Out to Fiumcino airport I went, thinking it would be easier to deal with a car rental there and get on to the E80 to Cerveteri and Tarquinia to look at the Etruscan tombs. Alas, Avis at FCO was an infelix avis rather than a rara, a bad omen rather than a true friend, and the hassle and inefficiency of the autonoleggio process prefigured the next few hours on the roads around Rome. But truthfully, perhaps it was fault. What is it that Cavafy writes in “Ithaka“?
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
The fact is I was carrying with me this fear of driving in Italy, why I can’t say. I kept thinking to myself, It can’t be any worse than the Mass Pike. And then I’d think that that was no comfort at all.
Thus it was that, even though I had a large road-map for Central Italy, and had downloaded and printed several on-line maps of the specific locations I was going, when the attendant asked if I wanted a Garvin Nuvi to help with the navigation, I jumped at it. “Yes! Si! Please! Grazie!” I yelped, and then thought to ask, “Does it speak English?” Of course, she indicated, and fiddled with the device until a British woman’s voice began to speak. Ah, thinks I. Just the person to get me through the muddle of the Roman urban sprawl to my safe and comfortable classical sites. An authoritative Oxbridge accent, with modern technology and a fleet of satellites at its back, was all very comforting in its own self-assurance. Sort of like Margaret Thatcher. What could go wrong?
But first to find the car which, as it happens, was in Group A of Garage E, not Group E of Garage A, a thing one finds out only after much wheeling of a heavy suitcase up staircases and sweating and swearing. But no amount of profanity and gesticulation can help you put the car, once found, into reverse– for that you must eventually dig out the driver’s manual and figure out what it means to levare the collare of the leva di cambio. Once you’ve done that, you plug in Maggie and let her gently guide you to the remote Etruscan past, a mere 19 kilometres away. How much is a kilometre, anyway? Who can say? Maggie knows. At this point, all I have to do is just sit back and obey.
I suppose when you’re on autopilot, as I was, there comes a time when you start to get suspicious. Are we going on the wrong road? Nah. These damned streets all have several names and numbers, it’s OK. But, um. Isn’t that town sort of south of the city, not north where Tuscany is? Maybe this is a faster route, even if it is more circuitous? And then the moment when it crashes in on you that, No, the machine is all screwed up and you are nowhere near where you want to be. This thing was more like Margaret Thatcher than I had originally thought. So over to the side of the highway I pulled, and unplugged the Iron Lady. She had plenty of battery power stored up and continued to tell me insistently how very wrong I was for the next hundred kilometres of sobut by now I was charting my own course with the road map and this crude but effective syllogism: A. Cerveteri was on the sea, B. The sea was to the West, and so C. I should just keep driving with the sun in my eyes.
All in good time, I found myself far north of Rome making a big left turn and realizing that, somehow, if I stayed on this very road, I would reach Tarquinia. And it was hilly and tortuous and unclearly-marked and exceptionally beautiful to drive along this road and eventually to see aqueduct ruins alongside the highway and signs that pointed to the Necropoli di Monterozzi. With a sense of great accomplishment, I pulled over to the side of the road to park and may or may not have almost knocked over a bunch of Vespas–there’s no saying.
The necropolis is quite amazing, really. You pay a few euros for the ticket and a guidebook and off into the biggest, driest field you have ever seen you go. Here and there are doors into the tombs which, once you enter, are far cooler and damper than is comfortable. A steep staircase before you into a depth the sunlight has never seen. As Catullus writes in Poem 3,
Qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis:
Now he goes along the shadowy road
there to the place from which they say nobody returns.
But a curse on you, evil shadows
of Orcus, who devour all beautiful things!
When you get to the bottom of the stairs, you press the button for the light and behold! the painted tombs appear, replete with Etruscan revelers, banqueting, dancing, playing music. Also we see death demons hovering about, with names like Orcus and Charun, who are joyful in their own way.
Again and again I descend from the hot Tuscan sun into the cool Etruscan ground to see these murals of lives long ago lived and deaths long ago mourned. It was a circuitous route, to be sure, from Fiumcino to Monterozzi, but to see the colors at the end of the iter tenebricosum we must all travel was well worth the trip.