Little is known of the Etruscans, a people who sprang to importance in the 8th century BC. At the height of their power, their influence spread from the Po Valley to Campania, even encompassing ancient Rome, which defeated them in the 3rd century BC. The Etruscans' demise may be partly attributed to their ephemeral attitude towards life on this earth, which led them to build their homes of wood and clay. On the other hand, their tombs were built to last forever, which is why a trip through Etruria is one of the most interesting archeological excursions you can take in Italy.
Beginning in Rome, drive 28 miles north on the Aurelia (SS1), along the edge of the wild campagna romana (Roman countryside). Your first stop is Cerveteri, where you can visit the Museo Nazionale in the piazza. Take a quick look at the displayed tomb finds, if you like, but be aware that there is better yet to come. Do buy a museum ticket, because it also admits you to the necropolis, which is about a 1-1/4-mile drive from the piazza (follow the signs marked Necropoli Banditaccia).
This is a cemetery like none you've ever seen: a real town with streets and squares lined with massive tumuli and rectangular tombs cut into the rock. The tombs are marked with phallic symbols for men and houses for women. Be sure to see the Tomb of the Capitals, which will show you what an Etruscan home looked like, and the Tomb of the Reliefs, decorated with painted stucco reliefs of weapons and household items.
Back on the Aurelia, you can stop in the pretty seaside villages of Santa Severa or Santa Marinella for lunch at a seafood place. Then continue another 20 miles northward to Tarquinia, where you'll want to visit the church of Santa Maria di Castello. Next, head for Piazza Cavour, site of the 15th-century gothic palace that houses the National Museum. On display here is lots of gold jewelry, a specialty of the Etruscans, and the pièce de resistance, an exquisite near-life-size pair of winged horses from the pediment of a local temple. This is one of the greatest Etruscan masterpieces ever discovered. Before leaving the museum, inquire about joining a group to visit the tombs the next morning.
The tombs of Tarquinia are so different from those you saw at Cerveteri, you may wonder how the same civilization could have created them. Where Cerveteri was dour, eery and massive, Tarquinia is fanciful, saucy, sometimes even bacchic. The tombs are hidden underground, accessed through small holes cut into the earth, and there are thousands of them. It's impossible to say which tombs your guide will take the group to, because they are opened in rotation to save the magnificent and delicate wall paintings that adorn them, giving a better idea of what life was like in Etruria than any scholarly tome could hope to do.
From Tarquinia, take the ancient Via Cassia north for a couple of miles, then turn east and travel 15 miles along the country road until you reach Tuscania. This is some of the most desolate, poetic countryside in Italy, and Tuscania is a beautiful Etrurian walled town. Heavily damaged in the earthquake of 1971, it has been rediscovered and gentrified by Roman weekenders, and boasts more interesting tombs (ask at the National Museum in Piazza Madonna del Riposo). Also worth a visit here are the exquisite 11th-century churches of San Pietro and Santa Maria Maggiore. Both have lovely carved altars, pulpits and façades. For lunch, try La Palombella, a family-run place where game is a specialty.
The last leg of your trip takes you on country roads to Canino (about 12 miles), then following the yellow signs, it's three miles more to Vulci. There are more tombs to view here, but the real attraction that makes a drive to Vulci worthwhile is the museum in the Castel di Badia, an impossibly picturesque 12th-century castle replete with a tiny moat and a humpback bridge. What a romantic sight this is, lost in the barren countryside once inhabited by a mysterious people who achieved some of their greatest glory 2500 years ago.
From Vulci, either head to Montalto di Castro and then take the Aurelia back to Rome, or retrace your steps to Tuscania and continue to Viterbo, a medieval papal town worth visiting.
Most of the tombs and museums are closed Mondays, Sunday afternoons and, in winter, every day after 2 p.m.
La Palombella restaurant is at Via Canino 23, Tuscania, tel. 011-39- 761-435419. $35.-45./person.