If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Latium region of central western Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Latium, also known as Laszio, is the region that includes Italy’s capital Rome, the Eternal City. Because there are so many articles describing the multiple pleasures of Rome, we are going to write about the lesser-known attractions of Latium. This article focuses on Latium west of Rome. A companion article describes Latium east of Rome.
We’ll start our tour at Cerveteri about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Rome. We’ll head along the sea northwest past Rome’s port, Civitvecchia, and stop at Tarquinia. Then we’ll travel inland (northeast) to Tuscania, Viterbo, Bagnaia, and then southeast to the village of Caprarola. We then head almost directly north to finish our tour at Bomarzo not far from the Umbrian border. (It might be a bit shorter to go from Bagnaia to Bomarzo and then to Caprarola but as you will see, we have our reasons for following the first itinerary.) Before we start this tour we will introduce a onetime major player, the Etruscans.
The Etruscans were a people who dominated large parts of Italy including Latium from an unknown prehistoric period up until the Roman Empire. We don’t know much about their origins, language, culture, or their way of life. Much of what we do know about this once powerful people can be seen on our tours of Latium. By the way, one of the most famous books about the Etruscans, Sketches of Etruscan Places and other Italian Essays (1932), was written by the British Author D. H. Lawrence, better known for another work, Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
Cerveteri, population about thirty thousand, was once the Etruscan city of Caere. UNESCO has classified Cerveteri as a World Heritage Site because of its Etruscan tombs. It is the largest ancient necropolis in the Mediterranean area. These tombs, and there are over a thousand of them, date from the Ninth Century B.C. to the Third Century B. C. Other local sights worth seeing include the Rocca castle, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Sixteenth Century Palazzo Ruspoli, not to be confused with a Palace of the same name in Florence. The nearby burg of Ceri is at the top of a fortified plateau. Its main attraction is the Romanesque Church of the Madonna of Ceri, built on a site originally dedicated to the worship of the goddess Vesta. In 1980 during renovations, Twelfth Century frescos of Biblical scenes were uncovered.
Tarquinia, population about sixteen thousand, is the site of about six thousand Etruscan tombs, some of which are decorated by wall paintings. The National Museum housed in the Fifteenth Century Palazzo Vitelleschi is known for its archeological contents. Tarquinia is home to a cathedral, several churches including two from the Twelfth Century (San Martino and St. John the Baptist), the Palazzo dei Priori, and several medieval towers.
Tuscania, population somewhat under eight thousand, was founded almost three thousand years ago but the area itself has been populated for perhaps eight or ten thousand years. Unfortunately its medieval city walls were largely destroyed in 1971 earthquake but they have been repaired and the interior is nicely landscaped. Like its neighbors, Tuscania is the site of many Etruscan tombs including the “Tomb of the Queen”, a series of labryinths with about thirty tunnels. If you are like me, you prefer seeing other sights. Tuscania will not disappoint you. For example, there are several churches of great architectural interest and palaces aplenty. And you can visit the National Archeological Museum, but many of the displays are tomb-related.
Viterbo was once the favorite residence of the popes. Its historic old center is among the best preserved towns of central Italy. Make sure to see the Palazzo dei Papi (Papal Palace) and the Romanesque Cathedral of San Lorenzo, built by the Lombards over an Etruscan Temple dedicated to Hercules. This building also served as a Papal residence. Pope John XXI died here in 1277 when the ceiling collapsed as he was sleeping. The Plaza di San Lorenzo contains several other buildings of interest. The medieval district of San Pellegrino is quite well preserved and definitely worth visiting. Viterbo boasts a spa with a huge limestone pool of very hot water. Its volcanic mud is highly recommended for those who like that sort of thing. I am told that the Enoteca La Torre has an extensive wine list. The Tre Re restaurant has been a fixture of Viterbo’s old town since 1622.
The nearby village of Bagnaia was the personal fiefdom of the bishops of Viterbo for centuries. It is best known for its magnificent Sixteenth Century water gardens, Villa Lante. There are two sets of buildings, built for two bishops, one of whom was known for living simply. Highlights include a Moorish fountain, a boxtree maze, and two casinos.
The nearby village of Caprarola is the site of the Sixteenth Century Farnese Palace. This Palace was built for Cardinal Alessandro II Farnese, nephew of Pope Paul III, within ten years of the Villa Lante. The two sites were built by the same architect, but in a very different style. Here you go to see the palace, although its park is nothing to sneer at. In fact, in many parts of the world, the Farnese Palace park would merit a visit on its own. Our suggestion, see the Villa Lante and the Farnese Palace and compare. One thing is certain, the Sixteenth Century Italian upper class sure knew how to live.
You probably haven’t seen anything like Bomarzo. The village’s main attraction is yet another Sixteenth Century garden, alternately known as Bosco Sacro (Sacred Grove) and Bosco di Mostri (Monster’s Grove). It was built by a hunchbacked patron of the arts to honor his deceased wife. Some say that she died of heart failure after seeing the park. For centuries this park was neglected but now has been restored. The dozens of monster statues including Hanging House, the Dragon, the Ogre, and the Etruscan Bench with its inscription "You who travel the world, in search of great and beautiful wonders, come here, where there are horrible faces, elephants, lions, bear and dragons" seem strewn about aimlessly. This is probably as good a place as any to end your tour of western Latium.
What about food? Latium cuisine is one of abundance, perhaps in part because of the volcanic soil. The best cuts of meat were reserved for the rich and the poor had to make do with the rest, including feet, heart, kidneys, tongue, and tripe. Let’s not forget the pasta, said to be among the best in Italy. Fettuccine Alfredo comes from this region.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Carciofi alla Guidea (Deep fried Artichokes). Then try Porchetta (Roast Suckling Pig). For dessert indulge yourself with Ciambella (Pastry with Sweetened Grapes and Carmelized Chestnuts). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude this article with a quick look at Latium wine. More than four out of five bottles produced here are white. There are twenty five DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine, twenty of them white. However, only about 6% of Latium wine is so classified. Frankly, the region is not known for its wine. It once was; in the distant past Falernum, a Latium red was the hit of Ancient Rome. Who knows, perhaps one day the region will regain its former glory when it comes to wine. In the meantime, there is lots to see and lots to eat. And plenty of fine Italian wines are available. North of Latium is Umbria, and north of Umbria is Tuscany. Cantina Colacicchi’s Torre Ercolana is a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend from Latium that comes highly recommended but I have yet to taste it.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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