Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world

Tarquinia: the Italian hill town that makes a great excursion from Rome

by Lucy Hornberger


This is the day trip from Rome that we nearly didn't do… but we're so glad that we did. Tarquinia is a classic Italian hill town of sandstone walls and quaint streets, with an ancient Etruscan cemetery extraordinaire, a good archaeology museum, and a beach on its doorstep. This varied excursion was one of the highlights of our trip.
Tarquinia is located about 100 km / 60 miles north of Rome and its main claim to fame is the wonderfully preserved Etruscan necropolis, the Necropoli dei Monterozzi, that lies just beyond the town walls. This collection of painted tombs is a World Heritage Site and an absolute must for anyone with even a passing interest in ancient history, archaeology and the Etruscans. The wonderful thing about Tarquinia, however, is that it has the additional attraction of being close to the beach. Ancient culture plus sea and sand: the makings of an ideal day out for this family!
The Etruscans, no doubt attracted by the site's natural defences, settled this area long before the founding of Rome. And where they lived in life, they still inhabit in death - the largest known Etruscan cemetery is located just outside the town walls. This is such a wonderful site that it deserved its own article: see Tarquinia's Etruscan Tombs: the Necropoli dei Monterozzi.
It seemed to us a good idea to visit the necropolis first, in the cool of the morning (it is largely unshaded), then make our way back into town to see the Etruscan artefacts at Tarquinia's Museo Nazionale. On our way back into the town we stopped to enjoy our packed lunch at the shady little Parco delle Mura, just below the town walls. With the scent of pines, a little playground and squadrons of swallows flying above it's a pleasant place to rest for a while. From the end of the park there are panoramic views out over rolling agricultural hills dotted with the occasional farmstead and small industrial unit. How similar would the landscape have looked in Etruscan times, we wondered?
The town itself is a sleepy place, at least on a weekday. We passed a few places to eat, a craft shop or two and a small branch of Benetton, but mass tourism seems - thankfully - to have passed Tarquinia by. That's not to say that visitors aren't well catered for though. The town's attractions are excellently signposted and there's even a tour guide app that you can download on the spot.
The Etruscan Museum - Museo Nazionale Etrusco - is housed in the beautiful 15th century Palazzo Vitelleschi. If you are interested in archaeology then the museum is well worth your time, but if not then it's still worth popping into the courtyard (free access) for a quick look at the building. The exhibits have very little labelling in English, however there are info sheets available in each room. The ground floor has some wonderful sarcophagi with their sculptured owners banqueting on the lids. The second floor has a huge collection of Greek ceramics (beware the 'Eros' section if visiting with children!) and a large collection of wonderful smaller items such as helmets (re-used, apparently, as lids for grave urns), flasks and vases in shapes of animals and people, and some fascinating carved and painted ostrich eggs. Finally, the third floor has the famous Tarquinia Cavalli Alati winged horse sculpture (which once decorated the town's main Etruscan temple) and some painted tomb panels which were moved to the museum for conservation reasons (and are accompanied by some rare English explanations).
After the museum, and a quick gelato at a nearby café, it was time to head to the beach. The Lido di Tarquinia is about 5km below the town, but it's easy to take the regular bus down the hill and on past the station. There's no worry about missing the correct stop -after passing through a wooded nature reserve the bus continues right along the sea front.
Despite being a weekday the public beach was packed, while the extensive private areas with their serried rows of sun loungers were all but deserted. It seems it's not just foreign visitors who object to paying for a spot on the sand! We were taken aback to find the darkish sand almost too hot to walk on, and this was only early summer. Bringing Crocs or flip flops is thus a very good idea.
It's not a beautiful beach but the water looks clean, and there were lots of colourful kites, souvenir hawkers and excellent people watching opportunities. After all that culture it was a fine end to the day.

Getting to Tarquinia from Rome: logistics
Warning: Don't schedule your day trip to Tarquinia for a Monday - both the tombs and the museum will be closed.
If I went to Tarquinia again I would make it into an overnight trip, however if you don't have the time or inclination for that, then it's certainly doable as a day trip from Rome. To comfortably visit the tombs, the museum and the beach all in one day, however, does require an early start. Just how early is dictated by the current train timetable. At the time of our visit we had a choice of a train leaving shortly after 6am, or another leaving at around 10am, both from Rome's Termini Station. Given that the later train would have got us to Tarquinia only around noon, right in the heat of the day, we gritted our teeth and decided to get up early. We purchased our tickets the previous day, which turned out to be lucky as the platform for the Tarquinia trains is some distance from the main concourse and quite a walk. Leave plenty of time!
Once you arrive in Tarquinia there is the issue of transport between the train station - located at the base of the hill - and the town itself - a couple of kilometres up on top of the hill. Our general experience of Italian transport suggested that this might be tricky, but in fact the bus service worked flawlessly and within a few minutes of our arrival at the station the bus duly arrived to pick us up. The route loops through some newer sections of the town on its way up the hill. I nervously followed the route on a mapping app, eager not to miss our stop. But no need to worry - there's really no mistaking when you arrive at the old town: the bus pulls into a broad parking area just below the main gateway in the town wall. Here there are public toilets (slightly hidden - they are to the right of the wrought iron bus shelter), recycling bins and the tourist office which is just inside the town gateway and open every day from 9am to noon, and 4pm to 7pm. There are bus timetables posted on the noticeboard outside.
From the bus parking there is a shuttle bus to the tombs, but we were happy to walk - an easy 20 minute stroll through the historical core of the town and out a little to the south-east. Again, the logistics are easy and you really can't miss the tombs - it's clearly signed Necropoli de Monterozzi.
Buses to the beach (Lido di Tarquinia) leave from the bus stops by the old town gateway. From the beach it is easy to take the bus back to the station. Bus ticket prices are very cheap.
Staying overnight
There are several dozen hotels, pensions, B&Bs in and immediately around Tarquinia. There are also a number of campsites and - if you have your own transport - some 'Agriturismi' options. Tarquinia's Tourist Information Office website has comprehensive details and Booking.com has a good selection. If you prefer to rent an apartment, Airbnb offers a number of nice-looking centrally located options, and many more near the beach and in the surrounding area.
Should you be self-catering, I have to say that I didn't see a singly grocery or food store in the old town (although I admit that I wasn't specifically looking), however there is a reasonably sized Co-op store on the bus route through the modern area below the Old Town.

A distant view of the sea from the town walls.A distant view of the sea from the town walls.

A gate in the town wall.A gate in the town wall.

The view inland.The view inland.

The most famous of Tarquinia's Etruscan painted tombs - the Tomb of the Leopards.The most famous of Tarquinia's Etruscan painted tombs - the Tomb of the Leopards.

The town centre.The town centre.

Tarquinia caters well to tourists with plenty of signs and information.Tarquinia caters well to tourists with plenty of signs and information.

Etruscan-style souvenirs.Etruscan-style souvenirs.

The main town gates and the 15th century Palazzo Vitelleschi which houses the Etruscan Museum.The main town gates and the 15th century Palazzo Vitelleschi which houses the Etruscan Museum.

The entrance to the Etruscan Museum.The entrance to the Etruscan Museum.

The courtyard of the Etruscan Museum.The courtyard of the Etruscan Museum.

Etruscan sarcophagi often feature a realistic sculpture of the deceased person.Etruscan sarcophagi often feature a realistic sculpture of the deceased person.

Forever reclining at a banquet… on one's own sarcophagus.Forever reclining at a banquet… on one's own sarcophagus.

The Cavalli Alati, the winged horses of Tarquinia that once decorated the town's main Etruscan temple.The Cavalli Alati, the winged horses of Tarquinia that once decorated the town's main Etruscan temple.

One of the Etruscan Museum's many small treasures - a vase in the shape of a woman's head.One of the Etruscan Museum's many small treasures - a vase in the shape of a woman's head.

A sweet little perfume bottle in the shape of a monkey - one of many animal shaped pots and jars in the collection.A sweet little perfume bottle in the shape of a monkey - one of many animal shaped pots and jars in the collection.

A painted ostrich egg, an extraordinary luxury item in Etruscan times.A painted ostrich egg, an extraordinary luxury item in Etruscan times.

The Lido di Tarquinia on a hot breezy afternoon.The Lido di Tarquinia on a hot breezy afternoon.

Kites above the beach.Kites above the beach.

Looking out to sea.Looking out to sea.

Article & photos posted March 3rd, 2016

Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.


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