Kit and I met up at 9h00 this morning to head out to Tivoli, a small town 40km from Rome
This required catching the autobus 87 from Largo (di Torre) Argentina to the Colosseum, taking the Metro linea B to Tiburtina, and then a treno regionale for an hour and a half out to Tivoli. It was kind of ridiculous. So, at 11h30 we finally roll into the station – a teeny little building, two tracks, and one platform – which you have to traverse (by way of plywood planks between the gaps) to navigate between the platform and the station.
We head out of the station and immediately see signs for Villa d’Este (our destination) and also Villa Gregoriana, pointing the same direction. We get to a roundabout and, of course, the signs are conspicuously absent, so we walk over to a picturesque little lookout and voila, the Villa Gregoriana.
Now, “villa” is a loosely applied term. For €5 you are granted access to a beautiful park-space (in the style of well-preserved wildlife parks in the states, sans wildlife) with defined trails leading between different sublime (in the 19th century sense of the word) panoramas and picturesque locations. One particular element is the Grand Cascade (Aniene Falls) which drops 120m, diverting water from Aniene to the valley below. The Villa pivots around the Aniene Falls, part of an artificial diversion of the river constructed in 1835 at the behest of Pope Gregory XVI in response to the devastating flood of 1826. While the falls are lovely, the route to reach the lookout necessitates 95 steep, travertine stairs down, and the breath-taking (in the unpleasant, impending pulmonary embolism sort of way) 95-steps back up to the main trail. We did it – and it was lovely.
Other features include the Bernini Cascade – and no, it’s not what you’re thinking. Literally, Bernini constructed an early subterranean canal between the Aniene and the Valley of Hell (the valley upon which villa Gregoriana is perched) which culminates in a cascade – thus, the Bernini cascade! Anti-climactic, I know.
There are close to a dozen waterfalls, mostly natural, which funnel water down into the valley to join the small lake (and river) at the base of the Aniene falls. Around these cascades are natural caverns, formed by water rushing through the porous tufa stone, creating really cool looking formations and interesting passages of water. Two of these caverns were named in the 19th century by Romantic (French) poets: the Mermaid Grotto and Neptune’s Grotto, both worth seeing, but unfortunately, no mermaids.
The problem with Villa Gregoriana is this: once you hike your way down to the Mermaid Grotto, you’re feeling alright – perhaps you’re a little tired, but there’s tons to see and the air is nicely cooled by the mist from the grotto. Unfortunately, you look up and realize that you are at the bottom of the Valley of Hell and must make your way back up to the top – either back the way you came, or up towards the temple ruins and the gift shop. Half way up, you reach the Grotto of Neptune and are refreshed, but the last third of the trek, the pathway now consisting of eroded tufa instead of dirt, you stop wondering why they call it the Valley of Hell.
We finally made it to the top, passed through the irritatingly air conditioned bookshop and wandered our way back to the main road. The signs direct you to the uscita (exit) through this little alley, but that’s it – one sign, taped to a building, and you’re on your own. We make it back, cross the small stone bridge spanning the valley and find ourselves back at the unmarked roundabout. Heading in the only other possible direction, we walk for another 15 minutes (uphill, on a two-lane road, with no sidewalk) before reaching another roundabout with a distinct lack of signage. We guessed correctly, as it were, and after another 10 minutes of uncertain wandering, we found a sun-bleached sign that indicated that the Villa d’Este was to our right. 10 more minutes and we arrived – along with every other tourist in Lazio. Seriously. (Okay, maybe not). You see, today kicked off settimana della cultura – Italian culture week – which, in addition to hosting a ton of cool events, provided free entrance into state-run museums, archeological sites, etc. So, in addition to ourselves, there were a half-dozen senior citizen groups, a dozen or so different school groups (kids between ages 8-18 running about bored) and dozens upon dozens of tourists. Yikes – but so worth it.
Now, as many of you know, this is one of the principal sites I’ve been dealing with in my research. My honors thesis relates three gardens – the Villa Giulia in Rome, Villa Farnese in Caprarola and Villa d’Este in Tivoli – to both each other and the larger picture of garden design and aesthetic theory in the late Renaissance. All three villas were constructed circa 1550 and are all near Rome (Caprarola is a little under 70km northwest of Rome and Tivoli, 40km east) but each embody different aspects of Renaissance, and particularly Mannerist, ideologies concerning aesthetics, architecture and the role of the villa. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to see the garden in person, and I was not disappointed. Admittedly, the Fountain of the Pegasus was under construction, and the Fountain of the Tivoli (also known as the Fontana dell’Ovata) was drained due to hydraulic problems, and most of the catena d’acqua were fountains were not running, it was still unbelievably cool.
We meandered around the property for almost four hours before heading back, realizing a much more direct path back to the train station, and arriving just in time to catch the 16h26 train back to Rome – fortunate because the next – and last – train back to the city didn’t leave until almost 18h00. On the upside, transportation is cheap – €3 for the bus rides to and from the metro station and the metro rides to and from Tiburtina, then only €4.60 roundtrip to Tivoli (total of $10.26 USD) so it really wasn’t anything to complain about. That being said, I am exhausted. Villa Gregoriana was a hike and in our four hours at the villa, Kit and I probably walked the whole thing three times over. I would be foolish to estimate distance, but I’m not that out of shape and the only thing I can think of is sleep.
Stay tuned for more adventures al’Italia.
Villa Gregoriana – Cascade through the Valley of Hell