La Tuscia is the ancient land of the Etruscans that stretches between southern Tuscany, northern Lazio and Umbria; a volcanic landscape of rolling hillsides, vines, olives and towns crumbling from their cliff-top perches. The Etruscans were the sophisticated people who proceeded and were subsequently engulfed by the early Roman republics. They cultivated grapes and built towns – Tarquinia, Tuscania and Vetulonia are particular examples – and filled their elaborate mausoleums with urns and jewellery.
Historians are not exactly sure where the Etruscans came from. The miraculously preserved frescoes and decorative objects that remain show a striking resemblance to Greek decorative styles of the same period, but the Greeks were also out and about on the Italian peninsular at the same time, so this may just point to creative influence rather than ancestry. They may indeed have been a people who came from Asia minor; archeologists often point to the oval-shaped eyes of the figures in Etruscan painting.
As a destination the Tuscia is still a little bit of a well-kept secret; the kind that one wants to boast about, but at the same say nothing about so that it stays just so. While the masses are busy visiting Montepulciano and le Cinque Terre, few people seem to have realised that between Rome and the Tuscan border there are roughly two hours by car of rolling hillsides and pretty villages, lakes and hazelnut groves. Every little town has something to visit, even if it is just a stroll around quiet and deserted cobbled streets and a bowl of soup in the town’s trattoria. Which ever way you are travelling – and you do need a car in this part of Italy – west to the coast, east towards Umbria and her green heart, there is something to gaze at from the window. “Look mum, secoli fa” shout the children from the back of the car as we drive past a heavy centuries old bluestone church in Montefiascone. As well as old churches and picturesque tumbledown farmhouses, I’m looking out for signs that point to Mercatini dell’Usato, or Antiquità and Olde Wares.
From Rome the old road to Viterbo, provincial capital at the geographic centre of the Tuscia, runs the Via Cassia, a Roman road built to link Rome with what is today Florence, and flanked in many parts by the medieval pilgrims route the Via Francigena. Viterbo is an incredibly intact medieval walled city that feels sombre in its heavy basalt costume, but has a delightful side in her pretty fountained piazzas and winding streets. On the outskirts of Viterbo there are a couple of very unromantic but worthy treasure hunting destinations; both as you drive onwards Montefiascone and Bolsena on the via Cassia, or towards Bagnoregio and Orvieto on the via Teverina.
Bolsena sits by Europe’s largest volcanic lake of the same name, waiting for the northern European visitors to come for the summer. With the Monaldeschi castle looming over the winding streets, the town feels like a page from a story book with dungeons and dragons and long-haired princesses, and in the winding streets below the castle there are stores selling furniture and old wares and an interesting market in the central piazza on random weekends. Real historical treasures can be found by visiting some of the Etruscan monuments in the area, including the remains of the Etruscan city of Tarquinia and the incredibly preserved Etruscan tombs at Porano.
lunch in Viterbo: tredici gradi; piazza don mario gargiuli, 11 Viterbo. tel 0761 305 596
Mercatino dell’Usato Viterbo, via Igino Garbini 97, Viterbo, open 7 days
Shopping dell’Usato, Via dell’Agricultura, 19, Viterbo, closed at lunch times
Retrò antiques and collectables, Corso Cavour, 11 Bolsena
Sunday market Bolsena, random saturdays and sundays, piazza next to Via Marconi, books, furniture, olive wood products and sometimes locally produce artisan food
Mercatino Bagnoregio – Fiera del Usato,Strada Bagnorese, KM. 3.100, between Celleno & Bagnoregio
chi cerca trova, Strada Cassia km 94, 250 just outside Montefiascone going toward Viterbo. tel. 0761 823193
Il Baule delle Nonna, S.S. Umbro Casentinese, Km 4.500 Montefiascone (Loc. Le Guardie)
Lunch overlooking the lake outside Bolsena: La Tana dell’ Orso Bruno, località Montesegnale, 162, Bolsena. tel. 0761 798 162. Take the road up the hill opposite Camping Blu as you drive towards Bolsena. Bruno serves freshly grilled Corregone from the lake, platters of locals cheeses and salumi in the simplest of settings overlooking the volcanic waters.
Guided Visits to the Etruscan Tombs at Porano: The Hescanas tomb (6th C BC) can be visited by appointment with a minimum group size of 4 people. Email the assocation ACQUA guides on firstname.lastname@example.org
The Etruscan Necropolis at Tarquinia is a myriad of incredibly preserved tombs dotted around the fields on the outskirts of medieval/modern day Tarquinia. The wealthy Etruscan families here – Tarquinia is on the coast so it was a trading city – had done well enough in life to employ Greek artists to decorate their tombs. After the tombs don’t miss the incredible museum in this beautiful town. For opening hours and ticket prices click here.