Cycling the Lazio Coast: Part 1 Tarquinia and Civitavecchia

Published on:  | Last updated: 27 February 2018

This section of the tour takes you from the border with Toscana at Chiarone Scalo to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site at Tarquinia and from there to the port city of Civitavecchia.

From Chiarone Scalo the most convenient option is to pick up the main Via Aurelia (SS1) dual carriageway, for 15 kilometres or so as it leads past Montalto di Castro. The main road is actually relat­ively quiet and although the traffic is fast moving, there is space for vehicles to give you room as they overtake. The altern­ative is a longer detour via Ponte d’Abbadia.

After Montalto you have the options of heading inland for Tarquinia, or if you are bypassing the city, turning off the Via Aurelia onto the minor roads that take you past the Stazione di Tarquinia and the Lido di Tarquinia.

Tarquinia

Etruscan frescoes from the Tomba del Triclinio

Etruscan frescoes from the the Tomba del Triclinio (Monterozzi necro­polis near Tarquinia) now in the Museo Nazionale Tarquiniense). The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons

The necro­polis at Monterozzi just outside Tarquinia is famous for its painted tombs. These are some of the most extensive paintings that have survived from the ancient world. The site ranks alongside the Italy's great Roman and Greek sites. If you are in Lazio it's well worth the time and trouble to visit.

If the thought of visiting necro­polises - the cities of the dead - sounds too depressing then you'd be mistaken: the tombs are if anything a celeb­ration of life. The Etruscan tombs are decorated with scenes of banqueting, dancing and athletics at the ceremony celeb­rating the life of the dead person. The brightly-decorated funerary urns and sarco­phaguses depict the deceased at the banquet.

The painted tombs represent only a small fraction of the six thousand or so tombs that there are thought to be on the ridge looking out to sea.

Sadly, to protect the tombs from further damage, they are now screened off behind glass and some can only be visited with a guide. But this is still one of the must-see sites in the whole of Italy. (Be sure to rent an audioguide.

Staff at the necropoli were very happy for me to leave my bike in a quiet corner behind the ticket office/​visitor centre.

DH Lawrence made a tour of the Etruscan sites in Italy in 1927 and wrote about them in his book Etruscan Places. His vivid and evocative account of visiting the tombs and looking at the frescoes by gas lamp is one of the best bits of the book.

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Here is his description of the Tomba della Caccia e della Pesca (named after the scenes of hunting and fishing):

“ 
Yet in the dimness we perceive flights of birds flying through the haze, with the draught of life still in their wings. And as we take heart and look closer we see the little room is frescoed all round with hazy sky and sea, with birds flying and fishes leaping, and little men hunting, fishing, rowing in boats. The lower part of the wall is all a blue-green of sea with a silhouette surface that ripples all round the room. From the sea rises a tall rock, off which a naked man, shadowy but still distinct, is beauti­fully and cleanly diving into the sea, while a companion climbs up the rock after him, and on the water a boat waits with rested oars in it, three men watching the diver, the middle man standing up naked, holding out his arms. Meanwhile a great dolphin leaps behind the boat, a flight of birds soars upwards to pass the rock, in the clear air. Above all, from the bands of colour that border the wall at the top hang the regular loops of garlands, garlands of flowers and leaves and buds and berries.

At the end of the room, where there is a recess in the wall, is painted another rock rising from the sea, and on it a man with a sling is taking aim at the birds which rise scattering this way and that. A boat with a big paddle oar is holding off from the rock, a naked man amidships is giving a queer salute to the slinger, a man kneels over the bows with his back to the others, and is letting down a net. The prow of the boat has a beauti­fully painted eye, so the vessel shall see where it is going. In Syracuse you will see many a two-eyed boat today come swimming in to quay. One dolphin is diving down into the sea, one is leaping out. The birds fly, and the garlands hang from the border.

It is all small and gay and quick with life, spontaneous as only young life can be. If only it were not so much damaged, one would be happy, because here is the real Etruscan liveliness and natur­alness. It is not impressive or grand. But if you are content with just a sense of the quick ripple of life, then here it is. ”

DH Lawrence Etruscan Places Project Gutenberg Australia

His description of the Tomb of the Leopards (Tomba dei Leopardi) is also well worth quoting:

“ The walls of this little tomb are a dance of real delight. The room seems inhabited still by Etruscans of the sixth century before Christ, a vivid, life-accepting people, who must have lived with real fullness. On come the dancers and the music-players, moving in a broad frieze towards the front wall of the tomb, the wall facing us as we enter from the dark stairs, and where the banquet is going on in all its glory. Above the banquet, in the gable angle, are the two spotted leopards, heraldically facing each other across a little tree. And the ceiling of rock has chequered slopes of red and black and yellow and blue squares, with a roof-beam painted with coloured circles, dark red and blue and yellow. So that all is colour, and we do not seem to be under­ground at all, but in some gay chamber of the past.

The dancers on the right wall move with a strange, powerful alertness onwards. The men are dressed only in a loose coloured scarf, or in the gay handsome chlamys draped as a mantle. The subulo plays the double flute the Etruscans loved so much, touching the stops with big, exaggerated hands, the man behind him touches the seven-stringed lyre, the man in front turns round and signals with his left hand, holding a big wine-bowl in his right. And so they move on, on their long, sandalled feet, past the little berried olive-trees, swiftly going with their limbs full of life, full of life to the tips.

This sense of vigorous, strong-bodied liveliness is charac­ter­istic of the Etruscans, and is somehow beyond art. You cannot think of art, but only of life itself, as if this were the very life of the Etruscans, dancing in their coloured wraps with massive yet exuberant naked limbs, ruddy from the air and the sea-light, dancing and fluting along through the little olive-trees, out in the fresh day.

The end wall has a splendid banqueting scene. The feasters recline upon a checked or tartan couch-cover, on the banqueting couch, and in the open air, for they have little trees behind them. The six feasters are bold and full of life like the dancers, but they are strong, they keep their life so beauti­fully and richly inside themselves, they are not loose, they don't lose themselves even in their wild moments. They lie in pairs, man and woman, reclining equally on the couch, curiously friendly. The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure. The men are dark and ruddy, and naked to the waist. The women, sketched in on the creamy rock, are fair, and wear thin gowns, with rich mantles round their hips. They have a certain free bold look, and perhaps really are courtesans.

The man at the end is holding up, between thumb and forefinger, an egg, showing it to the yellow-haired woman who reclines next to him, she who is putting out her left hand as if to touch his breast. He, in his right hand, holds a large wine-dish, for the revel.

The next couple, man and fair-haired woman, are looking round and making the salute with the right hand curved over, in the usual Etruscan gesture. It seems as if they too are saluting the mysterious egg held up by the man at the end; who is, no doubt, the man who has died, and whose feast is being celeb­rated. But in front of the second couple a naked slave with a chaplet on his head is brandishing an empty wine-jug, as if to say he is fetching more wine. Another slave farther down is holding out a curious thing like a little axe, or fan. The last two feasters are rather damaged. One of them is holding up a garland to the other, but not putting it over his head as they still put a garland over your head, in India, to honour you.

Above the banqueters, in the gable angle, the two great spotted male leopards hang out their tongues and face each other heraldically, lifting a paw, on either side of a little tree. They are the leopards or panthers of the under­world Bacchus, guarding the exits and the entrances of the passion of life. ”

The museum in Tarquinia also has some undoubted master­pieces including the the great Cavalli di Alatri, a statue of winged horses. Other highlights include the sarcofago del Magistrato (the Sarcophagus of the Magistrate) and, my own favourite, the Sarcofago del Obeso which would probably translate as the Sarcophagus of the Fat Man - the Etruscans didn't seem to go in for fake idealised portraits of the dead.

There's a video from italia.it about Tarquinia, I couldn't find a subtitled version, but it will give you an idea of what the museum and town has to offer.

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Visiting the Monterozzi necropolis and Museo Archeologico

I would allow at least a half day to see both sites and the museums in town. There are hotels and agrit­urismi near to both sites. Nearest campsites are near Civitavecchia and Ladispoli. Information about opening hours etc:

Civitavecchia

Seafront statue - Civitavecchia

Seafront statue - Civitavecchia

After Tarquinia the route takes you to Civitavecchia. Civitavecchia was the main part of the Papal State (the part of central Italy where the Pope was both the religious and secular ruler). The seafront is still worth a look - as well as there's a huge, delight­fully cheesy sculpture of a kissing couple. If you decide to stop for a coffee in the town look out for a statue, in Viale Marconi, of the Hasekura Tsunenaga who landed here in 1615 leading a Japanese diplo­matic mission to Europe.

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Distances
Chiarone Scalo - Tarquinia 38.5kms
Tarquinia - Civitavecchia 25.5kms

More information

Places to stay

Hotels and B&Bs

Find and book places to stay with Booking.com

Booking.com pages for places on this section of the route:

About these links

If you use these links to book accom­mod­ation Booking.com will pay me a small part of their commission. This helps support the costs of producing this site.

I use Booking.com to find and book places to stay when there are no campsites in the area. The large majority of hotels and many hostels are now on ‘Booking’. I like it because it means that I can get almost-instant confirm­ation. The rating system is also a reliable guide to the quality of the accom­mod­ation.

I’ve never had a problem finding places to keep my bike —even if it’s a cupboard or store room. I always use the ‘special requests’ field on the booking form to tell the hotel that I’m travelling with a bike, which gives them the oppor­tunity to let me know if there’s a problem.

Many properties offer free cancel­lation but it’s a good idea to check the condi­tions as these vary from property to property.

Campsites

There are relat­ively few campsites on this part of the coast. I stayed at:

  • the Camping Traino near Civitavecchia. A decent site with a friendly bar-ristorante, but the services are in need of an upgrade. Update: the website has disap­peared, but the site is still listed on Booking.com —so defin­itely ring to check
  • the Torreta (no website - contact details). An inexpensive site near Ladispoli mainly given over to seasonal lets but they found me a place. There's a good pizzeria next door.

  Map of campsites along the route:  LazioCoast-campsites-map-show map in overlay    |    LazioCoast-campsites-map-show map in new window   

Transport and services

Transport connections

The main Rome-Pisa rail line runs along the coast.

The ferry terminal at Civitavecchia offers ferry services to Barcelona, Palermo and Tunis - as well as Sardinia.

Resources

More about the Etruscans

  • the age on unesco.org/en/list/1158 about Tarquinia and Cerveteri
  • Mysterious Etruscans - the best English-language site I've come across
  • a compre­hensive page with lots of inform­ation inform­ation and pictures about the Tarquinia Monterozzi necro­polis (text in Italian)
  • canino.info (in Italian) is a very compre­hensive site with inform­ation about dozens of tombs

From canino.info there's a video about some of the tombs (no commentary). The quality isn't brilliant, but it's better than nothing. (Some sexual content: your kids may ask you awkward questions about what is going on in one of the pictures).

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Articles in this series

Civitavecchia - statue to Hasekura Tsunenaga

Civitavecchia - statue to Hasekura Tsunenaga


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