The Gardens of the Villa D’Este at Tivoli: Unmissable Without the Crowds

At the end of October, we found ourselves in Rome with a cancelled return flight to England, but it was not difficult to plan how to spend the next few days until we could return home. We were spoiled for choice. All the usual sights were uncrowded and without its usual chaotic traffic, Rome was easy to navigate. But we were tempted to go further afield and see the famous gardens at Tivoli, something on every bucket list and an opportunity not to be missed.

We were without a car, but it looked easy to get there by train…or so we thought. From Termini station there are morning trains to Tivoli, but with two changes, despite the fact that Tivoli is only 40km from Rome. Another problem is the very short turn-around time between one train and the next. Knowing Italian regional trains quite well, and their habit of being late, this can prove quite a headache.

However, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Italian rail journeys always turn into adventures. Access to the platform for our first train was not obvious as Termini Station had implemented a one-way system for Covid. Then there was a walk of what seemed like a mile or more to one of the shorter platforms in the Termini Extension. The first stop was Tuscolana station, which was probably about as far as the walk we had already taken to get on the train. We had five minutes to change to the train to Tiburtina, or actually three because we were already running late. However, our train was just next to us on the other side of the platform. Tiburtina Station is vast. We arrived on one level and had to run to an escalator, then along to the far end of a huge hall to catch the Tivoli train.

The little town is the center of the vast travertine stone industry and is surrounded by quarries. Getting off at the station on the wrong side of the river from the town center, we had no idea whether to walk or take a taxi. Looking across, we could see no oasis of greenery, but decided to set off on foot. At the bottom of the hill, I asked a woman waiting at a bus stop. I am so glad I can speak Italian! She saved us a long hike by sending us on a shortcut through an ancient tunnel, up a cobbled stepped alley – and we were there! Was the nightmare journey worth it? Absolutely.

The Villa d’Este was transformed from a convent into a country house in 1550, an imposing structure, but it is the gardens everyone comes to see. The first “wonder garden” in the world, the gardens became a model for the fashionable European gardens of the following two centuries. The grounds are almost completely symmetrical with precisely clipped lawns, shrubs, hedges, and lakes and ponds, interrupted at regular intervals by playful fountains which in their day were astonishing. One played the organ, another imitated birdsong. However, I need to issue a warning. Although there are no notices to tell you this, the lakes and fountains are fed by the main sewer and should definitely not be used to quench your thirst.

First, you walk through a courtyard and into the villa itself. We had hoped to be able to avoid this and go straight to the gardens, but there is a prescribed route, and the interior is better than I had imagined with brightly colored frescoes and tempting views over the gardens. There is also an interesting exhibition currently, on the followers of Caravaggio. The villa is built at the top of a hill and the gardens slope away beneath, so once outside on the terrace, you begin a downward path interrupted by fountains, pools and mossy steps to different levels.

On the first level there is a long shady row of small fountains which emerge from lions’ heads, all looking a bit mournful. It is easy to imagine aristocrats strolling here in the heat of a summer afternoon, wandering along in big, feathered hats and even bigger dresses.

At the end of this terrace is the Rometta fountain which has miniature buildings of Rome, and an obelisk in an upturned boat. On the opposite side is the Fontana del Ovato fringed with statues and with a dripping arcade to walk through.

The most spectacular fountains (by Bernini) teem with layers of pouring water as well as high jets, and a walk behind them gives a perspective of the garden filtered through water.

There is a group of curiously gnarled old cedars leading on to the many smaller fountains, including an Earth Mother which is a copy of an Etruscan relic. You walk between manicured hedges and discover yet more fountains at every turn. It is a true pleasure garden, designed to while away the hot hours in the shade with the cooling sound of water all around.

We finally climbed up beyond the highest jets to see the organ fountain which, although decorated with musical instruments carved in stone, sadly had no maestro playing it. In summer there is a daily performance at 10:30 a.m.

Here is another little tip. Most marketing-conscious tourist venues offer a last chance to buy souvenirs on your way out, but no such opportunity exists here. Buy your trinkets with your tickets: you will not be back this way. The exit led us into a narrow street, but never assume in Italy that such a lane is free from traffic: amazingly cars whizzed along with only an inch to spare beyond their wing mirrors. We had to cling to each other in doorways.

At a slightly wider point there was a traditional porchetta bar selling giant panini of melt-in-the-mouth warm pork with endless permutations of salads, cheeses and pickles. They were so enormous that we put what remained in the provided bag and took them away for the return train journey, which thankfully was direct.

Flying home the next day to face 14 days of quarantine, we still have our wonderful lasting memories. Who knows when we will be back – but we will!

This article first appeared in Italy Magazine.