Rome is a lovely place to visit, and I would jump at an opportunity to go back at any time of the year, but in the heat of summer, sometimes the sultry streets are too much, no matter how much gelato is put in your way. The antidote is a trip to Tivoli, a small town about an hour to the north, to visit the gardens at the Villa D’Este.
Commissioned and built in the 1550s by Ippolito D’Este, the villa and gardens are still much as they were then. Built into the side of a very steep hill, the Villa is hardly recognizable as such from the street; you goe through a small, rather unassuming door, and suddenly you are in a mansion with frescoes, gilt molding, and even an indoor fountain. It is grand and impressive, but as soon as you walk outside, it pales in comparison with the garden.
The garden is not what you might expect in that there are very few flowers; certainly no effervescent flowerbeds or rows of neatly planted annuals. Instead, different shades of green and textures of leaves combine to give a sense of peace and coolness. The garden is very formally laid out, with long, curving staircases and winding paths, and the plants act as frames for the garden’s most impressive features, the fountains. There are hundreds of them, and the sound of water permeates the atmosphere as much as does the spicy perfume of the bay hedges.
The fountains also date back to the 1550s. The water that they use comes from the nearby river, travels along underground aqueducts, and then stored in multiple cisterns before being pumped up to the fountains via hydraulics. As one looks at them all, it is hard to remember that no electricity is being used to run them. And, let me say again, there are hundreds of them. First, you must walk along “The Walk of 100 Fountains”, which is well named because it consists of a mossy wall with scores of stone lion’s heads and other openings through which the water flows. Next is the Fountain of the Organ, which is built so that when water is forced through its pipes, it makes a sound that resembles that of an organ. Nearby is the Fountain of the Birds, which includes several bronze birds that have pipes inside so that they warble when the water courses through. Every so often, however, a bronze owl swings in front of the birds, and when he does, the birds go silent, and all you hear is the hoot of an owl. And remember – no electricity!! This is only the tip of the iceberg; I only wish I had space enough to do the other fountains justice.
You can spend a delightful day there, discovering each fountain and its story, walking the shady pathways, and working up an appetite for the tremendous Italian meal that is sure to follow. When in Rome… But first, check out the Villa D’Este!