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King Tarquin’s Town

January 13, 2012 4 comments

Dave the Writeror How a Day-Trip Paid for a Year of Italian Classes!

First, though…

Quick! Who was the 5th king of ancient Rome? You remember, back in 616 BC, before the Republic or the Empire. Any guesses?

That’s right, old Lucius Priscus Tarquinius. He was an Etruscan who’d moved to Rome seeking his fortune. Then, he’d made himself useful, becoming right-hand man to the old king.

Given Rome’s eventual conquest of Greece almost four hundred years later, it’s interesting that Tarquinius’ father was from Corinth. He’d left that city to make his own fortune at a time when it was perhaps the most prosperous in the Greek World, plunking down colonies left and right.

But, this post isn’t about the Corinthian or his son, the King. It’s about Tarquinius’ home town and how my bride and I got the chance to explore it.

Working out the plan for a long trip is fun. But this one, many years ago, had a glitch. My bride and I had agreed that a day in Tarquinia was a must. Since our stint among the downtrodden ranks of graduate student slave labor up around Siena, we’d become Etruscan Groupies. So, Tarquinia, it’s museum and it’s tomb-filled archaeological park was centered in the crosshairs of our Slavering Groupie travel sights.

Here was our problem: given the rest of our travels on that trip, the closest we’d get to Tarquinia was Rome’s port of Civitavecchia (literally Old Town, though it’s much newer than ancient Rome’s original port of Ostia).

The planning glitch was cost and time. Isn’t it always? Except for Vasari’s Corridor, but that’s another story.

I didn’t want to hassle with renting a car. Unlike most Americans, I enjoy driving in Italy; it’s the parking that makes me crazy. And, my map showed that parking near Tarquinia’s old town center would be more sanity-stressing than most places in Italy. So, driving was out. But, the other touristy alternative, a taxi, would be €450! Grrrr.

It was time to pull out the new weapon in our arsenal. We had to jump into Italian travel with both linguistic feet, taking the train and then Tarquinia’s town bus. We could do this!

The past year, we’d taken all three 100-level Italian courses at our local community college. It was just too lame going back as often as we did but still speaking only English or our meager and awful mash-up of Pidgin Italian. Now was the time and Tarquinia was the place to use what we’d learned —Verbs on the Ground, so to speak.

So, I jumped online to find schedules and prices. Back then, Trenitalia didn’t have an ‘English’ option on its website. So, I got my real Final Exam right away. I knew the cost would be pretty reasonable, but I was shocked. The price for a roundtrip for two was €9.60. Even adding in our tuition costs for a year of Italian, the total would be far less than a tourist taxi would have been!

I’ll have more to say in other posts about the Etruscans. Here, I want to attest to Tarquinia’s delightful Medieval-with-a-dash-of-Renaissance look and feel. We spent happy hours wandering around the oldest part of town, with its tall, square towers (think Montagues and Capulets) and old stonework. Beyond that, the town’s excellent Etruscan museum is in an old palace that’s almost as fascinating as its ancient contents.

Take a day, treat yourself to a place most visitors never see. Visit King Tarquin’s Town when you get the chance. It’s only sixty miles from Rome (or Civitavecchia).

Medievally Goodness in Lombardy

October 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Limoncello makes everything delightful. My bride and I clinked our glasses of it together softly after another delicious, leisurely Italian lunch. This time, we were sitting in the seriously medieval Old Plazza in the High City above modern Bergamo, about 30 miles northeast of Milan. 

But, the Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo’s Città Alta doesn’t look nearly as old as it is. Rome’s legions conquered the Orobi celts here by around 200 BC, and Caesar made them citizens of the republic about the time he crossed the Rubicon 150 years later.

So, Roman buildings must have been about the only ones around us back then. But, thanks to the ever-cranky Attila, Bergomum (as it was called in Latin), had to be slowly rebuilt by brave folks who resettled the rubble after the Hun’s brief visit 500 years later.

After that, the town was capital of a medieval Lombard duchy and then a free and prosperous ‘commune’—until Milan decided to take its cut. Venice took over in the early 1400’s and prosperity returned for another 350 years. Then, a pesky Corsican paid a visit, pretending to be all for that new liberté, egalité, fraternité stuff. After Waterloo and a stint under Austria, Bergamo became Italian in 1859.

Which brings us back to what we did after lunch on that 2,200 year old piazza.

Our first stop clearly had to be the fountain next to us, guarded by Lions of St. Mark, the symbols of Venice, who ruled the place for 100 years longer than there’s been a US of A. Then, it was off to a great view from the 160’ tall, c.1100’s Torre Civica.   

Strolling under the arches of Palazzo della Ragione, built in the 11th century and then rebuilt by the Venetians, we were headed to Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the best Romanesque churches in northern Italy, and its marvelous, baroque interior.

Then, it was off to make a circuit of the city walls, which were rebuilt as a massive fortification by the Venetians around 1500. If you know what to look for, a few pieces of the old Roman walls pop up now and then. We ended our circuit back at the funicular down to the Città Bassa and took a convenient city bus to the station.

I won’t bore you with details and downstream effects regarding the guy directly behind me who sneezed Ebola all over my neck for the whole trip. Maybe he’ll discover tissues, if he survived… .

But, Ebola takes a few hours to incubate.

So, on the train back to Milan, my bride and I happily listened to compositions by Bergamo’s favorite son, composer Gaetano Donizetti, who serenaded us from my phone as we sipped Trenitalia’s passable wine. Though he’s best known for opera, I like his pieces for string quartet most.

I don’t like Ebola, though.

And, I still didn’t like it a week later in Florence, either.

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