Sunday 30 November 2014


The view from our room at Hotel Tuscania of the medieval churches built above the old Etruscan acropolis outside the walls

Last year we made an excursion into Etruscan country across the Tiber into the Provincia di Viterbo to visit our dear friends Clelia and Daniele who live in Tuscania. Tuscania has deep Etruscan roots. A legend links its founding to Ascanius, one of the sons of Aeneas, the Trojan hero of Virgil's Aeneid. As far as can be ascertained a small city-state centred on an acropolis on a hill now occupied by the Chiesa di San Pietro and Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore was founded sometime in the 8th century BC. The imposing medieval ruins of these two churches are well worth a visit. 

Sadly, both these churches, along with many buildings in the city of Tuscania, were severely damaged in an earthquake in 1971. The earthquake left twenty people dead, over one hundred injured and close to 5,000 people homeless. Looking at the city now it is hard to imagine the terrible damage and destruction of only forty three years ago. 

Luigi Pasquarelli's poem "Tuscania Muta" commemorates the victims of the 1971 earthquake

Here and there along the road leading to the church and arrayed around the churches' walls are stone Etruscan sarcophagi, often with lids that are carved the image of the person who was once laid to rest inside.    

Tourist map of Tuscania showing eleven of the main sites.
But the medieval walled town of Tuscania, with its winding cobbled streets and rustic tufo stone walled palazzi, frescoed churches, and its many fountains, has a charm all its own. 

The beautiful pastel colours of the houses of Tuscania

The walls and the town of Tuscania as seen from our hotel room.

Richard and Daniele walk down the colourful cobbled main street of Tuscania
On Sunday, we joined our friends Daniele and Clelia for a special lunch with some of Clelia's friends from her youth. We had a wonderful multi-course lunch at a restaurant called Sette Cannelle which is named after a landmark seven spouted fountain a few steps away.

Image of the Sette Cannelle Fountain courtesy of
The natural golden glow of the restaurant interior reflected perfectly our golden mood. What a wonderful lunch!

One of the many fountains we saw in Tuscania. The imposing church of Santa Maria Maggiore looms in the distance

Fountain in one of the main piazzas in Tuscana

Detailed view of the mermen statues on the fountain in the previous image
The day after our big lunch Daniele took us exploring the Tuscania that lay outside its medieval walls. During the morning, we visited the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore and San Pietro. Sadly, as it was a Monday morning, we never got to see inside, but their exteriors were very impressive. One day I hope we can go back and see their interiors... 

Towards noon, we said goodbye to Tuscania and our friends Clelia and Daniele and headed south along the Via Cassia to Sutri, an important Etruscan and later Roman city. The night we drove to Tuscania from Casperia we had noticed what seemed to be the remains of hundreds of Etruscan tombs lining the Via Cassia. We wanted to take a closer look at those, and of course find a place for lunch... But what I was really interested in seeing though was an intriguing rock church in Sutri called Madonna del Parto

This rock church with its stunning medieval frescoes seems is located in what once was an Etruscan rock tomb, or possibly even a house, that later on in Roman times was expanded and used as a Mithraeum, or temple of the Mithraic Mysteries. Mithraism, a popular eastern cult adopted by the Romans, came from Persia. One of the best known Roman Mithraeums can be seen beautifully preserved under Rome's San Clemente Basilica near the Colosseum.    

This church and its frescoes first came to my attention through this photo posted online by our friend Giorgio Clementi.

Photo of Chiesa della Madonna del Parto courtesy of Giorgio Clementi

"To Visit the Mitreo, see the staff in charge of the amphitheatre" Unfortunately the amphitheatre was closed on Monday. 

It is easy enough to find the church... Large signs indicating the "Mithraeum" can been seen as you walk along the Via Cassia. A smaller sign to the left of the main sign explaining the history of the church tells visitors wanting to visit the site to ask the staff at the entrance to the Roman Amphitheatre a couple of hundred metres further down the road. We took a leisurely stroll south toward the amphitheatre along the Via Cassia exploring the many Etruscan rock tombs we came across as we went.

Entranceway into the Mitreo, now the Chiesa della Madonna del Parto

The rock wall to the left of the door to the church with windows and other carved notches

Etruscan rock tombs.

Inside on of the Etruscan tombs.

This shot of Richard standing in the entry of a tomb gives you an idea of their scale

The interior of these tombs had an eerie colour. The greens ranged from most to verdigras

Burial niches along the wall of the tomb

Another very large tomb 

Every so often, I get to be in a picture.

Here and there between the doors of the tombs were carved shallow stone niches into the wall. I have no idea what their purpose was... Perhaps there was at one time a statue or some other carving mounted there. 

During the middle ages many of these old tombs were used as cantinas for storage, workshops, even stables for animals. From the chevron shaped incision above the door in this picture it looks like there may have been a wooden portico structure added to keep rain off the door.   

Non of these photos have been retouched.. the eerie colours are as we saw them

Each tomb had a different scale and layout. Some were absolutely massive. We took our time and explored each one. It was great to be there alone during the off season without a lot of other tourists to change the mood. During the Etruscan age, which stretched over eight centuries, innumerable generations of families must have been laid to rest in these tombs. At one time there may have been frescoes and other painted decoration on the walls, like those you see in the more famous Etruscan necropoli at Tarquinia and Cerveteri... and of course, there would have been ceramics, weapons, and other grave goods buried along with them.

Who were buried in these tombs? What were their names? How long did they lay there undisturbed? Did the Romans despoil the tombs, or later invading barbarians? How were these spaces used in the middle ages and later times? If only the walls could talk.

We finally reached the end of the hill to the entrance to the Roman amphitheatre. The entire complex is one piece of rock carved into to hillside. It wasn't built up, it was carved down into the tufo. 

Sadly, it being Monday, there was no one at the amphitheatre office so we not only did not get in to see the mitreo/church, but we could only take pictures of the amphitheatre from outside. 

We continued further south along the Cassia to another hill and more Etruscan tombs. These were even more elaborate than the ones we had seen earlier.

Some of the doors to these tombs seemed impossibly low but we concluded that centuries of rain washing mud, silt and other debris to the valley below must have changed the level of the ground.

By the time we had reached the end of this second set of tombs it was well past noon and we were ready to see what Sutri could provide in the way of a good lunch. 

We had failed to get inside the Mitreo to see the medieval frescoes... I thought the next best thing would be to have lunch in a little eatery across the street with the same name.

The Antica Osteria Il Mitreo turned out to be a great choice. It is a lovely little restaurant. The affable waitress there works hard for her money... Every time she has to go to the kitchen she has to climb up a flight of steps, not to mention descend them carefully when her hands are filled with steaming hot plates of food. 

Long story short, we had one of the nicest restaurant lunches during our trip so far. We started out with some beautiful bruschette topped with tomato and cicoria.

According to Richard, the gnocchi he ordered were some of the best he had ever eaten. 

My plate of Amatriciana was wonderful as well.

I think you can see by the expression on Richard's face that by the end of the meal we were two very happy guys.

When we finally stuck our heads out of the restaurant a light rain had started to fall. With full bellies and happy hearts we headed bad to the car and headed for the road that would take us back to the Sabina.

We arrived back in Casperia during the latter part of the afternoon siesta. Both the Conad Alimentari and Friends were closed... Just as well, we needed to get our luggage up the hill over those stone cobbled steps which we had been missing...

Later in the afternoon we went back down the winding stone stairs to do some shopping at the alimentari then headed back through the Porta Romano up to the piazza to wait for Friends to open for our requisite Negronis. 

Richard wairs for Friends to open

Nicoleta, her famous Negronis, and the usual abundance of snacks that came with each drink order

The sun had set. Everything was calm, silent. The sky was a beautiful peaceful indigo...

Then from somewhere, someone brought out a soccer ball and all hell broke loose as Richard, Nicoleta, Stefano and I played a crazy game with the ball on the piazza.

We were like little kids. 

Richard did a number of amazing head shots...

...and Stefano sent the ball a number of times over the wall...

Stefano coming in through the Porta Romana after retrieving an errant ball
...or sometimes sent it out the town gate. We were all giddy with laughter...  

It was hilarious.

Finally exhausted, we dragged ourselves up the hill to Il Sogno where Richard made a fire while I made a light dinner. 

At dinner we drank wine from Viterbo from replica Etruscan ceramic cups that our friends Clelia and Daniele had given us in Tucania, toasting our good fortune to have found this magic place and feeling grateful for the good friends that we have here.

✵ ✵ ✵ ✵ ✵ ✵ 

We loved Tuscania. We had a great room with a panorama view at the HOTEL TUSCANIA

Click here to learn more about SUTRI, one of the BEST SMALL TOWNS IN ITALY

Via Cassia Sud, 4
01015 Sutri, Viterbo
Tel: 0761 659008

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