A Day in the Country

It turned hot about 10 days ago. Since our arrival in February, the temperature has hovered between 60′ and 75′, and the sky has been sunny almost all the time, so I don’t think I’m allowed to complain now about the heat. It was the suddenness of the turn that caught me off-guard; one day 75′, the next over 95′. And it stayed well above 90′ until yesterday, when the sky darkened, and the rains began. Today it thundered all morning, and just now water beat against the windows and balcony doors and seeped in beneath them. (Lesson learned: Close not just the windows but the shutters when the rain is hard.) But now the heat is gone, and the skies are blue again. So really, I can’t complain.

In the midst of the heat wave, we drove to Tivoli with our friends Pilar and Carlo, who had volunteered for the expedition. John and I had wanted to go to Tivoli, a town about 30 minutes drive from here, for several months, but getting there–multiple buses, and considerable walking between the two sites we wanted to see–was daunting. When Pilar and Carlo offered to drive, we were thrilled.

Pilar and Carlo

Our friends Pilar and Carlo, with t-shirt on head.

We set off at about 9:30 on a Sunday morning. It was already over 90′ but a breeze blew through the open windows of the car, and we were comfortable.

Tivoli is famous for two things: Villa Adriana, the ruins of a huge complex of buildings constructed by the Emperor Hadrian in the early 2nd century; and Villa d’Este, a magnificent late 16th century palazzo overlooking steeply terraced grounds filled with gardens and dancing fountains. We figured to do one, have some lunch, and do the second. A leisurely day.

We entered Hadrian’s villa at around 10:15. Gentleman Carlo lent me his hat (I had neglected to bring one) and wrapped his t-shirt around his head. We spent some time studying the small model that showed the entire grounds with all the buildings in place, spent a little more time listening to explanations from a pleasant gentleman who seemed eager to share his knowledge. (Carlo and I, skeptics, thought he was looking for employment as a guide and a major tip; Pilar and John thought he was looking to use his English andHadrian 2 just liked the place. The non-skeptics seem to have been right on this one.) Hadrian 1

Villa A 3 Villa A 4The grounds were magnificent–too big, really, to take in, but amazingly intact. The loveliest was the canope–a long reflecting pool lined with columns and statues, where Hadrian sat to read and spend time with the beautiful youth Antinous, whom Hadrian diefied after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile at only 19.

The day grew hotter, and I was feeling the sun. We headed out of the grounds a little before noon and thought we would go ahead to the gardens of Villa d’Este and then have lunch afterward. Pilar and I decided to linger on the terrace of the main villa, overlooking the steep terraced gardens, while the men went down to explore. We could see some of the fountains from our perch, but missed out, as we knew we would, on some of the really great sights–two-story tall dancing jets of water, shrubbery labyrinths, elaborate animal carvings. The climb back up in the heat just seemed too much to undertake.

3793_tivoli_veduta_di_villa_d_este Villa d'Este 2 waterfall Villa d'EsteThe inside of the villa was glorious as well–every inch of wall and ceiling covered with John at Villa d'Estefresco–but we were ready for lunch; it was well after 1. We found a caffe just outside the entrance and feasted on panini and soda in the shade.

I thought we were done, and I was pleased with the day. The sun had grown almost unbearable, but I had survived. But John had earlier mentioned a third site that Melville had apparently visited, one with cascades and grottoes and a small temple hanging off the hillside. The intrepid Carlo was confident he could find it. Off we went in search, and moments later we arrived at Villa Gregoriana.

In Italy, the word villa often connotes a park; we have come to think of a villa as a house, but in the past it referred to a landed house, much like the word “manor” in Britain. Villa meant the house and the grounds around it, and many former villas of the great families of Italy have become public parks. Villa Torlonia, just across the street from our apartment, is a lovely public park that includes the former home of the Torlonia family, for example, now a museum. Villa Gregoriana never included a house at all; rather, it was a park commissioned by Pope Gregory in 1835 to rebuild the bed of the Aniene River, damaged a few years earlier by floods, and important as a water source. The river cascades into a deep gorge through a tunnel carved out of the rock walls of the canyon. Paths follow the gorge down and back up again, meandering through cave-like grottoes with windows carved out for viewing. At the top, on the other side, is the site of the ancient Tivoli acropolis, where the temple that Melville admired still hangs at the edge.

The park had fallen into decay for decades in the 20th century, overgrown, unwalkable, its main function as a dump for rusted cars and old appliances. But in 2000, it was handed over to FAI, the Italian equivalent of Britain’s National Trust, and with grant money from the government and various companies, and thousands of hours of volunteer help, it was cleaned up and re-opened to the public in 2005.

Villa-GregorianaI looked at the gorge. It was a long, long way down. It was very hot. The thought of going down was not too bad; there was shade, and it was, after all, downhill. The thought of coming back up again, not so much. But I was determined not to spoil the day by whining, and off we went. The waterfalls were spectacular. The paths were steep, but FAI had kindly installed rustic benches at frequent intervals.Villa Gregoriana

The climb took about an hour and a half. I enjoyed every minute of it. Only one thing would have made it better: An opportunity to plunge into the cold, clear waters that pooled below the falls. Villa Gergoriana was yet another adventure we would not have undertaken without Melville as our guide.

villa-gregoriana (1)

It was late afternoon by the time we emerged at the top and explored the small, circular temple of the sibyls. We drove home, air-conditioning on high. We shared a bottle of prosecco at our apartment, where I managed to spill most of a glass on Carlo. He changed into a pair of John’s shorts and by the time we finished our drinks, his slacks, hung on the balcony in the sun, were bone dry.