Mary Jane Cryan’s “Etruria – Travel, History, and Itineraries in Central Italy” is written with the deep knowledge of a scholar and the passion of someone who wasn’t born there. Aside from her knowledgeable itineraries in the area of the province of Viterbo, including a good guide to the tombs of Tarquinia, there are elements of this book that are clearly characterized by personal, expat interests: a study of an Irish family (the Denhams), impressions from early Americans who visited the area, and a description of the international residents of the town of Vetralla.

Bagnoregio - photo flickr @Valentina_A
Bagnoregio – photo flickr @Valentina_A

What follows is a few highlights from the book, followed by instructions on how to participate in the book giveaway – the author has offered a copy of her book for readers of this blog!

Let’s start off by saying that as you know I’m a big fan of Maremma, so in some way I’m writing about my neighbour and Tuscany’s “competition”. Before reading this book I never knew that an area called Etruria existed. Actually, I thought I was living in it, because Cosimo I Duke of Tuscany went on at rather great length about being Etruscan and reigning over all of Etruria. This book, however, is about a rather specific part of Etruria mainly centered on the province of Viterbo. In search of a better understanding I checked Cryan’s website Elegant Etruria and found this explanation.

Until recently the Etruria region (aka Tuscia or Viterbese) has been snubbed by visitors in favour of neighbouring Tuscany. If the names Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Tuscania, Viterbo and Vetralla are little known, it is because the area is about 50 years behind the times, touristically speaking, due to their proximity to the overwhelmingly important Rome and Tuscany.

Okay, well that explains in part why I’ve heard of Viterbo and Tarquinia but not much more. Will this book have a strong impact on tourism and cause hoardes to descend on Bolsena (population 4000)? No. I hope not. But if you’re looking for some off-the-beaten-track Italy, this area – and this book – is for you.

Bolsena doesn’t look so bad now – photo flickr @air force one

When Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia wrote about their trip moving North from Rome in 1858, they did visit Bolsena, and his description has not been taken up by the local APT’s brochure service for good reason:

We did not look long at the castle, our attention being drawn to the singular aspect of the town itself, which is the very filthiest place, I do believe, that was ever inhabited by man. Defilement was everywhere; in the piazza, in nooks and corners, strewing the miserable lanes from side to side, the refuse of every day, and of accumulated ages.

His wife said of the town’s residents: “I do not think they ever touch water”. This is my favourite chapter of the book, only in part because it provides fascinating evidence for the pestilence of both this flat part of Etruria and of Maremma just up the road; both areas were uninhabitable until after the second world war. One of the Hawthornes’ children contracted malaria there, and she was neither the first nor the last. (Arttrav readers will soon learn of my malaria obsession – this is as good as ever a moment to confess…)

Castle of Bracciano - photo @mary Jane Cryan
Castle of Bracciano – photo @mary Jane Cryan

Not to worry though. Malaria is no longer a risk should you wish to visit the Etruscan tombs, hot springs, medieval castles, unusual museums, and impressive gardens that Cryan describes and lists with care in her book. The itineraries she offers are more evocative than practical so you’ll need to mark the locations on a map and find out opening hours before venturing out (a choice that surely gives the book a longer life since opening hours change frequently in Italy… if they are respected at all).

One chapter, for example, offers a one-day sampling of the area for cruise-ship passengers disembarking at Civitavecchia (and who choose to eschew Rome’s crowds and shops). An unusual premise, but one that is likely born from Cryan’s experience as a cruise-ship lecturer – she says that about 25% of these tourists do not go in to Rome for the day. Excellent idea to spread them out on the territory. Practical information is provided here about how to procure transportation in order to explore Tarquinia, Tuscania, Viterbo, Vetralla, and maybe Vulci. This seems like a lot for one day, and the material here can surely be used for a more leisurely visit by anyone not about to float back out of Italy.

I’d certainly like to test out the itinerary of historic gardens of Etruria, with visits to the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo, the water games of Villa Lante at Bagnaia, Caprarola’s Palazzo Farnese (with frescoed animals paragoned to Dr. Seuss a comparison unknown to Italians), and the “Secret Garden” at Castello Ruspoli in Vignanelllo. These sound like marvelous places that I’m putting on my to-do list.

Villa Lante Bagnaia - photo flickr @valentina_A
Villa Lante Bagnaia – photo flickr @valentina_A

Etruria – Travel, History, and Itineraries is unquestionably a wonderful gift to Northern Lazio (who will likely reward the author as they have done in the past for her books) and a treat for all of us who think we know Italy well: there’s always somewhere else to be discovered!

Book giveaway

That’s why Arttrav and Elegant Etruria are giving away one copy of the book to a reader of this blog (we know you’re already an Italophile). Here’s how it works.

Each of the following “actions” gets you one entry.

1) Comment on this blog post. Maybe you want to tell us where in Etruria you’d like to visit? Let me know how many of the other things below you have done.

2) Share this post on facebook, tagging the arttrav facebook fan page (you’ll need to become a fan to do so). Tagging allows me to “track” your share. Thanks ;-).

3) Share this post on twitter (there’s a handy “tweet this” button), mentioning @arttrav in your tweet.

4) If you do all three, you get a fourth entry!

Small Print: Contest opens with the publication of this article at 9am Italian time on Tuesday December 7, and closes at midnight Sunday December 12, 2010. Winner will be determined with a random draw on Monday morning using Prize (book) will be mailed anywhere in the world by the author within one week from assignment. Winner will be contacted by email, facebook, twitter, or any other method provided through the Disqus commenting system before. Failure to acknowledge winning within 48 hours will result in forfeiting; the prize will be assigned to the runner-up.

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