Tuscany itinerary: Five days on the Etruscan Trail

A vacation blueprint for spending five days exploring the ancient Etruscan heritage of Tuscany and southern Umbria

Florence—Volterra—the Maremma—Grosseto—Sorano—Sovana—Pitigliano—Orvieto—Chiusi—Cortona

Day 1 - Florence, Volterra

Where to spend the night
Hotels in Florence (day 0)
Hotels in Volterra (day 1)
Hotels in Orvieto (day 2)
Hotels in Chiusi (day 3)
Hotels in Cortona (days 4-5)
Be at the door of Florence’s Archeological Museum when they open at 9am to admire their two 4th-century BC cast-bronze Etruscan prizes, a Chimera from Arezzo and the Orator statue. Both show a highly refined styling that helps dispel the old myth that Etruscans could only make good art when imitating the Greeks.

Leave Florence before lunch for the drive to one of D. H. Lawrence’s “Etruscan Places,” Volterra. The best museum in all of Etruria is here in one of it’s greatest cities, with over 600 cinerary urns, many carved from the translucent native alabaster.

Volterra's walls also preserved the most intact gate of any Etruscan city, looking out over a vast, misty valley.

Spend the night in Volterra.

Day 2 - The Maremma, Orvieto

Don't forget to pay attention to the "Before you Leave Home " box at the end of the itinerary covering all the details you need to take care of before leaving home—and be sure to read the "Foolish Assumptions" page about how these itineraries work along with more time-planning tips.Today is the day for the Maremma, the deep south of Tuscany, a backwater from Roman times to the present century and still haunted by its Etruscan ghosts—full of half-excavated tombs, sunken roads, and ancient hilltop towns.

You can hit the tombs and small museum at Populonia, then cut inland for more of the same at Vetulonia; both were ancient Etruscan centers but no more than villages today.

Get to Grosseto for lunch (two of the region’s top restaurants are the Enoteca Ombrona at Viale Matteotti 69, tel. +39-0564-22-585 and the Buca di San Lorenzo at Via Manetti 1, tel. +39-0564-25-142), after which you can check out its archeological museum, which collects many of the find from the entire region under one roof.

Grosseto itself isn’t to sort of place most people want to hang around, so push on to the deepest deep south, staring with Pitigliano, where from the tourist office you can get information on the dozens of tombs and vie cave in the area.

The vie cave latter are narrow passages of mysterious purpose that the Etruscans carved sometimes over 60 feet deep into the living rock of the landscape. Some of the roads in this network of open-air tunnels still go on for hundreds of yards at a stretch, and they litter the area all around the old towns of Sorano and Sovana just north of Pitigliano.

Press on before it gets dark to spend the night in Orvieto, which was already old when the Romans came along.

Day 3 - Orvieto

In Orvieto, check out the Duomo in the morning while you’re waiting for the 11am “Orvieto Underground” tour to meet in the tourist office across the piazza.

The guide will show you some of the subterranean chambers that may have been used by the Etruscans and well-shafts that were sunk by them to gather water for this perennially dry city.

Lunch at Trattoria Tipica Etrusca and ask to see their wine cellars—another set of tunnels carved centuries before Christ.

After lunch, check out the city’s two archeological museums, both of which focus heavily on the Etruscan era with sarcophagi, bronzes, red- and black-figure ceramic vases—some of local Etruscan production—and reconstructions of the painted tombs excavated nearby.

At the other end of town are the grassy remains of the 5th-century BC Belvedere Temple.

Get out of Orvieto by early evening to make the 25-mile drive up to Chiusi, once home to the famous Etruscan king Lars Porsena and, more importantly at the moment, some great present-day restaurants.

Day 4 - Chiusi, Cortona

Chiusi was one of the power players in the Etruscan league, and it has a fine small museum and dozens of tombs scattered around the town.

In fact, most of the hills amid the farmed fields of the valley behind town are really Etruscan tumuli, and while the best are either closed or only visitable by booking ahead at the museum, many are simply abandoned, open for your exploration.

It’s not far up the road to another of the Etruscan League's Dodecapolis of cities, modern day Cortona, where you can crash for the night.

Day 5 - Cortona

Before you leave home:
 Book plane tickets
 Book hotels
 Check train times
 Learn more about Italy
 Practice your Italian

The best Etruscan remains Cortona has to offer are a pair of 7th- to 6th-century BC tombs down in the valley and an overzealously excavated, but romantically cypress-surrounded, later one on the way down the hill.

Get down to see the tombs early in the morning to check up on the ongoing excavation work at the so-called “Melone II” one, where a few years ago they stumbled across an unprecedented find—a large altar jutting out from one side of the circular tumulus with a majestic staircase flanked by man-eating sphinxes.

Whether or not this was a tomb of princes has yet to be determined, but the dig is extensively documented and explained—and the removable bits preserved—at the Museum of the Etruscan Academy back up in town. Among the other collections here are numerous devotional bronzes and their prize, an enormous 4th-century oil lamp chandelier surrounded with figures and cast with a gorgon’s head on the bottom.

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in August 2010. All information was accurate at the time.

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