Unless you are an Etruscan historian, Vetulonia in Italy is unlikely to feature in your "bucket list" of extraordinary places to visit in this world of ours. But if you are contemplating a holiday in Tuscany and have, unlike most, discovered Maremma, then it might. Just might. Have had you reading a little about it and found it's way into your things to possibly do/see list if you end-up in the vicinity.
But likely as not, not on your have to see, champing at the bit to make a special journey to do so, kind of way.
But make the journey you should.
Not because Vetulonia is the best looking Tuscan hill town. Because it isn't. Nor for it's ambience when you get there. Not that there is anything wrong with it, because there isn't. It just isn't a write a postcard home kind of town. It looks too ordinary. On the surface.
But make the journey you should, because.
Because it was the last of the Etruscan cites of Etruria - and the most important of them at that - to be rediscovered. Completely lost to the world. For seven centuries. A city of grandeur and splendour. The fulcrum of an ancient civilisation. Hidden under woodland floors and farmers fields in sleepy backwater Maremma.
Because here, in the malaria-ridden backwater of Italy, that same lost city. A city of gold. Was discovered by a country doctor and amateur archaeologist who had a passion that ran through his blood for "VATL". Vetulonia. And, against all odds, he discovered the stones of its tombs and walls that had been waiting, patiently waiting. For someone to do so.
Against all odds, not because he hadn't studied everything he could. Because he avidly did. But because he wasn't of money. Nor a professional archaeologist with an "establishment" and its access to funds, equipment and helping hands, behind him.
And because. In the face of belittling and jealous rivalry from those same said professionals. He stood his ground. And went out into the field to where his deductions told him to go. And found what all the academics had said wasn't there. The lost city of VATL.
And then. Day after day. With the help of local men, women and children. Until the summer temperatures and mosquitoes made continuing to do so to risk death. He returned, and returned. Year after year. For seventeen years. Even though at one point he nearly lost everything to do so.
Even though the "establishment", when the first tomb treasures were found, quickly turned-up, laid claim as the higher authority, and took away the most prized treasures to their own circle in Firenze. Including a whole tumulus tomb name Gold. Because they did not want to face the heat nor the mosquito to see it.
And because the fifty year old doctor, Isidoro Falchi, from Campiglia Marittima in Maremma, nearly lost everything continuing his never failing quest to reveal Vetulonia, once again, to the world.
Make the journey to see the tombs
The nothing less than tremendous. Tumulus. Tombs.
Because it was here that gold treasure, and an Etruscan chariot were found under mounds of earth, in the sealed chambers of colossal tombs. In this ever so quiet, sleepy rural village. That was once romanticised by Roman nobility in their quest to hold onto a dying age of a world of grandeur.
And. If for nothing else.
Make the journey for the views. For those along the drive up the hill to reach Vetulonia. And from its walls. Are nothing short of breathtaking.
But breathtaking in a completely different way to the no less than stunning views that the twenty-thousand Etruscans living here would have enjoyed. For Vetulonia was once surrounded by water and a great, thriving sea port. With trading ships coming across the Tyrrhenian sea.
I have heard youngsters say when walking along the smooth stones of the still intact Etruscan road with their parents that, "well, now we know why it is free to get in...". In the sense that there is nothing to see at this archaeological site.
And I have equally known youngsters - and the young of heart older than me - be enthralled at the same said stones. Bursting full of questions. Then excited like Indiana Jones at their first sight, yet scared a little at one and same time, of walking down the 7th century long, long, dromos into the darkness of an underground tomb.
The difference is just a sprinkling of imagination. And that is all you need for Vetulonia to come alive under your feet and start to talk to you. To tell you things that adventure stories are made of.
Of the twelve cities of the Dodecapolis of Etruria, Vetulonia was the largest and most powerful.
Located on a hill with an immense coastal lagoon at its feet, it's port traded across the Mediterranean the metals extracted from the immense mining area of the rich metalliferous hills extending behind it all the way down to the sea to the Gulfo di Follonica- Maremma's "Colline Metallifere". Over which it held a much envied monopoly.
At its height in the period between the 9th and 7th centuries BC it was home to over 20,000 people and attracted talented metalsmiths from the Far East. The techniques they brought and shared with them filled Vetulonia's shops with stunning splendour.
As a city it survived the economic decline of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. But much more importantly, it survived invasion by Rome. In fact, unlike Roselle on a hill across the Prile Lagoon, it wasn't raised to the ground, but instead, was able to keep it's own identity. Romanized, but still VATL. It even started to mint its own coins.
In the 2nd century BC, its population rose again and the Etruscan-Roman district that you can walk around now on Poggiarello Renzetti was built. On top of older Etruscan houses.
But then disaster struck.
But still Vetulonia hung on. Attracting as it did, the romantic notions of heady better days of Roman nobles, who built their villas here.
But even the Vetulonia couldn't survive the changes of geography. The Rivers Bruna and Ombrone had, over the centuries, deposited silt at their estuaries and the Prile Lake became cut-off from the sea. And with it Vetulonia.
By the 3rd century AD, the lagoon was a malaria infested marsh and VATL home to no more than a handful of families.
The centuries passed.
The medieval builders who constructed a fortress and towers upon cyclopean walls in the borgo of "Colonnate" - which then became "Colonna di Buriano" - knew nothing of their Etruscan origin.
The city of Vetulonia had been lost to living memory.
And remained so until one day in May 1880, Isidoro Falchi decided to follow his instincts and travel from his home in Campiglia Marittima, to the foot of the hill on which he was sure VATL stood.
And then, walked through the woods to its summit. Over the unmissable monumental mounds of VATL's tombs.
The church of Santi Simone e Guida (saints Simon and Jude). In the 11th century it belonged to the powerful Abbey of San Bartolomeo a Sestinga (the remains of which you pass on your drive up the hill to Vetulonia). But when the Benedictine monk's wealth dwindled rapidly in the 13th century, it was transferred to the control of nearby - on the opposite hill - Buriano and became the Parish church.
In the grass verge.
And these two. Want to see what they were up to? Click on this link to see the video.
The 15th century Oratorio Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie built alongside the Etruscan walls.
You'll find Vetulonia's Mura dell'Arce - it's 37.80 metre long, two metre thick, polygonal cyclopean wall - situated between the town's remaining two medieval towers, which were built on top of it. At the back of town.
It is the walls of VATL's acropolis, dating to the Hellenistic era, between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. the last and highest of many terrace walls that embraced and defined this city. Still standing. But not because of any mortar that joins them, because there isn't any. But because of the skill of its builders who hew these massive limestone blocks to fit, like a jig-saw, one alongside and on top of another.
When you take a walk along the road that would have taken you past houses, shops and taverns in the other Hellenistic part of Vetulonia - its main archaeological site open to the public today that you will have passed on your left before entering town - look closely to see if you can spot the two T-shaped blocks. Special finds in the archaeological world.
If your travel guide book to this part of Tuscany mentions Vetulonia at all, it will do so for the remains of it's Etruscan cyclopean wall. But it will sorely disappoint all but the most passionate cyclopean wall aficionados.
So if you are bringing your kids to see it you really need to know that they won't be impressed.
Even with a good sprinkle of imagination!
It's not that it isn't an excellent example. Because it is. And an incredible thing to boot to find still standing in a 21st century town. Absorbed into the changes over time, the new builds and re-builds, since it became a centre of life again in the middle ages. Changed little except for the black and white discolouration of its stones through age and the growth of algae.
It is just that kids are kids. And it looks like a wall. Just a wall.
So my tip would be to take them to the tombs first, and then the main archaeological site on the way back to town. Then, as they are licking an ice cream, walk around the town to see it. Tell them about the fact that the huge river plain that you can see below was once covered in sea water, lapping at the bottom of the wooded hills that stood proud.
That there was a port in the bay below the Mura dell'Arce wall. But that probably won't excite them.
Likely as not, you will find that it is the ginger cat that is always to be found sat on a roof top below the wall with the view to Buriano, cleaning itself, that will attract them instead.
But. When they are next in history class and a teacher starts to tell them about cyclopean wall construction, you'll be as proud as punch when they put their hands in the air and exclaim that they have seen one. Walked along an Etruscan road that is more than twenty-four centuries old and seen how the builders constructed the dry-stone walls...
Because their mum and dad took them to a place in Tuscany with a name beginning with V. On holiday. And they saw one. And touched one.
This tower, at one end of the Mura dell'Arce, is the only surviving part of Vetulonia's 8th century Cassero Senese: it's 8th century castle that once belonged to the Bishops of the City of Lucca.
And then in the year 1000, passed in ownership to the Abbot down the road in the Abbazia di Sestinga.
In the 13th century to the Lombardi family of neighbouring Buriano. And in 1331 to the City of Siena. The Lombardi family lost a lot of their properties to Siena that year and the next. Including their own castle in Buriano.
By the 15th century it was in ruin. But is still standing. If only in part. Without a roof and hollow on one side. And locked-up with no access - except to electricity workers - on the other.
The drive up the hill to Vetulonia is a stunning one. There aren't many places to pull over to stare, so one of you will have to drive up and the other drive down so that you can both see the views as you reach Vetulonia.
The view to the sea. Now a thirty minute drive away.
To Castiglione della Pescaia to the right on top of its small hill. And to the last residues of the Prile Lake on the left with the waters of the marshland of Diaccia Botrona Reserve. One of the most important marshland habitats in the world.
The ancient Prile Lake now an expansive plain. And the village of Buriano in Maremma.
The remains of the Abbey of San Bartolomeo a Sestinga and Maremma's metalliferous hills in the distance.
The thickly-wooded hills around Vetulonia, looking as much today as they did in 1895 when Isidoro walked through them.
The continuation of the view and the metalliferous hills. Home to ancient copper and silver mines.
On 22nd July 1887, the King of Italy, Umberto I, decreed that the Colonna di Buriano would return to its ancient name of Vetulonia. You'll see a plaque dated 28 May 1888 in town, commemorating Isidoro's part in this.
From modern-day Vetulonia to the walls and roads of the lost city of gold. Those that have been discovered so far.
Take a walk down the Etruscan road.
Past houses, to the shops that served the inhabitants of this rich and prosperous city.
During this period of the city's prosperity - between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC - whilst under Roman rule, it had it's own mint.
It's bronze and silver sextant and oncia coins were struck with the name of the city, VATL. With the profile of a man's head - with a distinctive nose - on one side. With a sea dragon on his head. And a trident with two leaping dolphins on the other .
You can see the coins recovered from the city and a hidden treasure chest found in a farm at nearby at Stagnaccio, in the Vetulonia Museum.
Rooms with pitch-black underground "rooms" and drains, now covered with protective grills.
Walk past an old information plaque telling you that this part of the city was built during the Hellenistic Etruscan-Roman era.
And up the road past more house, and taverns.
All the way to the edge of the site, along a grassy path to a new discovery.
What you see today walking around the archaeological site isn't by any means all of what remains of the lost city. So much more is still waiting patiently to, literally, be unearthed.
In 2009, the archaeologist and director of Vetulonia's museum, the red-haired Simona Rafanelli, successfully - she isn't described by people who know her as tenacious for nothing - pushed at Italian authorities until they bent and to granted permission for her and a team of volunteers to dig at Vetulonia again.
This time in an area of the site, in the Etruscan-Roman district at Poggio Renzetti, that had never been touched.
And the House of Jars said' "hello" under their brushes and bending backs. Four years of painstaking removal of fine layer after layer of soil revealed a very fine, red frescoed, house. The Domus degli Orci. Twenty-four centuries old.
It's high retaining walls a rare find in Etruscan archaeology. And just as rare, the treasure they protected. For resting against those walls were still intact and standing storage jars and amphoras.
One of which has a height of 1.60 metres.
Inside one of the still standing dolia.
The still preserved drains between the houses and shops.
The huge cistern that nature is trying to cover again.
An ephemeral summer treasure.
And a current day inhabitants of the lost city.
The intriguing large round stone.
Can you spot the two of the T-shaped stones?
The individual chisel marks of the Etruscan stone masons are still visible on the non-polished sides of many of the stones.
The House of Jars also spoke to the archaeologists who caressed her about her demise and that of Vetulonia with her. Of unforgiving revenge.
The 1st century BC civil wars that raged throughout Roman territory for the control of the Roman Republic between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla touched, fatefully, Vetulonia. For the City of Gold, along with the Tuscan cities of Arezzo, Fiesole, Populonia and Volterra had allied themselves with Marius.
When, after six years of bloody battles, the last final stand of Marion forces and battle, the Battle of the Colline Gate, took place with Sulla as the victor. And 50,000 dead. Sulla entered Rome to declare himself Dictator to the Senate, whilst he had the 8,000 prisoners who had surrendered the day before executed. Every single one.
And then his revenge began on the Italian towns cities that had allied against him. Every single one. Methodically and mercilessly. One by one.
The noble Etruscan family that had lived in the House of Jars had fled before Sulla's men arrived at VATL. But, even from afar, they would have heard and seen the punishment. Nothing was spared.
Houses were raised to the ground, and the whole city set ablaze. The smoke would have been seen across the whole of Maremma and out to sea.
Like the turning of a page in a history book, the brushes of the archaeologists revealed the blackened coating on the walls of Domus degli Orci and the story of Vetulonia continued to be told.
There are many. In Isidoro's first spring he discovered more than a thousand 9th century BC Villovian Iron-Age, graves of Vetulonia's Necropoli. All sealed by stone slabs that covered the cinerary pots of the dead.
But it is to graves of the latter, Orientalizing Etruscan period, that I want you to go to. To two tumulus tombs that contained the buried bodies of wealthy VATL families.
The two not to miss.
(But you could so easily if you arrive on the wrong day as they aren't always open and last entry is 16:45. Find out more here.)
The first along the country lane.
You can easily miss the lane and it's tomb sign on your left as you are going up the hill to Vetulonia, as it faces to inform traffic coming down the hill. Take the turn and drive down hill, then follow the tomb signs that take you left again onto a gravel lane. Go down and down until you reach a car park on your right.
And the Pietrera tomb.
The Pietrera tomb takes its name from the fact that the locals used to take the massive stones - "pietre"- they found here to strengthen their dry-stone walls.
Walk down its 7th century BC dromos entrance that cuts a line into a more than 60 metre diameter, domed tomb on two levels.
Looking out from inside the Pietrera tomb.
Inside: The roof.
Go back outside and up to the second level and see if you can spot an inscription.
In English, it reads, "This chamber was a living room and bedroom to me in the springs of 1892, 1893." Signed. "I.F."
It was here, when Isidoro opened the sealed tomb he discovered the most important sculptures of all time in Etruscan history. The tomb had already been robbed. But seven stone guardians, were still there, with their eyes fixed on the dead. Decorated with precious jewellery.
And an eighth, a female sculpture, was found nearby in a ditch.
Then walk further down the lane to the most impressive tomb ever found in the whole of Etruria.
TIP. Take a bottle of water with you. It is a long. hot walk back up the hill.
The largest and most impressive tomb in the whole of Etruria is here, on a hillside in Maremma. The Diavolino II tomb.
The name "Diavolino" - Little Devil - comes from a tiny artifact found by the whilst digging out the tomb. A small blue-green Bes with a large head and a squashed body.
The Diavolino I tomb was the one taken away wholescale to Florence.
Do I really have to go in first in my own?
A brief hesitation before passing through what was once a doorway into the covered part of the dromos that will take her further into this colossal 70 metre diameter tomb.
And deep into the dark. Waving at the video cameras and movement sensors.
Coming out still alive!
As you'll hear at the end, Sophia points out that the central supporting column is plastic mum and that its not real!
And for those of you who like to know the specifications of things, the width of the entrance is "this wide".
Don't miss it. Even if you aren't particularly a museum connoisseur. This small museum is wonderfully presented and so evidently curated with love and passion.
A visit to Vetulonia isn't complete without it.
It is full of treasures that you wouldn't expect to find in a tiny hill top village. Even if the heavy mob of Florence academia took much of of the finds in 1890. But what the Florence Archaeology museum doesn't have is what the local grandparents, parents and sons and daughters of Vetulonia gave to this one. All of the tiny treasures they had found in their fields and in their olive groves over the centuries.
There is ample free car parking on the edge of town: just follow the sign that takes you down a lane to your right as you reach the very top of the hill and the first houses.
Otherwise, there is a car park further along in town (we are only talking a few metres) opposite the museum.
Explore some more...