Maybe it’s because its treasures and antiquities are such an unremarkable and taken-for-granted aspect of Italian life, that this familiarity breeds if not exactly contempt, then a kind of curious, indolent indifference towards sharing them.
The Villa d’Este in Tivoli – about 30 miles to the east of Rome – is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A select list of fewer than a thousand places on the entire planet – that includes the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China – of unimaginable cultural, historical and artistic importance.
Consequently you’d think that as a matter of civic pride if nothing else, the Villa d’Este would be be relatively easy to find once you’d arrived in Tivoli.
A thought you’d realize was mistaken as you – like us – carefully followed the rather small directional signs which guided us not to the Villa d’Este, but impeccably around Tivoli’s circular one-way traffic system.
On the third lap, we stopped to ask for directions.
“Over there,” said a helpful garage attendant, waving at a nearby block of flats.
“Yes – park where you can !”
It is easier on foot. And that’s just as well, because when you do finally arrive at the Villa d’Este, you’ll see just how tucked-away it is – and the fact that it’s inaccessible by car.
But as soon as you go in, the angst you suffered in getting there is instantly forgotten.
The Villa and its celebrated gardens were built in the 16th century by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este – a son of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia incidentally – and though the Villa itself is magnificent, it’s the gardens that are the real treasure.
The gardens of the Villa d’Este aren’t big and aren’t renowned for their magnificent plants – though these do provide a splendid study in cool, shady greens, flawlessly laid-out and hedged to maximise the available space.
No. You come to the Villa d’Este for the fountains. From the tiniest trickle to the most powerful, towering, thunderous plumes of water, all – incredibly – gravity-fed as they always have been, with not a pump in use.
In addition to admiring the sheer scale and ingenuity of these amazing water features – and their baroque architectural style too – you’ll also enjoy a couple of pleasing little vanities, like the Fountain of the Owl and a water-powered organ from which, in contrast to its imposing size, reedy little sounds emerge when it’s played every two hours.
If you can avoid visiting at the very heights of the tourist season, the best times to wander round the Villa d’Este are late on a sunny afternoon, when the school parties and tour coaches have gone; the shadows, reflections and light are performing wonders; and you have the place pretty much to yourself.
It’s majestic and marvellous.
(If you’d like to see – and hear – the fountains of the Villa d’Este, take a look at my video on YouTube)