What did the Etruscans ever do for us?

They painted, carved, and built, creating amazing decor with themes that were wildly erotic. And they did it all hundreds of years before the Romans got their act together. Michael Church's eyes are opened as he ventures into deepest Etruria
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The Independent Travel

It's a hot summer night in Marta and the dark streets by the waterfront are full of expectant chatter. Any time now, the patron saint will arrive on the waves and the whole town is ready to receive her. Correction: we should have said half the town, not the whole of it, because in this corner of peasant Etruria the Catholic-Communist divide still cuts like a knife.

It's a hot summer night in Marta and the dark streets by the waterfront are full of expectant chatter. Any time now, the patron saint will arrive on the waves and the whole town is ready to receive her. Correction: we should have said half the town, not the whole of it, because in this corner of peasant Etruria the Catholic-Communist divide still cuts like a knife.

Little girls with white wings sprouting from their shoulders are escorted by middle-aged nuns in uncharacteristically expansive mood; small boys try their strength hoisting their fathers' giant lanterns; the band tunes up with a tremendous din.

"Precisely when and where will she hit land?" we ask three old men at their café table. Three contemptuous shrugs - they have no idea. Finally a boat covered with fairy lights appears in the blackness, and to ecstatic cries of "Che bellezza!" the saint is shouldered ashore. Then, with the Catholic half of town - including young dads pushing empty prams in the hope of their being filled by divine intervention - we follow her stately progress through the streets, endlessly repeating the same devotional chant to the strains of the band. And strain is the word, because though it keeps the rhythm, the band has a problem with pitch. When the bishop has given his blessing and the ritual is over, the band plays us home with "My Way", each player defiantly doing just that.

Marta is one of the medieval towns ringing Lake Bolsena, the inland sea - replete with fish - which is the focus for this blissful region untouched by tourism. Tuscania may be another of those towns, but Tuscany - as we now understand the word - lies 50 miles to the north: Etruria, home of the Etruscans, is a world apart. Etruscan Places was the encomium D H Lawrence was busy writing when he died: for him, the Romans were the Prussians of antiquity, who ground underfoot the ancient flower of Etruria. He loved the shining muscularity of the Etruscans' paintings, and the amoral innocence of their "obscene" sexual images: from 700-300BC, these settlers from Asia Minor had lived as he thought we all should live. Their civilisation was closer to the Greek than the Roman, but from the evidence of their tombs, which is all we have to go on, it had a gutsy vitality all its own.

And everywhere you stumble on their tracks. Visiting medieval Tuscania with its magnificent Romanesque churches, we meet a young farmer called Lorenzo Caponetti who insists that we refer to this as the New Town. The old one is to be found on his farm in a nearby valley, as he shows us: when the eye gets used to decoding the scrubby contours, every mound and hillock is revealed as a tomb, and of the 2,000 in this necropolis, 1,850 are still to be excavated. He shows us shards left by medieval inhabitants who adapted these dead-houses for living use; he points out the stones of the Via Clodia along which passed Charlemagne, Francis of Assisi, and Dante. The universities of Rome and Oregon are soon to do a dig, but the larger question of how to open it all to the public, as opposed to Caponetti's bed-and-breakfast guests, remains unanswered. His family owns the surface, but the subsoil belongs to us all. One thing leads to another: go down the road and talk to Walter Maioli, says Caponetti, and suddenly we're magically close to those Etruscans. For Maioli is an ethno- musicologist who has recreated the Etruscans' musical instruments - their lyres, flutes, tambourines and drums. He and his daughter, Luce, perform on these as though they've stepped out of the paintings and carvings which are their source-material. Moreover, they've just released a CD, The Etruscan Flutes ( www.soundcenter.it). The sound-world it evokes is haunting.

Time now to get a fix on the pristine beauty of these vaults hewn out of the rock: time to visit Tarquinia. Overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, this city with its square defensive towers looks like a medieval New York, and the hill above is dotted with military-style bunkers. In each of these a flight of steps leads down to a tomb. Each tomb's decoration is thrillingly intact, and every decorator had his own style. But the biggest buzz in Tarquinia is the museum, to which six of the most celebrated tombs have been transplanted and where, under conditions of perfect atmosphere and vandal-control, you can savour the free-flowing grace with which the musicians, dancers, animals, and fish are depicted. You can also gawp at the Etruscans' erotic table-ware: the knowledge that at the bottom of your cup lurked a penetration in close-up complete with expressions of consternation or delight might have been an additional incentive to drink up quickly.

In craggy Pitigliano, we follow a different trail. The Etruscans nested in caves in its vertiginous cliffs, but later came something unique - a Jewish ghetto with a university attached. Tolerant laws lured Jews here from Rome's Trastevere district and, until unification encouraged them to disperse and assimilate, they comprised a third of the population. Mussolini finished the ghetto off, but the synagogue, with its butchers', bakery and baths, is once more open to visitors bringing Jews from all over the globe. We wander round with a guidebook entitled The Roaming Hebrew in hand.

It's a testimony to the historical richness of Etruria that my compendious Rough Guide does not even mention Vetralla, yet this medieval city, too, is stuffed with an interesting past. Taken in hand by an expat historian, Mary Jane Cryan, the boss of the travel consultancy elegantetruria.com, we are introduced to a potter named Checco Lallo, who is the last in an unbroken line of craftsmen turning out jugs and tureens in the ancient peasant style. His chaotic workshop is a hole in the rock, his materials are dirt and wood, but the pots he throws - working in intense silence - have a rough and appealing grace.

Cryan then reveals a weird English connection. First she shows us a stone plaque in the town hall, indicating that Vetralla enjoyed the official protection of Henry VIII; then she shows us a bust of the Duke of York who visited the town in 1774, and who confirmed the relationship (which she insists has never been revoked). Then she shows us the prison-camp where shot-down British airmen were penned in 1944, and finally she introduces us to three Italian air-force veterans sipping coffee in the main square who point to the bullet-holes in a venerable old building with one explanatory word: "Spitfire!" Royal protection clearly has its limits.

What's striking about these lovely hill towns is how few tourists visit them, and Brits least of all. Romans come for the beaches and the lake, but nearby Viterbo attracts them like a magnet. Hot springs are the reason: either in the palatial Terme dei Papi spa, or simply in the wild. We stumble on one of these in the middle of a field, where near-boiling water gushes out of the ground, runs along a chalk duct, and collects in a still green pool. Everybody clustered round it looks like an extra from a Fellini film - bikini-clad beauties, busty matrons, long-haired old men with faces suggesting interesting histories. The air is thick with sulphur.

We have, in short, a splendid fortnight, and on our way to the airport decide to stop off at the pretty resort of Santa Marinella for a leisurely lunch by the sea. What happened next still casts a shadow today. Returning to our car, we found a door had been forced, and every piece of luggage removed. It took a while for it to sink in: we had never realised how many essential bits of our lives we routinely take on holiday. Not everyone in our party had the right sort of insurance, and you lose things for which no insurance can ever compensate.

Reporting the robbery at the police station, we found a bemused American family ahead of us, reporting an identical crime. The police were sympathetic, but not surprised. It's clear that this too is part of the magical Etrurian experience, so be warned.


How to get there

The author travelled with the assistance of Vacanze in Italia (08700-772 772; www.indiv-travellers.com), which offers several properties in the area. For instance, a week's rental of a house sleeping up to six people in the town of Bagnoregio, 11km from Lake Bolsena, starts at £579 per week in April including one week's car hire. Flights cost extra. Elegant Etruria also arranges accommodation, itineraries and cultural tours throughout the region. For more details see www.elegantetruria.com.

Where to find out more

Contact The Italian State Tourist Board on 020-7408 1254 or visit www.enit.it.