Italian Time Travel from Tuscan to Etruscan

A Weekend Trip  in Tuscany - Piombino and Populonia.

Midway from Rome to Florence - Visit & Discover the Largest Etruscan City on the Sea.

Silver amphora of Baratti in the Museum of Populonia in Piombino
Detail of the pure silver amphora of Baratti in the Museum of Populonia in Piombino.  One of the finest relics
of Etruscan civilization ever found, it weighs 16 pounds. It was recovered by a Livorno fisherman in 1968. 

We think of the Roman Empire as one of the wellsprings of civilization, as an ancient and powerful state that enabled the rise of western culture. But before Roman times, when the Etruscans were in charge, Rome was a farming village, low on the scale of desirable property. The Etruscan civilization flourished for over half a millennium, from about 900 BC to 300 BC, and left intriguing traces of industry and wealth in many of their ancient centers. Populonia, now a part of Piombino, was once a busy center for Etruscan trade, and was renowned as a smelting facility, since deposits of iron, copper and tin were plentiful in the region. They minted coins, worked metal, grew wine, and traded extensively with Sardinia. Funeral customs were important to the Etruscans, and they buried their dead with painstaking care in special buildings with many personal effects.

Old lights on the way to the sea. Piombino.
Down to the sea. Piombino.

You can have a wonderful introduction to this civilization by visiting Piombino, a rather small (35,000) city in Tuscany just south of Livorno. Most visitors hurry through Piombino on their way the the island of Elba on the ferry from Piombino. That would be a shame - the town is well worth a stop. It makes a great weekend jaunt, and also an excellent stopover when traveling between Rome and Florence. It is packed with interest for history buffs and perfect for kids who are intrigued by hikes, tombs, rocks, or metals. The complete trip really needs a car, although rail connections are possible to Piombino.

Old town Piombino.   Corso Emanuele.
Old town Piombino.   Corso Emanuele.

The historic center of Piombino is small and full of one way streets, but parking is relatively easy on the perimeter, and after you settle in, most of the parts of town you'll want to see are in pedestrian zones. The small cobbled main street winds through the old town to the sea, where there is a walk along the water and a fabulous view of the surrounding islands that make up the Tuscan archipelago, including Elba. The street is lined with restaurants featuring – what else? – fresh seafood. We had lunch at Osteria Mamma Carla, where the staff are friendly, the octopus salad is wonderful and the spaghetti allo scoglio delicious.

Roman mosiac with squid in sunglasses. Museum of Populonia, Piombino.
Roman mosiac with a squid in sunglasses. Museum of Populonia, Piombino.. 
When you're tired of walking around town, it's time for the famous museum, the Museo Archeologico del Territorio di Populonia. We visited in late October, in fact on the last weekend that the site was open to the public, and hours were somewhat restricted – it's best to check before you plan your trip Archaeological Museum of Populonia. It's an easy walk out to the museum from the center of town. The museum itself is beautifully designed, and moves you along through the history of the area. It starts before history began and moves through the bronze age to Etruscans and Romans. The variety of exhibits insures something for everyone. There are early Etruscan arrowheads and spears, which look a lot like rocks to the uninitiated, explanations of early mining, dioramas with hairy people and gorgeous mosaics and an exquisite silver amphora that is as sophisticated as it is lovely. It takes a few hours to wend your way through the exhibits, it's quiet and subtly lit, you'll have a great time.

Sunset over Elba Island and the Piombino Lungomare.
Sunset over Elba Island and the Piombino Lungomare.
There are remarkable sunsets on the coast, so save a little energy for an evening stroll. The walkways along the sea will be filled with locals for the evening passeggiata to watch as the twilight colors the sky over the island of Elba.  There are some nice places to get drinks and buffet style snacks in the evening. We went to Il Baccanale for dinner, and had excellent dishes, one of which was ravioli filled with burrata and topped with local raw shrimp.

Etruscan Tomb of the Bronze Fans Populonia Tuscany Italy
Tomb of the Bronze Fans (Tombe dei Flabelli di Bronzo) from about 630 BC.
The tomb was found intact with jewelry, weapons, and kitchen utensils.
The ruins just up the coast were our focus for the next day. We drove up to Populonia Alta, an old residential section of Piombino (which actually has 17 residents) and, more usefully, a welcome center to the Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia. There is a tour of the ruins at the top of the hill, but a helpful guide at the counter advised us that it probably wasn't a good choice for us – she said, it's steep, it's long, it's only in Italian, and it's very detailed. We've learned to listen to well meant advice, so we thanked her and after a look at the stupendous view, went back down to the Welcome Center near the sea, where parking is plentiful and the facilities good. We bought tickets to see the tombs and access the hill areas. An unexpected side benefit: buying a ticket to the museum the day before (6E, with price reductions for over 65 and families) gave us a 50% discount from the ticket to the necropolis site (9E or 16E, according to how many sites you choose, with price reductions also available) What a deal!

The site has two main sections.  The first is the lower area, a gently sloping hill in front of the Welcome Center, filled with ancient above-ground tombs. The second is on a nearby wooded hillside. A pretty, winding trail connects the sites.
Etruscan Tomb of the Chariots (Tomba dei Carri) Populonia, Italy
Dome of the burial chamber of  the Tomb
 of the Chariots (Tomba dei Carri) which.
 held parts of war and processional chariots.

In the lower area the most prominent and enormous site is the Tomb of the Chariot from around 850 BC. This restored tomb was for an aristocratic family and has been fully restored. It features a domed roof and the structure is 28 meters (over 90 feet) in diameter. It's normally kept locked, but there are frequent visits facilitated by park guides, and we were lucky enough to be just in time for one. The door to the tomb is, unfortunately for the one of us over 6 feet tall, rather short. In fact, you have to pretty much bend over double and duckwalk through the corridor to the center area. Inside are three rooms, two for precious and symbolic objects, and one for the dead with four individual resting places, funerary beds - like earthen camp beds. The remains would rest here, but perhaps not for eternity - in some eras it was just until later family members needed to begin their final journey.

Shrine Tomb  Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia
A Shrine Tomb. Tomb architecture evolved  over time.
 Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia
Once you come out (watch your head on those eaves!) you can wander freely through the field of tombs, imagining the ceremonies and rituals, and watching the sailboats glide by on the bay. The tombs are from several different Etruscan eras and the signage helps you understand the evolution of tomb building and their importance to Etruscan culture and religion. The signs are in both Italian and English. The overall effect is enchanting as you realize your human bonds to these ancient mortals.

Populonia  Underground Tomb carved from limestone
Populonia  Underground Tomb
Since we wanted to see more, we bought some sandwiches at the park bar, filled our water bottles, and headed off on the signed path through a field of wildflowers to explore. When you reach the cool shade of the trees, the land starts to rise. There are interesting botanical signs along the way explaining different plant species. The trail is well trod, but gets a bit rougher as you climb.

Near the top, the Vie Cave trail veers right, and the tombs start to reveal themselves. These tombs are dug down into the hillside, accessed by steep stone steps carved into the underlying limestone. They are impressively deep, 20 feet or so, and at the shadowy bottom of the staircase is the burial room where traces of the indents for sarcophagi still survive. A few of the tombs are cordoned off, but you can climb down into many of the sites.

There are beautiful views over the countryside and to the sea from the trail which winds through the forest.  You walk past several Etruscan quarry sites which now look like little overgrown cliffs. The Etruscan were good at quarrying stone blocks from this limestone for trading and for building.  Soon the trail opens onto an overview of the largest quarry site which - in the manner of real estate developers of every age - was then re-purposed to build the Necropoli delle Grotte, a sort of tenement tomb. (Engineers should not miss the partially excavated limestone block on the side of the building.)

Necropolis of the Grottos Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia
Necropoli delle Grotte          Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia
Naturally, the shady walk down is always a pleasure. We visited in October, during a warm pleasant spell, but the leaves were still green. Although summer will be warmer, Populonia is right on the sea and it's very popular with beach goers and diving enthusiasts. The coast here is lined with sandy beaches, a few docks and businesses, but there is little development. As so often on the west coast of Italy, mornings are fresher and more pleasant for hiking.

More Info

Ancient History Encyclopedia on Populonia    

Martha's Italy in Populonia      

Wandering Italy Piombino & Elba Island

Piombino Tourism Website

Park of Baratti & Populonia Website

Written by Martha, Photos by Mike.