I have been distracted of late with “red zone” restrictions “suddenly” being foisted upon us. To be fair, it was about time, but I am painfully aware of how this is crushing small businesses here who already pay hefty taxes. To all my Australian friends who wonder why a lockdown did not occur earlier here, this is my illinformed answer: Italy simply could not afford it. Currently, I can leave my house for necessary reasons like going to see a GP, getting daily exercise and grocery shopping. Teaching from home has been surprisingly wonderful, although much of this is owed to working in a supportive school.
Back to Tuscia– Let me take you back to the day in which I decided I would be a quintessential Aussie country girl and unbog my car that was cemented into a giant swampy puddle. My successful days jumping fences to see ruins of castles built by the Templars had sufficiently emboldened me to go wherever the GPS would take me. When I go somewhere, I do prolific research on historical sites so that I do not look like the Aussie with the patchy history education (and an immense chip on my shoulder…seriously huge). Norchia (pronounced Nor-Key-Ya) is off the grid for a lot of people. In fact, when I mentioned that I wanted to check out Norchia to a few Italian friends, they scoffed smugly, “Are you sure you don’t mean Norcia, where the sausage comes from?” Of course not! It is not even in the Lazio region and with the borders shut there is no way I would have pushed the boundaries (nerd, square, called me what you like, but I have a penchant for following the rules).
Norchia is an abandoned Necropolis that dates back to the Etruscan civilisation and the Bronze Age that was left to disappear into the landscape in the 14th Century. My romanticised plan on paper was to grab some tasty picnic food from nearby town Vetralla and head straight there for an idyllic picnic overlooking the ruins. After ladening the back seat of the car with yeasty baked focaccia and “brutti ma buoni” merengue and hazelnut biscuits (ugly but good), I rolled through the countryside. Burnished green fields erupted around me as I somewhat faithfully followed the GPS to Norchia. The embittered winter had conceded defeat to the warmth: the trees that lined the patchy tarred road had roared to life with puffs of crimson blossoms. I could not help but tear up: the freedom, the sun, the beauty of everything. I cannot convey accurately the joy I feel in these simple moments. Euphoria.
Another colour, however, was to soon swallow my vehicle: muddy brown. In my joyous teary state, I had left the main road and was headed towards Norchia. 1.5km. At this point I was not alarmed that I was on a narrow road between two large orchards: these abandoned sites are often found on little historical islands surrounded by farming land. The first sign of alarm, however, did come as I crossed into the dirt road and traversed my first pothole. A Fiat 500 is a wonderful little city car. Not so wonderful for off-road driving. The road had essentially become a series of mini ponds that got progressively deeper. I know. I know! The logical reader is thinking: why didn’t you turn back? Well, you clearly are not acquainted with my stubborn sense of determination. You are, after all, talking to the crazy girl who quit her job in the middle of a pandemic. Fact: I did not turn back. Also fact: the third pothole got me. As I edged in I knew that I had hit my limit. Perhaps hit is not the right work. I was sunk. This was not your regular Australian bush pothole. It was an Italian sinking pit! Being the milennial that I am I Googled “how to unbog a car”. It suggested reversing out. Logical enough, but I had tried that and had plunged further in. It was at the point that I saw the car sloping and felt muddy water tickling my feet that I decided to abandon ship.
Hope, in my naive mind, was not lost! I was going to have adrenaline kick in and allow me to push my hire car out. The water was past my knees so I did what any right-thinking young lady alone in the middle of nowhere would do: I stripped down to my scant underwear and pushed my Fiat 500 under the “tushian” sun. The water swallowed my legs and I felt the mud gargling on my feet. It was when I realised that the car had in fact sunk further that I decided to go and get help. I peeled my legs out of the mud like scraping cemented porridge off a spoon and proceeded to get dressed.
In the distance I could hear the faint rumble of machinery and I could make out a 4WD parked near an enormous shed with a couple of farm dogs sleeply nearby. Saved. I carefully peeled on my jeans and ran barefoot over to the car. No one. The two dogs woke up from their midday slumber and started barking to warn their master. Nothing. They did manage to spook a muscular chestnut thoroughbred who starting cantering around hysterically. At this point, some may be frustrated to hear that I was calm. It was the sun, the freedom, and the comic image of me pushing my car out of a puddle in my g-string that had me bemused. At this point I decided to be an adult and do the proper adult thing (besides not be so stupid in the first place): I called the local police. The man gruffly answered and scoffed at the feminine error of my ways. He would head out shortly. As soon as I hung up, I couldn’t help but smile. This felt like a bizarre movie of my own making and I was the unassuming female lead. Standing barefoot in the middle of the dirt road, I was feeling the cosy warmth of the dust beneath my feet when I heard the unmistakeable bellow of a tractor. There it was! A dusty red tractor was heading my way. I may have done a few attention-seeking leaps into the air as he approached.
Out of the tractor jumped an attractive young farmer, maskless in this pandemic world, which seemed an oddity. I am otherwise sentimentally attached, but compared to the short, stout farmers I knew in Puglia (not to mention my dwarfish scrawny ex), it was far more pleasant scenery under the circumstances. That was until he looked at me with his chiselled, rugged face and asked with an irritatingly perfect smile if he could take a photo of my comical situation for his friend, because he hadn’t seen a car that bogged in a while. At that point, I played my one wild card here in Italy: The damsel in distress. I asked for help. Those who know me would know that that takes a lot. Alas for this damsel, he had no car chains but decided to call a friend.
My entourage arrived at once: the police, who successfully dragged me out (and after their attempt at fatherly condescension, went on their merry way) and the chisel-jawed farmer’s arguably more handsome friend with piercing blue eyes. What is in the water in Tuscia? Despite my embarrassment at the whole scenario, he asked me what I was doing out there to which I laughed, “I was hot, so I decided to take the car for a swim”. He did, however, offer some useful advice on how to get to Norchia. Finally! I had to put Cinelli in the GPS, as small town, and then it was signed.
My dramatic hour was over and I sped down the freeway towards Cinelli. Stepping out of the drowned Fiat 500 trying to ignore the water swirling around my feet, I realised I needed to wash this vehicle at some point before it moulded. Later. Now, I scooped up my baked goods which had survived the ordeal and ran across the field towards a distant Medieval church. It was Norchia.
This site has been in existence since the Bronze Age and stretched its confines with the arrival of the Etruscans. Historians do not seem to know the original name of the site. Some speculate that it was called Orclae because there are some historical references to it, but the consensus is that the site hit its golden era between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC.
You actually arrive at the top of the Necropolis that was built into the hill. The presence of an ancient civilisation only becomes clear once you have clambered down the stair path to the bottom of the hill and turn around to face it. The tombs are large blocks of tufo carved into the cliff! My research (and not true historical knowledge) said that the bodies were put inside sarcophagi that are widely still present there.
If you wander along the stream, there is a wooden bridge that allows you to climb up the opposite hill and head towards the medieval ruins of the site. A well-worn dirt path winds its way up the hillside and there are little red and white markers to guide you. I deviated a little to enjoy the trees with crimson blossoms and the butterflies that flitted amongst them. Grating at this may sound, it felt like an enchanted wood I had to myself. I adore fantasy books and movies, so this felt like my own little realm. As I wandered around, I ended up stumbling across the medieval church ruins as well as the gate to the medieval city and there was something refreshing about having no GPS to do this. I decided to finish my snacks sitting inside the church ruins with the light streaming through the gaps where glass once shielded worshippers.
From here, I drove to Tarquinia, known for its incredible artistic Etruscan tombs. Honestly, I wish I had had more time to savour this place, but I had one thing on my mind: the brown Fiat 500 with the squelchy interior. I frantically Googled “Lavaggio” and found one nearby. When I rolled in and showed them the car, they could not believe that I had done no damage. I said I would give them a bit extra if they made it look good as new and headed off to explore the village in the meantime. I reached the tombs 15 minutes before closing and the caretaker firmly said she would not let me in. I explained my stupidity with the car and she took pity and let me wander for free for 20 minutes or so. I frantically dove in and out of the tombs taking pictures of the rich artworks that adorned them, but I will need to go back there soon to take it in. What better way to wait for a carwash than to see tombs and then duck off for a solo aperitivo in the town square?
One day of this trip left and then a post on the hilariously frustrating Italian bureaucracy and the time I delcared war on the “name stealer” to follow.
Un bacio x