Patterns. The human brain does an pretty decent job at picking them out after seeing them just a few of times.
Instead of just a few times, try every other weekend while growing up (family outings), and you begin to get a idea of the extent to which the particular “central Italian hill-top town of Etruscan origin” pattern carved itself into my brain. If there was any doubt whether the pattern would stick, living in one such town (Rome) basically ensured it remained hardwired in my brain forever.
So imagine my surprise at being struck by a “central Italian hill-top town of Etruscan origin”! Truth be told, I didn’t even know it was a town. A friend suggested that the Parco di Vulci “which has some interesting ruins too”, was worth a visit, so off we went.
About 45 minutes up the coast, we turned off the Aurelia and drove over hill and dale for no more than about 10 kilometers, enjoying Lazio’s maremma (maritime or coastal Lazio), in full Spring effect, not really knowing what Vulci had in store.
Mind you, the maremma basically consists of nothing but a low tufo (sandstone) plateau that slowly drops down to the coast, all chopped up and intersected by multiple rivers and streams coming down from the pre-Apennine hills in the interior. It is upon these plateaus that every single “central Italian hill-top town of Etruscan origin” is built. Including Rome, we had just passed many of them: Fregene, Cerveteri, Bracciano, Tolfa, Vetralla, Viterbo, Tarquinia, Tuscania, etc.
We drive down a dirt road, park and pay for tickets at a suspiciously well-organized Visitor’s Center (the palpable Tuscan care for quality had obviously “contaminated” this spot in northern Lazio). There was nothing to see in any direction except rolling green fields full of horses and the traditional maremmani cows grazing.
Off we march through the fields, up a path that soon turns into an ancient Roman road, towards a partially uncovered section of the old Etruscan walls, through the remains of a gate, along the main thoroughfare that goes across the top of this section of plateau, alongside the imposing foundations of what was once an Etruscan temple, through the still-paved central forum, in front of the ruins a patrician urban home…
All the while the hair on my neck has been standing up, and all I can think is that I’ve done this a thousand times… except that in all other cases there was a living, contemporary (well, at least medieval) town or city all around me.
You see, Vulci too is a “central Italian hill-top town of Etruscan origin,” except it was abandoned after the fall of the empire and never built up. Basically, you get a “central Italian hill-top town of Etruscan origin,” without the full Etruscan walls, without the various Middle Age fortified porte, without the local Christian duomo, without the Roman aristocracy Renaissance palazzo, without the villagers’ still lived in medieval buildings, without the bar caffe’ in the main piazza, etc etc…. That said, you can still pinpoint exactly where they all would be had Vulci not been abandoned 1500 years ago.
Patterns. They do weird things to you.