Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tour of Civitavecchia and Tarquinia provides more than meets the eye

Sunday, February 2
People can be annoying. Also demanding, boring, rude. But more often they are entertaining, intriguing, charming, even fascinating. And I am coming to the conclusion that the main reason I like coming to Italy is to meet the people and learn about their lives.

Today we disembarked in Civitavecchia, the port of Roma, and while most of the passengers took off on various tours or Roma, we wanted to go in the opposite direction, to Tarquinia, to view Etruscan artifacts and ruins. While the tour department on the ship listed a tour of Tarquinia as one of the many possibilities for passengers, we were told that it never filled up, and we would have to make our own arrangements. I had checked the rail schedule online and found that Tarquinia was only about fifteen minutes away. However, not only were the train times less than ideal, the station in Tarquinia was about five miles from the Etruscan ruins and museum, so we would have to find a taxi to get into the city and another to get back to the stations. We disembarked from our ship and dealt with the usual surge of offers for transportation and tours. All appeared to be for Roma--but we found one private tour guide, Luigi, who also included Tarquinia on his list of possible itineraries. Then he promised to not only give us a tour of Tarquinia but also Civitavecchia and the Etruscan museum, and we found he had made an offer we couldn’t refuse. He gave us free transportation in his car and four hours of personal guide service, all at a price less than Costa had advertised for the guided group tour. Because it was raining, he recommended skipping the outside part of the tour, the Etruscan tombs, because the paths would be filled with mud and puddles. Inside the museum we would find four reconstructed tombs, so we could still get a good idea of what the tombs looked like.

Luigi showed us ancient city walls, exquisitely designed and decorated churches and panoramic vistas overlooking the city and surrounding hillsides. We went inside the hall of the Tarquinian city government, even though it was Sunday and the offices were closed.

“It will be OK, because I know the mayor,” Luigi said. He said the same thing when Lucy pointed out that he had parked in front of a gate marked “passo carrabile,” which indicates vehicle passage, no parking. “The mayor loves me because I give publicity and bring visitors to the city,” Luigi said. “Tarquinia is a better tourist town than San Gimignano, but people don’t know about it because they don’t advertise enough here.”
As we drove around, we found that Luigi is very proud of his community, and he didn’t hesitate to tell us the reasons why.

“The olive oil here is as good at the oil in Tuscany, which is the best in the world,” he said. The area is also famous for its artichokes, broccoli, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, chestnuts, fruit trees and a few other crops that I have probably forgotten. As he listed the items of produce, he sometimes described how he would prepare them in his kitchen, and he would lick his lips and roll his eyes back while remembering the taste of his favorite recipes.

Besides being a tour guide who speaks five languages, Luigi has recently started an olive oil export business, partnering with a large local farm. He complained that the woman who owns the farm, while producing excellent oil, lacks the vision needed to promote her business. Through Luigi, she sold some oil to a man who works in the customs office. When he wanted more, she kept raising the price.

“This man is a friend of mine, and we may need his help someday,” he said. The farmer is impatient, wanting all her profits to come quickly, Luigi said, but he is trying to convince her of the importance of building her client base and reputation. “Now she is refusing the give me more samples to pass out to potential customers. How are people going to see the quality of her oil without trying it?”

Luigi said if he can’t convince the woman to take a more futuristic view, he will have to look for another farmer to work with. He needs to develop this sideline because the cruise ship industry has cut into the traditional guide service business and reduced his income. I asked him questions about his guide service business and we discussed details about his soon-to-be-launched web site, a point of common interest, since I have helped another friend create a site for her tourism business.

We pulled into a Romanesque church in Tarquinia to take some photos of what Luigi informed us was a famous baptistery. We were greeted by a mother and her pre-teen son, who asked us to sign the guest book. They were volunteers overseeing the church’s security and happy to have visitors on a rainy winter day. Both spoke English well, and the boy said he had spent some time in the United States and would like to go to back again. To prove his interest in our country, he reminded us that today was Groundhog’s Day in the United States and said that Phil had seen his shadow in Punxsutawney.

We also stopped to see the city’s communal clothes washing basin, which is now used only by one person, ninety-year-old Vincenza, also one of Luigi’s friends. He passed by her yard and, finding her gate open, called out “Vincenzina” and beckoned her out to meet us.

Her weathered face looked even older than her years and she was largely toothless, but her compact body still looked strong and sturdy, and her mind and spirit remained hearty, hale and agile. She can remember when the long vasca was used by all the women in town and was a central gathering place for conversations. In more recent times, an artist has painted a scene on the wall of women washing together. The painting is upside down on the wall, but it is reversed when it reflects into the basin. When the water is disturbed, one has the illusion that the women are scrubbing their clothes.

When Vincenza heard that we are Americans, she told us that during the last war, she lived on a farm and her family hid American soldiers from the occupying Germans. Under questioning from Luigi, she said that she had never taken a day of vacation in her life. “How about on your wedding night?” he asked playfully. Well, she didn’t work that day, but her honeymoon room was in the house of her sister-in-law in a nearby village, and she didn’t really consider that a vacation.

After this, Luigi took us to the Etruscan museum and gave us a guided tour, which proved helpful because all the written documentation was in Italian and would have taken us a long time to read. While we enjoyed seeing the sights and museum artifacts, on our walk back to the ship, Lucy and I realized that the highlight of the afternoon had not been anything we saw but the people we had met and conversations we had experienced. It also occurred to us that often than not, the things we recall about our Italy trips involve the people, not the places, a valuable lesson to keep in mind.


  1. What a great experience! Love the part of meeting with the ninth year old woman and the upside down picture. The experience is the difference between being a tourist and a traveler. I prefer being a traveler as you.


  2. Sounds like the day turned out more delightful and informative than you could have imagined! Taking the time to ask questions of everyone you meet reaps a harvest of wonderful memories


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