The Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia bear witness to the achievements of Etruscan culture, the first urban culture in the western Mediterranean.
They are the remains of two ancient Etruscan city-states, dating back to the 9th and 7th century BCE respectively. The frescoes in the tombs of Tarquinia show the daily life of the Etruscans, while the cemeteries of Cerveteri represent Etruscan town planning.
Community Perspective: The interior of 16 of the tombs at Tarquinia can be visited (albeit you have to watch the paintings from behind a glass door). At Cerveteri, the tombs are still covered under mounds which are overgrown with grass and shrubs. Here the attraction lies in walking around the ‘streets’ of the cemetery. Nan found a way around closed doors and limited public transport. And James reported that even in 2022 this is a cash-only site.
Map of Etruscan NecropolisesLoad map
I have only visited one of the two components to this site, Tarquinia, and I picked it only because it was closer to a train station than Cerveteri. There was a train every two hours out from Rome to Tarquinia, on the line up to Pisa, and the railway gave a great view over the Mediterranean as it passed close to the shoreline. From Tarquinia, there was a little shuttle bus up the hill into the town or, if you have time, the walk was only about 3 km or so into the town centre although it was quite steep and the countryside was not that interesting to walk through. Tarquinia itself is a nice quiet little town although lacking in pedestrian infrastructure, but where in Italy isn’t? The necropolis lies a little out of town to the east and you pass beneath the grand medieval walls to get there with a view back down the hill to the Mediterranean.
Entry into the site is still cash only as of November 2022, costing 10€ for a combined ticket to the necropolis and the museum in town. I arrived just after opening at 9am and had the whole place to myself, which was a real treat. There are about 15 painted tombs here, each one accessed through a little hut with stairs leading down to a glass window where you press a button to turn on the light and view what’s inside. Going up and down into all of them is a good leg workout but well worth the effort. If I may romanticise a little, descending into the darkness and then lighting up these ancient works of art gives a hint of the kind of feeling of awe that early archaeologists would have had when they first uncovered Pompeii or the Valley of the Kings. The paintings themselves are a mixed bag, some so worn that barely anything is visible and others still rendered in magnificent colour all these centuries later. The Tomba dei Leopardi (picture attached) is the most famous and rightfully so, truly superb, but there are plenty of others nearly as good. Perhaps the second most famous tomb, Tomba della Fustigazione with its erotic drawings, was sadly closed for maintenance on the day of my visit. Tomba delle Leonesse was a personal favourite of mine, with its depictions of lionesses and dolphins. With detailed information boards in Italian and English outside each tomb, there is lots to read about the fascinating Etruscan culture and you even gain some sense of how the civilization evolved over time, with the Greek influence being very clear in some of the later works. There is also a fantastic view from the top of the hill down into the valley on the other side. Back in town, the museum is worth a visit as well, housing a few recovered paintings in mock tombs as well as some of the sarcophagi and other grave goods that used to be in these tombs.
Earlier in the week I had visited the Vatican Museums and it seems a shame that the vast collection of Etruscan artefacts there are so overlooked. As I passed through those galleries, it was a welcome relief from the huge tour groups everywhere else that seem to skip that section. I can’t help but feel though that some of the pieces that are a mere sideshow in Rome would be centre stage here in Tarquinia. That being said, there is more than enough still in Tarquinia underground in its original location and in the local museum to be deserving of inscription and certainly deserving your time to visit.
The Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia were one of the more challenging World Heritage Sites for me to visit because of the irregular bus schedule serving Cerveteri and the limited time I had before I had to catch a train in the afternoon. In the end, I was able to navigate the bus from Ladispoli to Cerveteri, and the walk to the necropolises, but I had to arrange for a taxi to pick me up to return me to Ladispoli in time to catch my train. Also, I learned that technically one is not allowed to walk up the road from the center of Cerveteri to the Banditaccia Necropolis, although no one stopped me.
Anyways, logistics aside, the necropolis at Cerveteri was one of my favorite World Heritage Sites I saw last fall when I was traveling around the Mediterranean. Upon entering the site, I followed a narrow path, passing tombs on either side. The morning had started out a bit cloudy, but when the sun broke over the necropolis, it was a bit like walking through the set of Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings. I ducked into the first few tombs marked on the map given to me at the visitor center, and was able to listen to an audio program about the Etruscans who lived and died in the region, and who built remarkable hill-shaped tombs, underground tombs, and tombs lined up in rows to inter their families. Some of these tombs, built before the Roman Empire came to power, were surprisingly ornate inside, with carved reliefs and painted frescoes livening up the walls and columns. Unfortunately, the rain in the region earlier that month had left part of the path and a few of the tombs flooded, so I was not able to see all of the tombs in the back half of the necropolis. Still, I felt like I was able to get a very good perspective on how the necropolis was set up. This is a fantastic site to visit just outside Rome, and I highly recommend making the effort to visit the Banditaccia Necropolis at Cerveteri.
Logistics: The Etruscan Necropolises at Cerveteri can be reached by bus or via private transportation. The loop tour of the tombs can take a couple of hours, but is fairly well-shaded by trees.
Etruscan history as well as related artefacts are fascinating. It is almost impossible to miss it or ignore it when travelling with open eyes in Tuscany, Umbria or Lazio regions of Italy.
From the WHS sites, I visited only the Necropolis in Tarquinia as a part of the tourist trip to central Italy. As it was quite busy trip, we had no time to visit the related museum in Tarquinia town center. However, I have visited Etrucan museums in Viterbo and Chiusi as well as the Etruscan sites near Perugia (Ipogeo Dei Volumni - oddly located close to the highway intersection) and Sovana (fascinating Tomba Ildebranda) before - all of these sites not included to WHS. Therefore, I was able to enjoy the Tarquinia site and understand it in the context. The most important feature and the reason for the inscription of Tarquinia were the beatiful paintings, which are fascinating by themselfs even without the context.
I am planning to explore the region of Lago di Bracciano that comprises the Cerveteri site this year. So, I am looking forwards to seeing another aspect of rich Etruscan heritage.
Photo: "famous" scratched SM threesome (OK, there are one and half persons only in my photo, but I was not able to take the photo of the whole scene because of the glass wall that protected the paintings in all thombs) - maybe not the most beautiful painting but it tells a lot about (not only) Etruscan era...
I need to propose an addendum to Els rule about all Italian sites being closed on Monday. If Monday is a public holiday the sites are open, but the following day (= Tuesday) they are closed. At least that's what I learnt the hard way when I showed up in Cerveteri the Tuesday after Easter Monday. It had been a two hour trip from Roma Terminale to the site and I stood in front of a closed gate. I had checked the website before and it did not have any notice of Tuesday being closed.
Without hesitation I did what any seasoned WHS traveller would do in such a situation. No, I did not climb the fence or bribe the guards. I also didn't throw in the towel and head back to Rome. Instead, I accessed the Unesco page and openend the map of the inscribed property. Coming up to the museum gate I had already noticed plenty of tumuli and caves, so I figured that the core zone may well extend past the museum's fence. And indeed: The core zone of Cerveteri is way larger than the fenced area of the museum. Several tumuli are open all year round. The same applies to plenty of the burial caves. Especially, on the back side of the site you get great views and I would encourage you to go there in any case. In addition, there are several spots where you can peek through the fence.
Roman public transport is a mess. I have counted four (!) different public transport providers, each with their own tickets. The Rome 24/48h/.... pass won't help you at all as soon as you leave the rather small confines of the town center. I don't recommend getting any form of pass.
To make matters worse, several of the transport options are not listed on google maps. I found another app which had better coverage of Rome and Lazio: moovit. I can recommend it if you plan to travel in the area. It's not complete nonetheless and it won't help if you bus is stuck in traffic as happened to me.
As far as I understand it there are two options to get to the site:
- There is a direct bus from Rome. While probably the most comfortable option, it's also fairly slow as you need to make your way past the Roman traffic. Note: You need a suburb ticket from Cotral to ride the bus. If you buy the ticket on the bus you pay a hefty surcharge.
- You can take the train to Ledispolis-Cerveteri and take a bus from the station to Cerveteri. The local operator is neither on google maps or moovit, so ask around. Their tickets can be bought outside of the train station at the news stand. They are not, however, accepted in the Roman bus. Alternatively, you could also take a cab.
From the city center of Cerveteri it's a 2km walk up hill to get to the site.
I visited this WHS in August 2013. I drove from Tuscany and slept over in Tarquinia to be able to visit the painted Etruscan tombs at 08:30. What a marvel! There are 16 painted tombs open to the public. The painted tombs are kept at a constant temperature and a controlled environment which means that you can only see them from behind a glass door. Still, photography is allowed and with a lot of patience, time and a good zoom lens you can enjoy the site and take great photos. I was the only soul around at 08:30 which meant that I had the tombs for myself till around 09:45! The beauty of these painted tombs is comparable to that of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. I also visited the Etruscan Museum in Tarquinia which houses several Etruscan artefacts, vases, jewellery and coins found inside the painted tombs, the famous winged horses, and also whole painted tomb walls !!! So it definitely shouldn't be missed!
I went to Cerveteri - Necropolis through a bus ride to the town, and a relatively short walk from the terminal to the site. Firsty, these are perhaps the oldest monuments I've seen so far, and that really raised my excitement to see the place. According to most reviews, they say that Cerveteri is the better among the two sites inscribed (but I was told that there is another Etruscan Necropolis that is not included however). The paintings are highly interesting and decorative, and suggest how rich their culture as a people were back in their time.
Its interesting how the Etruscans really made a great deal in preparing a planned city of the dead for their departed ones. One way of looking at this site is to compare it with the burial pyramids in Egypt, among others.
Over all, I felt that the Etruscan Necropolis is quite a surprise! I guess, this is one of the few experiences where in there is so much to enjoy in a site that isn't living/alive.
With careful planning I found that I could reach both Cerveteri and Tarquinia by public transport on a day trip from Rome. I took a train to Cerveteri-Ladispoli which connected with a bus to Cerveteri town centre, from where I got a shuttle bus to the necropolis.
After a very satisfactory walk amongst the tombs I retraced my route to Cerveteri-Ladispoli station and caught a train to Tarquinia, changing at Civitavecchia on the way. At Tarquinia a CD bus took me to Piazza Cavour and then continued to the Necropolis.
After the visit I walked back down to Piazza Cavour to catch a bus to Tarquinia station and caught a train direct to Rome.
The Etruscan cemeteries of Cerveteri and Tarquinia had been on my wishlist for a long time. Unfortunately, they are rather remote, northwest of Rome and poorly accessible by public transport. Actually, they were not on the program for this trip either. But after another look at the map, they seemed just within reach for a day trip from Tuscany. So I thought 'Now or Never!'.
Tarquinia was the main city of the Etruscans. These pre-Roman people lived in central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio). More than 6,000 of their tombs have been discovered near Tarquinia, of which 20 are open to the public. They date from the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Most tombs are carved into the rock and were hidden under burial mounds. Now they are covered by stone constructions for protection.
The interior of each of the tombs can be visited. There are staircases that take you down a few meters underground, so you'll end up at eye level with the burial chamber itself. For convenience sake, they have added electric lighting which you can start by pushing a button. The light illuminates the painted walls of the tomb: red and blue are the most common colors. The illustrations are numerous, ranging from banquets to hunting scenes. False doors are also often depicted, meant as access to the afterlife. Only the tombs of the wealthy were painted, about 3%.
The entry fee for the burial monuments (8 EUR) also gives access to the Etruscan archaeological museum. This museum is located in an old palace in the center of Tarquinia, about 4 kilometers away from the tombs. There are three floors of exhibition rooms, all dedicated to the Etruscans. Here you see all kinds of moveable objects that have been found inside the tombs. The dead themselves were placed in sarcophagi, bearing an image of themselves on the cover. Contents of the graves include statues, vases, pots, jewelry and urns. Even ostrich eggs from the Nile Delta were found (a coveted luxury product for the rich).
Forty-five minutes south of Tarquinia lies Cerveteri, another major Etruscan city. The tombs here are located in a kind of park. It encompasses no fewer than 1,000 tombs, some dating back to the 9th century BC. The graves here are still covered under mounds (tumuli), which are overgrown with grass and shrubs.
Except for one couple, I'm the only visitor here on this sunny day in February. I follow the designated walking route along and around the tombs. It's all a bit spooky here. It is also possible to enter the tombs. But these burial chambers aren't painted (anymore). However, some have beautiful stone reliefs. The Tomba dei Relievi for example holds reliefs of animals, carts and tools.
Cerveteri is a real Necropolis - a city for the dead. It looks like La Recoleta (the famous cemetery in Buenos Aires), but with tumuli instead of marble graves. The 'city' has one main road, and there are side streets with smaller, rectangular graves for ordinary people.
I visited both Tarquinia and Cerveteri on a goregous sunny day late November, 2004. I was just about to finish a course on Etruscan history, offered by the University of Arizona in Orvieto, Italy. Having studied both Tarquinia and Cerveteri in detail during the three-month course, I was greatly anticipating the fieldtrip to these necropolises.
The trip did not disappoint me. As soon as I stepped off the bus at Tarquinia that cool, sunny morning and saw the signs leading to much-studied tombs, like the Tomb of the Leopards, chills shimmied down my body. Aside from the personal knowledge I had with this particular UNESCO World Heritage Site, its ancient aesthetic qualities alone inspired awe.
Tarquinia has been well maintained. My first impression was of cleanliness and well-marked paths. I noticed attempts at ongoing conservation procedures, as some tombs were closed to the public as part of a regular tomb-maintenance rotation procedure. Additionally, a small espresso bar offered to-go cups of cappuccinos, etc., adding to the cultural experience! It was a perfect moment. Yet apparently perfection can be topped!
The sensations I felt at Cerveteri were once-in-a-lifetime. The site emanates with mystery and days long past. The enormous tumuli tombs, some with steps leading to their grassy, rounded platforms, are like green furry mushrooms. A person could meander amongst the tombs and explore their dark interiors for hours on end, becoming lost in Etruscan history.
Both of these sites deserve visits. But whoever does so should first brush up on the sites' importance in Etruscan history, in order to gain more from the experience than purely aesthetic awe.
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