Although Italy is famed for its most successful ancient culture - the Romans - it was the birthplace of numerous ancient cultures, including one that flourished from around 800 BC to its 4th century BC incorporation into the Roman Republic: the Etruscan civilisation. It affected Roman architectural styles and left a small, impressive collection of artefacts and inscriptions. The Po Valley region formed one of the three Etruscan leagues during its height. Cruising along the waterways of the valley gives visitors an opportunity to glimpse some of this history alongside the other historical and contemporary wonders of the region. In Venice, Adria and Mantua - three points on such cruises - Etruscan history lies under the land or in its museums.
The main draw of Venice is the city as it appears today: the canals, lined with mooring posts and beautiful buildings, rich in history and culture. Tradition holds that Venice was founded centuries after the Etruscan culture faded, although people inhabited the lagoon region from at least the 10th century BC - the Veneti people, who gave their name to the later city and its surrounds. Venice is the starting point of many cruises that will journey up the Po Valley, and it can serve as an introduction to Etruscan history in the galleries of the National Archaeological Museum. There, visitors can see Etruscan bronze statues and pottery displayed with Roman and Greek works.
One of the possible stops on a river cruise is the town of Adria, which belonged to the Po Valley city confederacy that formed one of the three Etruscan leagues. The remnants of the Etruscan city lie three to four metres beneath the modern town, and are a memory of a time when the city was a thriving port that drew local and Greek trade. During the era of Roman dominance, the city's importance faded and the port trade shifted east with siltification. Visitors to the modern town - now 22 kilometres inland - can go to the Archaeological Museum and learn more about the Etruscan history by viewing the artefacts they left behind. Many of these belong to the Bocchi collection: finds from beneath modern Adria, excavated during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The city of Mantua - where Po Valley cruises end - owes its name to the Etruscan god Mantus, though the later Roman conquerors attributed its name to Manta, a daughter of Tiresias. The Etruscan village of Mantua was not the first settlement at the site, but the Etruscans re-founded it as theirs. Many visitors will want to see Mantua's spectacular 14th century Ducal palace, but they can also visit the city's archaeological museum for a glimpse at its far more ancient past. Beneath their feet, ancient Mantua is not entirely forgotten.