How many rapturous reviews we have read in the Internet about the Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, but few described the town itself. Knowing how comfortable and charming tiny towns in Italy are, we decided not just to visit two world-famous attractions of Tivoli, but also to stay in this former Etruscan town. We booked a room at B&B Al Palazzetto for three days in early January. After those three days, we realized why no one comes to Tivoli for more than a few hours.
Tivoli is a tiny provincial town 30 kilometers from Rome, Italy. I’m not an expert and can’t judge what is left there from the Etruscans, but two epochs left us two unique architectural objects: the Villa d’Este of the Renaissance period and the ancient Hadrian’s Villa, the remains of which are preserved from the days of the Roman Empire.
Tivoli: the first day. The town.
The morning began with the fact that I became a year older. It was my birthday. Our hotel was located in a historic building in the heart of the town. The owner of B&B Al Palazzetto, Mr. Nicolas, personally came to welcome guests. In January, there are few tourists in Italian Tivoli, therefore any of the comfortable rooms of the hotel was ready to shelter us. Mr. Nicolas offered us one of the best and disappeared for the next three days. Nicoletta, a nice girl from Romania, kept order in the hotel and helped guests. For example, one evening, she collected Prosecco from all the minibars for us.
So, our first walk to Tivoli. The Villa d’Este was left for later. First, we wanted to find something to eat because the flight and the subsequent journey from the airport of Fiumicino to Tivoli by taxi made me hungry. But on January 6, most of the restaurants and cafes of the city (and it is in Italy, the culinary Mecca of Europe) were closed.
We were hungry, tired, and a little embarrassed and after a long search sat in some restaurant. The food there was not for gourmets. Rather, it was mediocre for Italy. The wine was good, but to find a bad wine in Italy you have to try very hard. My birthday was hopelessly ruined and to be honest I wanted only one thing: take a taxi back to Rome.
It is clear that each city has at least one district mutilated by graffiti, but Tivoli is all “painted.” Only one district, around Via del Colle, remained untouched by modern “artists” for some reason. Noisy teenagers of both sexes, many of them immigrants, spend their time right on the sidewalks, smoking, drinking beer, and leaving mountains of garbage behind. Every morning, the town is not just dirty, but very dirty, plus many showcase windows are broken.
Unfortunately, I have a problem with people and cities: if I feel no sympathy for a place at first sight, I never will. Even such historic attractions as Hadrian’s Villa and the Villa d’Este, or the Gothic quarter not mentioned in the guidebooks, have failed to correct my first impression of Tivoli. We stayed there only because of the optimism of Victor, who believed that in the morning, the city would show us its different, beautiful side, the one that is admired by thousands of tourists in their blog posts.
Tivoli: the second day. The Villa d’Este.
The breakfast room in B&B Al Palazzetto is perfectly located on the fourth and last floor of the building. One of its walls is occupied by a huge fireplace, the other three—panoramic windows with the views of the surrounding area. After a good breakfast, we went out to the Villa d’Este.
D’Este is one of the oldest families in Italy, which ruled Ferrara and Modena for more than 500 years. You may have heard about the famous beauties of those times, Beatrice and Isabella d’Este, whose portraits were painted by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The owner of the villa, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, was their distant relative, but his mother, “bloody” Lucrezia Borgia, is much more famous. This high-born and highly educated lady consistently married men from Europes most influential families, and then killed her husbands for the sake of new power and lands. Her family will be known in history as an illustration of murder, greed, and incest, but in her last years, Lucrezia led a quiet life. Her son, Ippolito, had an excellent education and good taste. He built a villa, which impressed everyone who saw it from 1560 on.
The interior of the Villa d’Este stressed the high status of its owner. Priceless antique statues, Flemish tapestries, and frescoes decorated its halls. A beautiful park surrounded the villa. This fabulous park is the only thing that remains of its former magnificence. No, the villa itself is also standing, and you can stroll through its bright, but empty halls.
The park is an entirely different matter. Thick layers of green moss lie on balustrades of the numerous staircases, fountains, and grottos, and all of that so fits into the overall landscape that it seems not to have been created by humans, but by nature itself. This is the perfect embodiment of the harmony of water, stone, light, and shadows. It is surprising that in January the gardeners still work hard there, saving what can still be saved in Tivoli by their ordinary daily work.
Fountains are the most interesting things in the park. In the 16th century, they were considered the highest achievement of hydraulic engineering. The Fountain of the Organ and the Fountain of the Dragons normally work and have continued to please spectators for 400 years. Personally, I was most impressed by the Avenue of 100 Fountains; however, on the scale of richness of decoration the fountains of the Villa d’Este still cannot compare to the Russian fountains of Peterhof near St. Petersburg.
Tivoli: the third day. Hadrian’s Villa.
It is difficult to get from Tivoli to Hadrian’s Villa on foot, but the problem is not in the distance. As we have seen on our way to the town, there is not even a hint of a footpath along the road. Road signs are also missing. So we went to look for a taxi.
The phrase “to look for a taxi” will sound unnatural for citizens of New York or London, but for Italian Tivoli, it is an ordinary way of life. We quickly found a taxi parking lot, but it was empty. Half an hour was spent questioning passersby about how to reach the Villa Adriana. Victor asked in English, his interlocutors answered in pure Italian or maybe with an Etruscan dialect. Mutual understanding was minimal. (After this trip, we started to learn Italian.) Then there was a miracle—the appearance of a white taxi.
We did not haggle. In what language? We were fortunate that an elderly driver offered us the business card of his son, who speaks a little English, so we could call him and ask him to drive us back to the town. However, as it turned out, buses run regularly between Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa. If you speak a little Italian, you will find out which one to take and how to pay.
You should not just look at present-day Hadrian’s Villa, you should store it in your memory. It is not just one villa, this is the whole city. Unfortunately, the local population has long ago borrowed the historical stones from which palaces, libraries, and thermal baths were built, for reconstruction of their houses, but even what is left is impressive. Thank god, they did not cut ancient olive trees and pines. Probably, the great Emperor Hadrian was the most intelligent of the Roman emperors. A historical and extraordinary figure. His memory has deservedly survived the centuries.
One of the quarters around Via del Colle is a little-known landmark of Italian Tivoli. There is not a word about it in the guidebooks. Apparently, neither emperors, nor cardinals lived there, but it’s the only clean place in this town. We assumed that some religious community lives there, because most of the houses are decorated with lighted candles and pots with flowers, but not graffiti.
Usually, after shootings, we drank coffee in a modest cafe near our hotel, then bought an incredibly tasty pizza in the street pizzeria and took it with us. Up to January 10, most restaurants of Tivoli were still closed.
Despite the fact that we had a wonderful time in Tivoli, saw all that was planned and even more, to give three days to Tivoli is unreasonable. Cherto, noi adoriamo Italia, ma… disgusting places are even there. As the travel blogger Frank wrote to Victor,
“You’re getting to be a grouchy old man like me, Victor.”
Yes, Frank, Victor and I are like you and Lissette: we are just trying to be objective and truthful. Our readers have a right to know what awaits them in famous places like Lisbon (a very useful post by Frank “Photo Essay on Lisbon, Portugal. And why we were happy to leave…”), Prague, Sintra, Athens, Paris, or Tivoli.