This morning was unbelievable.
Kit, Vicki and I traipsed through the pouring Roman rain to catch a Regionale train to Frascati to see Villa Aldobrandini. We arrived at Termini around 9h25, in plenty of time for the 9h52 train – so we thought. We bought our tickets, validated them, and waited for the platform to post. Post it did, on the large digital sign spanning the platform, and we walked over to Platform 23 and a waiting train. Several other people got on the train and asked if this was going to Frascati (always a good sign that you’re in the right place). The train slowly filled, then 9h52 came and went… we were moderately concerned, but didn’t want to leave the train to double-check if, on the off-chance this train was just running late, we would not be able to get back on. At 10h05 we finally deboarded and went to check the departure board again – and much to our dismay, Platform 23 was now rescheduled to Cassino and the 9h52 train to Frascati had departed from a different platform. Typical Italy. The platform posts 10 minutes before departure, then sometimes they just change it, but do they make an announcement? Of course not.
So, irritated and still slightly damp, we check to see when the next train leaves – thinking it would be an hour after the first departure, like most Regionale trains, but oh no, another Italia moment: the next train to Frascati doesn’t leave until 11h52 – the only two hour gap in the entire schedule. Now, being my mother’s daughter, I resigned myself to my fate and remembered that everything happens for a reason. So, with an hour and a half to kill, we did what any rational group of art historians would do in the face of adversity: we went across the street to McDonald’s and got soft serve sundaes. We boarded the 11h52 train just in time and made the 20km journey in as many minutes, arriving around 12h15 at the teeny (albeit scenic) Frascati train station.
This was Kit’s second journey out here, having visited the previous Friday (the day before May Day) only to find everything unseasonably closed. Why take one day off when you can take three? So, in hopes of better luck, the three of us planned today’s adventure. We walked from the train station, up a winding two-lane road lined with thick vegetation, strongly reminding me of driving through Oregon backroads in the spring or summer. It was damp, but cool enough to inexplicably see our breath as we panted up the hill. We reached Villa Aldobrandini only to find the gate closed and padlocked shut. Fantastic. Unsure of what to do, and with no one to ask (it was siesta, after all, and no one was around) we walked further up the hill in search of the small church advertised in tiny lettering on a road sign. Five more minutes up the brick-paved hill and we found the church – down a long, steep (and overgrown) path into the surrounding vegetation. Knowing it, too, would likely be closed, we sat for a few minutes and tried to come up with a plan.
It is now after 13h00, and walking back down the hill, we decided to wait for more of the finanzia officers to leave for siesta and ask one of them what was going on with the villa. We waited by the gates, and were about to stop one of the drivers when we noticed a lone pedestrian making his way up the hill. He was an older gentleman, in his sixties or maybe seventies, with a bucket hat and paint spattered wingtips. He saw us and slowed in his approach to the villa gate, and Kit asked him (in Italian) where the proper entrance was. His immediate response – in English – was that the villa was not open on the weekends. (This just gets better, right?) “But,” he said “I live inside, if you would like to see the grounds – for a few minutes.”
Shock and elation would properly, albeit somewhat inadequately, describe our reaction. We thanked him profusely and he let us in, locking the little wooden door behind us and explaining that he would have to let us out again. As we walked around the villa to the rear garden, he asked where we were from and, upon hearing Seattle, smiled and seemed to warm up a little bit. We explained that we are three art historians, researching 16th century gardens and villa architecture and he, in turn, explained that he was a Dutch-born former architect, raised in London and now living at the villa as a painter – his name is Herbert. He took us to Maderno’s teatro dell’acqua and let us roam around the courtyard for a while before offering to take us up behind the cascade – definitely not an area commonly open to tourists. We wandered around, walking along the catena d’acqua towards the upper cascades, looking back to the beautiful house. He was incredibly knowledgeable on both Villa Aldobrandini and other 16th century villas in the area, including Villa d’Este, Villa Gregoriana, Villa Torlonia and Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo.
He set us loose near the upper cascades, informing us that he would be in his house just down the road and that were to come knock when we wished to leave. Reveling in our good fortune, we spent quite a while with the half-destroyed fountain, nymphaeum and cascades before walking down the shaded, muddy road to the little terra cotta villa. We walked through the gate, beneath the wisteria covered pergola and Herbert welcomed us in to see his studio. He is incredibly talented, working in an Impressionist vein but with bright, clear colors — and Jimi Hendrix blaring on the stereo. As it turns out, his interest and affection for Seattle stems largely from his love for Hendrix – imagine that.
We bid Herbert farewell and made our way back to the train station, still somewhat in awe of the afternoon’s events. Catching the 15h29 train back to Rome, we arrived safely back in Termini by 16h00 and that is where our adventure ends.
Villa Aldobrandini – view from the Catena d’Acqua