Ask and Ye Shall Receive a Very Long Answer: Tarquinia, Italy

By Jane Mountain | March 29, 2013

Stephen on Bike

Today was our first official day on the bikes! Hooray!

First though, we had to get out of Rome. We had been warned that taking a train with your bikes was as confusing a thing as anyone had ever attempted, so after breakfast, Stephen went over to Termini to see what he could find out. I went back to the room to sort out our panniers, which have become an utter disorganized mess in only three days.

After an hour, Stephen returned, tickets in hand, having encountered no problems greater than an extra-long wait at the ticket counter.

(Compared to taking the train from Beijing, getting the train out of Rome was a total cinch.)

Packing and getting to Termini went smoothly and we hopped on the train with one minute to spare. A kind conductor even helped me lift my bike up a couple of steps to the bike storage area. I was digging out the laptop from a spot deep in the pannier nearest the wall (not an easy proposition by any means) when the kindly conductor started speaking to me.

“Non capisco,” I replied, with terrible pronunciation and a confused look on my face. He kept talking and I kept looking confused. Finally, I went to find Stephen and sent him down to interpret. Stephen doesn’t speak any more Italian than I do, but he is a genius when it comes to reading body language. He came back a few minutes later, laughing to himself.

“He told us to make sure we keep an eye on our stuff so no one steals it,” he reported. The sage advice just keeps on coming.

It’s All in the Hands

We disembarked at Civitavecchia (chee-vita-vek-eea). At the one not entirely touristy restaurant we found in town, we discovered we had left the land where everyone speaks English. Since there was no menu, I conducted a half-Italian half-English conversation with the waitress, trying to determine what was on offer. Another plate of (possibly vegan) pasta later, we hit the road.

Italian Cigarette Machine

Italian Cigarette Machine

Our route took us first through an industrial ferry port and then out into pretty green farmland. The roads were narrow, sparsely trafficked, and a little bumpy. We were passed by lots of racing cyclists who all shouted “Ciao ciao” as they zipped passed on their lightweight bikes.

After what seemed like no time at all, we were climbing a steep hill into Tarquinia (tar-queen-yah). Expecting an old hill town worth of its World UNESCO Heritage Site designation we were surprised to find an insignificant little urban center, reminiscent of some of the less appealing locations in Northern England.

How do Italians give directions? It's all in the hands (and the painstaking detail). Here's how we ask for directions in Italian...

After winding our ways through some nondescript apartment-lined streets and not seeing a single place to sleep, we decide the only way forward was to ask. I wheeled into a gas station and approached an elderly man who was sitting in the forecourt smoking a cigarette.

“Dove hotel?” I asked, with my sweetest smile.

He replied at some length.

We have discovered something about Italians in our few short days here. They are not ones for giving simple directions. There’s no “just go up the hill and turn right”. It’s all:

Go down there, to where you see that car, and then go along about 50 meters more, just by that house with the flower box, then you turn left. It is a very narrow street, not made for cars. After 20 meters you’ll see a house with a blue door. Keep going past that for 25 more meters, then turn right…

At least I imagine they are saying something like that. We wouldn’t have a clue if it weren’t for the expressive hand gestures that accompany this litany of instructions.

We followed the gesticulations I had procured and finally came to an ancient city wall with a large map, indicating we were now entering Tarquinia Centro Storico.

Scuze… B&B?

Now this was more like it!

We rode down a twisty cobbled passage to what seemed to be the main town square, with a large fountain, a hotel, and some official-looking buildings. The only problem was the fountain was not operating, the hotel was closed, and the official-looking buildings looked suspiciously empty. There was nary a soul to be seen.

Stephen in Tarquinia

We saw a shopkeeper pop her head outside, so I hurried over to ask about a place to stay. As I was discovering that B&B is not an Italian phrase, but Bed & Breakfast is, three other middle-aged townspeople appeared out of nowhere, all eager to help us, all unable to speak English.

After an extended conversation in which none of us understood the other, including another long, detailed description of the best route to take, we headed off. We found the B&B. It was closed, so we headed back to the shop for another round of charades.

B&B Sign

Finally, we determined that there was another town center, with a tourist office, where we could book a place to stay. This worked out much better for us and soon we were tucked away in a little room in a B&B run by a German-speaking man and his wife.

Even Hipsters Love Jesus

That evening, we explored the town, eating dinner in one of the many restaurants boasting a cucina tipico and then went on to a bar with WiFi.

The bar was obviously the coolest place in town by a long shot, packed with every hip local young person, and playing old country rock (think Creedence Clearwater Revival). I know I’m making it sound terrible, but really it was great. At least it was until about 9:30pm, when suddenly every single customer got up and left.

We asked the bartender if they were closing but he said “No, they are just going to dinner.”

It seemed odd to us that everyone would go at exactly the same time, but we assumed that it was some strange Italian custom of which we were unaware.


We discovered a few hours later when we left the bar that there had been a huge Good Friday parade / stations of the cross performance / pre-Easter celebration in the town’s main streets. We caught the tail end which included Nazarenos in their caparote (actually where the KKK got their look) in solemn procession dragging chains, a well lit cross being paraded into the church and what must have been the entire population of the town gathered outside waiting to go in.

We were intrigued so followed them into the church. On display were the twelve wooden crosses which had just been paraded through town and a larger-than-life Jesus, bloody, torn, and lying in state, with locals reaching out to touch him.

With images of a temporarily dead saviour in our heads, we found our way back to the B&B ready for religious dreams and a good night’s sleep.  


  1. Comment by ariel

    ariel April 3, 2013 at 11:26 am

    I wish you were posting videos of the multi-lingual all gesture conversations! Looks beautiful, but I hope the weather dries up for you a bit!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen April 5, 2013 at 3:01 am

      No sign of the sun yet. We are currently at a camp ground that has photos of people lounging lake-side and pool-side but all we’re doing is trying not to lose toes. It is (almost) that cold… We haven’t shot any video yet, but we will.

  2. Comment by Sarah

    Sarah April 3, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Love your photos, too!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen April 5, 2013 at 2:56 am

      Thanks! Most of them are by Jane because she has the camera in her handlebar bag usually, although I have been getting it into my hands more now that we’re getting into the flow of the trip.

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