48km (28 miles) north of Rome
As you walk through Rome's Etruscan Museum (Villa Giulia), you'll often see CAERE written under a figure vase or sarcophagus. This is a reference to the nearby town known today as Cerveteri, one of Italy's great Etruscan cities, whose origins could date from as far back as the 9th century B.C.
You can reach Cerveteri by bus or car. If you're driving, head out Via Aurelia, northwest of Rome, for 45km (28 miles). By public transport, take Metro Line A in Rome to the Cornelia stop; from the Cornelia stop, you can catch a CoTral bus to Cerveteri; the trip takes about an hour and costs 2.50€. You can visit their website at www.cotralspa.it. Once you're at Cerveteri, it's a 2km (1 1/4-mile) walk to the necropolis; follow the signs pointing the way.
Of course, the Etruscan town has long since faded, but not the Necropolis of Cerveteri (tel. 06-9940001). The effect is eerie; Cerveteri is often called a "city of the dead." When you go beneath some of the mounds, you'll discover the most striking feature: The tombs are like rooms in Etruscan homes. The main burial ground is the Necropolis of Banditacca. Of the graves thus far uncovered, none is finer than the Tomba Bella (Tomb of the Reliefs), the burial ground of the Matuna family. Articles such as utensils and even house pets were painted in stucco relief. Presumably, these paintings were representations of items that the dead family would need in the world beyond. The necropolis is open daily from 8:30am to 1 hour before sunset. Admission is 6€ for adults and 3€ for children 17 and under.
Relics from the necropolis are displayed at the Museo Nazionale Cerite, Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore (tel. 06-9941354). The museum, housed within the ancient walls and crenellations of Ruspoldi Castle, is open Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am to 7:30pm. Free admission.
If you want to see tombs even more striking and more recently excavated than those at Cerveteri, go to Tarquinia, a town with medieval turrets and fortifications atop rocky cliffs overlooking the sea. It would seem unusual for a medieval town to have an Etruscan name, but actually, Tarquinia is the adopted name of the old medieval community of Corneto, in honor of the major Etruscan city that once stood nearby.
The main attraction in the town is the Tarquinia National Museum, Piazza Cavour (tel. 0776-856036), devoted to Etruscan exhibits and sarcophagi excavated from the necropolis a few miles away. The museum is housed in the Palazzo Vitelleschi, a Gothic palace from the mid-15th century. Among the exhibits are gold jewelry, black vases with carved and painted bucolic scenes, and sarcophagi decorated with carvings of animals and relief figures of priests and military leaders. But the biggest attraction is in itself worth the ride from Rome: the almost life-size pair of winged horses from the pediment of a Tarquinian temple. The finish is worn here and there, and the terra-cotta color shows through, but the relief stands as one of the greatest Etruscan masterpieces ever discovered. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30am to 7:30pm, and admission is 6€ for adults, 3€ for those 18 to 24 years old, and free for those 17 and under. Note: It is possible to buy a combined ticket for the Tarquinia National Museum and the Etruscan Necropolis. It costs 8€. The museum is closed Christmas, January 1, and May 1.
A fee of 6€ for (adults), 3€ for ages 18 to 25 (free for ages 17 and under) admits you to the Etruscan Necropolis (tel. 0766-856308), covering more than 4km (2 1/2 miles) of rough terrain near where the ancient Etruscan city once stood. Thousands of tombs have been discovered, some of which have yet to be explored to this day. The paintings on the walls of the tombs have helped historians reconstruct the life of the Etruscans -- a heretofore impossible feat without a written history. The paintings depict feasting couples in vivid colors mixed from iron oxide, lapis lazuli dust, and charcoal. One of the oldest tombs (6th c. B.C.) depicts young men fishing while dolphins play and colorful birds fly high above. Many of the paintings convey an earthy, vigorous sexuality among the wealthy Etruscans. The tombs are generally open Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am to 1 hour before sunset. You can reach the gravesites by taking a bus from the Barriera San Giusto to the Cimitero stop. Or, try the 20-minute walk from the museum. It is closed Christmas, January 1, and May 1.
By car, take Via Aurelia outside Rome and continue on the autostrada toward Civitavecchia. Bypass Civitavecchia and continue another 21km (13 miles) north until you see the exit signs for Tarquinia. As for public transport, a diretto (direct) train from Roma Ostiense station takes 50 minutes. Eight buses a day leave from the Via Lepanto stop in Rome for the 2-hour trip to the town of Barriera San Giusto, 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) from Tarquinia. Bus schedules are available at the tourist office at Piazza Cavour 23 (tel. 0766-849282), open Monday to Saturday 8am to 1pm.