It is easy to see why this place has been a retreat for Rome’s elite since imperial days. Tivoli, a small town in the hills about twenty miles outside the city, is – quite literally – a breath of fresh air from the chaotic Italian capital. Today a town of about 50,000 (although walking around the historic center it seems outright tiny), Tivoli beckons to visitors with the same promise of mountain beauty that it used to lure emperors, cardinals, and the rest of the upper crust of Rome.
For most people, there are two main reasons to visit Tivoli: thermal baths and historic villas. While my bus from Rome passed by the former, I didn’t stop. I came for a villa. Tivoli has three, two of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First is Villa Adriana, the out-of-town retreat for Roman emperor Hadrian built around the year 120. Villa Adriana is a roughly twenty minute walk from the bus, so I opt for the second UNESCO site, which is located right in the heart of the old town: Villa d’Este.
Villa d’Este was built in the fifteenth century by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este. The second son of the noble d’Este family, Dukes of Ferrara, the cardinal lived a lavish lifestyle that was not uncommon for high ranking church officials at the time. And the man did have it rough, named archbishop of Milan at the age of ten, and endowed with a huge annual stipend thanks to his descent from nobles, his being the grandson of Pope Alexander II, and his close association with many of Europe’s royals.
The villa itself is huge, and decorated as so many palaces and villas were in that era, with every surface covered in either paint or other decoration. Several rooms are available for visitors to enter (making up only a tiny portion of the huge palace), and decor ranges from tasteful nature scenes to the downright gaudy. As I’ve visited several villas to this point in my Italy trip, this one is not all that impressive and won’t stand out.
But then I enter the gardens.
Villa d’Este has a terraced Renaissance-style garden that is absolutely incredible. Even just walking outside the villa and seeing the view of Tivoli and the surrounding hills is enough to give one goosebumps.
The gardens are home to literally hundreds of fountains, making it easily one of the best gardens for water features I’ve ever visited. (I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but there is a single pathway called One Hundred Fountains, so everything else is just gravy.)
From a Bernini-designed waterfall with huge jets added later that fronts fish ponds, to mossy grottos with mere trickles, to a fountain that is home to an organ, Villa d’Este’s gardens are easily the reason to visit, and really just for the fountains. It is steep walking down – and back up – and occasionally slippery, but absolutely worth it, as each turn brings a new rush of water and adrenaline.
(By the way, if you think this is no way for a supposed man of religion to live, check out Villa Borghese back in Rome to see what the members of that family – which included a pope – thought of vows of poverty.)
After wandering Villa d’Este, I’ve worked up quite an appetite, and I am flagged down by the owner of a small restaurant specializing in porchetta, basically roasted pork done in a spiral with some goodies inside. It is a traditional food item here in Lazio, this region of Italy, and one I haven’t had yet, so I am easily convinced to sit and have a sandwich of the juicy fatty meat, blueberry jam, and pecorino cheese. It is delightful, and I’m grateful for the climbing I had to do in the gardens to burn off even part of what I consume.
The town itself is cute, and the very definition of an Italian hillside village, just larger. Narrow alleyways, vista points, and public squares are joined here by a plethora of restaurants and shops catering to the tourists who visit from Rome. But a carnival is being set up, and Vespas roam the cobblestone streets, so Tivoli still has its charm.
On my way back to the bus, I pop quickly into Rocca Pia, a fifteenth century fortress built by Pope Pius II. Signage is mainly in Italian, but I’m able to get the basic gist of the place. Once a fortress, then a prison (up to the 1960s), Rocca Pia and its four towers are original, meant to give the pope a place to retreat outside the city in case of unrest. I climb to the battlements and look down into a recently excavated Roman arena next door, once again reminded that fifteenth century is actually quite new for this area.
If you find yourself in Rome and – somehow – struggling to come up with something to do one day, Tivoli is a nice easy escape. Whether you head to the thermal baths, see the ruins of Hadrian’s villa, or marvel at the fountains of Villa d’Este as I did, you’ll find a nice respite from the chaotic city here in the hills.
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