Cerveteri and Tarquinia

Etruscan sarcophagus from a stone tomb

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Wednesday, October 1

"Dov'e Waldo?"

As we sat on the tour bus that would take us north to Cerveteri and Tarquinia, these words bounced with a giggle down the center aisle between seats. The bus leaves from Ponte Sisto at 8 AM sharp -- and where's Waldo? And his roommates,too?! Layne takes this opportunity to demonstrate how to give your instructor heartburn when you're 10,000 miles from home. Cutting it to the last possible minute when plans call for an all-day trip outside town is not the best way to endear oneself to professors or classmates. Or bus drivers.

A buddy system was instituted before leaving Seattle -- each student being assigned one or two other students (who were usually their roommates) as "buddies" so that there would always be one student who (theoretically) knew the whereabouts of any other student. In this case, all three buddies were late for the bus, but Waldo, Brandon and Paul were spotted crossing the Ponte Sisto not more than three minutes after 8 AM. Breaking into a run when they saw the bus, across the street with its engine gunning, their entrance aboard the coach was greeted with much mock applause and a word from Layne.

Leaving Rome, so soon after arriving. Our first opportunity to sit back in a (semi-) comfy chair and watch daily life roll by for a few hours. I noticed the extremely compact gas stations that are sprinkled about on Roman streets, really not more than a couple of pumps set on the curb with barely enough room for two cars to pull over and gas up. In the US, there used to be a corner gas station in nearly every neighborhood, even in some residential areas, but environmental cleanup laws and buyouts from megachains spelled the end of mom-and-pop service stations. The last gas station in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood shut down a couple years back and was replaced by a multi-level retail and apartment complex. Here, they thrive without so much as a corner lot or overhead awning.

Pull over to the curb, get a few liters, pay the equivalent of five bucks a gallon, and pull back onto the road without benefit of a merge lane. Course, a merge lane would be an admission that men here don't know how to hop in and out of traffic, and it wouldn't be used anyway. Seat belts? In the land of machismo? Don't be náve.

We took a rest break near Civitavecchia, a port town a few miles north of Rome whose main claim to fame is a seaside fortress not designed by Michelangelo, but finished by him after Bramante and Antonio da Sangallo both were unable to do the job. But unless you buy a postcard with a drawing of it rather than a picture, it doesn't seem to have the same emotional impact as his plentiful architecture of Rome. Civitavecchia also has a Midwest-style "Oasis" rest stop, with postcard shop, coffeehouse and outdoor picnic benches, that seemed eerily similar to dozens of rest stops I'd been to in the US. Nothing like the comforts of home!

It was similar to America even down to the kitschy souvenirs for sale. I spotted a small snow globe of Pope John Paul II gesturing up and out with both arms, in a manner most reminiscent of Richard Nixon, and I was immediately appalled and tickled. Geez, I can't start spending my money on crap like this, can I? I decided not to get the Pope snow globe, and never saw another like it while I was in Italy. Maybe I should've shelled out the money after all.

Unfortunately, the only decent English-language website I could find for Civitavecchia is from their Port Authority, so if you need to send a shipping container there, then have at it....


Alright, Tarquinia already, and the Museo Nazionale Etrusco located in the 15th-century Palazzo Vitelleschi.

Pictures really tell it better than words y'know, but in our case I'm not even sure our pictures were the best. We all seemed to be caught up in what could be called "hyper-impressionism," where even the sight of a box of tomatoes in a store window can seem like a novel experience worth documenting for future generations. I probably took a few pictures of windows and walls, thinking I had stumbled onto some rare sight.

But I also tried to get some decent pictures of the stone burial figures and caskets kept in the museum, relief sculpture still standing out waiting to be decoded by the living.
detail of the sarcophagus pictured at the top of this page
The museum itself is a 15th-century palazzo waiting to be explored as much or more so than the relics it holds. And in turn, the museum pales when compared to the burial sites up the hill that we visited after leaving the museum.

At right: detail of the sarcophagus pictured at the top of this page. Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Tarquinia.

Well, after waiting for Waldo to find his way back to the bus from the museum. See, Waldo carries no watch, and is sort of the independent type. The original buddy system had Waldo and I as partners, but because of landlord stipulations about the number of people in a particular apartment, we were split into having other buddies. Still, I took the time to let him know that others were concerned.

The Tarquinia necropolis is more like the hands-on adventure that some of us have wanted. Equipped with a hand-drawn map of the site and a quick (and nervous) run-through by grad student TA Sara, we are allowed to venture off to explore the tumulus mounds where the musuem relics we've seen so much of come from.

The underground burial chambers probably wouldn't attract much attention from passersby except that they are close enough together to elicit curiousity. You don't often see 10- or 20-foot high mounds of dirt gathered together so close to each other. Well, unless you're an art student, I guess, and you're into installations.

down the stairs to necropoli

During excavation, each burial chamber has had a covered stairway built so that exposure to the environment can be controlled. Some of the wall paintings are behind plexiglass to keep humidity or temperature constant, but many are open for exploration without restraint. I notice soda cans, cigarette butts, plastic wrappers discreetly tucked away in some of them. Figures.

My roommate Beau found a chamber much longer than any others I had seen. From ground level, a descent of about thirty steps led to a choice of right or left turn. Go right, and squeeze through a passageway that veers again to the right, a few more steps down, and into a room about fifteen feet long and fifteen feet wide, with a ceiling of about ten feet.
where sarcophagi come from
Stone "benches" on either side of the room are actually the ledges which held sarcophagi, so be careful of your juju quota so you don't piss off the spirits. At this point we're right beneath the staircase that leads down to where we are. Beau chants a bit to check the acoustics, and his voice finds the perfect vibration to gain augmentation from the chamber's interior space. The cylindrical "well" leading up to the top of the stairs helps carry the echo up to terrestrial level.

E' molta bella!

Because we're a large school group, we get treated to a special tour of a private burial chamber that's closed today, and between taking turns five at a time in the small room, we rest under a grove of olive trees, with a spectacular view of the Italian countryside. Hey, when in Rome and all that! Then it's past the obligatory postcard stand and souvenir hut, onto the bus toward the next stop, Cerveteri, a few miles to the south.

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