Grand designs, Rome edition

First of all, let me reassure all of you concerned readers, I feel better, after figuring out that staying at “home” to “relax” is NOT a good solution to fits of Zaza screaming, but movement is – and she particularly loves being walked in nature, which as some of you pointed out, does me good too! On the very evening I wrote that moany post, we were also blessed with a quiet and delicious dinner in a little countryside inn (she slept the whole time!!), followed by a night when I did not wake up at all.

We’ve been alternating full on days in Rome with easier, less crowded forays into the wider region, which by the way is beautiful. It’s all rolling green hills, orchards and long roads in dappled sunlight between alleys of plane trees or cypress, pine groves and fig trees, and planted here and there a red-roofed little town or village. I’m really enjoying driving again, after getting away from the trauma of Naples (no, I’m still not over it), and we’ve not had a huge Zaza car tantrum for many days.


After fighting with the crowds on Saturday in Rome, we opt for visiting nearby Tivoli on Sunday, which boasts several Roman villas and the extravagant villa d’Este, a Renaissance folly which we’ve seen on a TV program before leaving and have been wanting to see ever since. After some navigational issues in Tivoli’s one way system, and a couple of passes through a full car park (who would’ve thought the people of Rome like to do things on week-ends, too?), we manage to nab a miracle free parking space at the bottom of a huge flight of stairs, which is a small price to pay. Wandering up those, we see a beautiful view over the surrounding countryside, and Zaza gets the usual parade through adoring fans. She’s even got a well-honed charm routine, with full-body half turn towards recipient and sudden radiant smile, followed by shyly half-hiding into the chest of whoever’s carrying her. It slays them every time. Note that she does this whenever a stranger approaches to worship her, even in the midst of screeching at us, but will not do this for us, even if we imitate the cooing Italian trademark tone of voice.

Anyway, I digress. Passing through the main piazza of Tivoli, which is decorated with a cool bronze arch and is very lively with children running about, adults milling around chatting animatedly, and clusters of elderly people on all the benches, settling for a day of hanging out (I really want to grow old in Italy, they’ve really got the socialising in old age thing right!). Turning a corner, between a few souvenir shops, we come across the end of a huge queue of people trying to get into the villa d’Este… and decide there’s no way we’re staying in that queue. We opt for a thorough exploring of the town centre with a view of finding a nice lunch spot.

Tivoli is a lovely place, with atmospheric narrow streets and signs of previous times dotted all around – here a Roman column which has been incorporated into a wall, there a coat of arms above a doorway, and many a fine old church or a ruined temple which would probably be a main attraction in any town that wasn’t so close to Rome! After changing Eliza on a bench overlooking the temple to the Vestal virgins and an impressive lush river gorge which wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical country, we settle on a little terrace to enjoy a delicious lunch (Heather even fulfills a several years long quest for seared tuna which had been started in, of all places, a Las Vegas shopping mall restaurant!).


After this and some more wanderings, we are pleased to discover that the queue has now died down to a very acceptable size (pro tip for visiting Italy’s attractions, readers: wait until the afternoon around 3 PM, never try to go early, everyone does this). We finally enter the Villa d’Este by a fairly nondescript doorway – but inside, what an extravaganza! The place is fully reflective of the personality of its original owner, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, second of the name, an ecclesiastic powerhouse of the sixteenth century.


As a second son, he was destined for the clergy, where he enjoyed exceptional privilege due to being part of a dynasty of powerful cardinals and statesmen, the Este family, which had ties to the Borgias (look them up, it makes for interesting reading!). Little Ippolito was made an archbishop at age ten and by the time he was all grown up he was filthy rich and a cardinal, as well as an envoy to the court of France and a very influential political character. His extravagant lifestyle and his lavish support for the arts ensured that his considerable fortune was always in danger, though, and he was forever in debt. The other thing that the high life cost him was the position of Pope, for which he applied no less than five times, but was never selected for. His frustrated ambition for papacy was pacified somewhat by being awarded the lifetime position of governor of Tivoli, which was awesome because he was crazy for collecting (or, you know, pillaging in the most atrocious way) antiques and Tivoli was famous for the amazing Hadrian’s villa, the summer residence of Emperor Hadrian in Roman times. Yay! thought Ippolito, I’m gonna get me some pretty statues, and he promptly despoiled the antique villa of all its decorations to put them in his house and garden – the Villa d’Este. The position in Tivoli came with a house, which was in no way sufficient for this guy’s lifestyle, so he expropriated a whole bunch of Tivoli’s inhabitants to build himself a mega palace and even more majestic gardens, leveling down a section of the town’s houses and businesses to replace them with fake mountains and pretty paths. He even had the local river diverted to feed his fountains, which as you’re about to see, were many. In the end he overspent so much, spending a huge fortune redecorating an entire floor of his house to receive the Pope, that he had to pawn all his silver and precious objects, and died shortly afterwards. Over the centuries the precious statues and furnishings were all sold away to private collectors, and today there is only the house itself, and the gardens of course, which have been restored almost to their previous glory.


The house he built is truly monstrously big, and covered top to bottom in painted decorations all over the walls and ceilings. There are religious themes, mythological themes, allegorical themes, views of the countryside reproduced on inside walls, even dining rooms painted to look like you’re having dinner outside, complete with fake grottos and fountains. While some of it is aesthetically pleasing, the fake grotto and “rock effect” fountains look super garish to me, although it’s easy to see how impressive the house would have looked to any visitor to the good Ippolito. As we wander from room to room, I can see that Heather is itching to reach the gardens, and we finally get outside in the beautiful sunshine, to take in the astonishing view over the cardinal’s fancy garden.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe garden slopes down steeply from the house, so it’s accessed by a succession of slopes and staircases between terraces. Everywhere you look there is water, and everywhere the sound of it fills the air. The effect is wonderful, it’s immediately refreshing and lively, soothing at the same time as exciting. Again I am overjoyed at taking our trip in spring, because the garden is full of the scent of flowers, and as usual I’m excitedly flitting from one plant to the next, exclaiming over this rose or that iris. Zaza is fascinated by the fountains, which are the main attraction here.


There are little secretive fountains with mythological themes tucked away at the end of a path, big grand water displays around classic statuary, astonishing water games tumbling from fake mountains or giant vases, poured by nymphs, spat by monsters, even squirting from very pert stone tits into carved guttering. There is even a great long bank of a hundred fountains running parallel to the house at middle level, where a hundred carved animal faces, all covered in the most delightful delicate ferns, each spit a jet of water into long stone troughs. At the bottom there is a long succession of stone basins with large fish in them and many children working hard to fall in while their parents rush around in exasperated fashion (something to look forward to!).


Avoiding the hordes of selfie takers, we are having the most delightful time, and Zaza opts for a mid-afternoon nap, lulled to sleep by the walking and the noise of the water. Speaking of selfie takers – you know you’re in (or near) Rome when you see groups of tourist nuns all posing excitedly in front of naked antique statues, veil and all! Oh and Hot Catholic Priests 2018 calendars, too, which apparently are a thing here.


After this lovely visit, we notice that it’s somehow quite late, and we probably don’t have time to take in any of the antique ruined villas of Tivoli, but we’re cool with that, so we take a leisurely stroll back to the car via an ice cream parlour. On the piazza I resist the urge to shout at some rollerblading little girls to bend their knees (coaching habits die hard), there are pigeons being harassed by toddlers, and Italian ladies inform me that we ought to have Eliza’s ears pierced or no one will ever know she’s a girl. I tell them that I think Eliza doesn’t mind, and we get back in the car to drive home, content from a good day’s exploring.

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