- To cap your experience, a nip of Limoncello on the house
Where to find out more about Tarquinia
- Tarquinia's English-language tourism website
- Tarquinia's other excellent, official travel site
- Tarquinia photos on Pinterest
As is common in the travel industry, the Guide was provided with a complimentary visit for the purpose of describing Tarquinia. While this arragement did not influenced her article, About.com believes in editorial transparency. For more info, see our Ethics Policy.