Gardens of the Villa d'Este in Tivol

A Perfect Roman Day Trip

May 23, 2011

The riches of Rome are so inexhaustible that many people never discover the many fascinating sites of the surrounding Latium region. In my experience, however, a day trip into the country is the perfect antidote to the crowds and noise of the city itself.

One of the best excursions is to Hadrian's Villa and the nearby gardens of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli. I suggest using a car and driver, as I did on my most recent visit. If you make an early start, the 18-mile drive shouldn't take more than an hour. I also find that when touring ruins, a good guide makes all the difference. Our guide picked us up promptly at 8 a.m. and offered an intriguing commentary on the neighborhoods we passed through on our way out of the city.

Hadrian was one of the most interesting emperors. Born in A.D. 76 to a family in the Roman city of Italica, near Seville in what is now southern Spain, he ruled for almost 21 years until his death in A.D. 138. A great traveler, he visited every province of the sprawling empire. Hadrian restored the Pantheon — today the best preserved of classical Roman buildings — and built the famous wall between what are now England and Scotland to protect Roman Britannia from invading tribes. Ruling at the zenith of Roman power, Hadrian was also a great builder of aqueducts, baths, libraries and temples.

Disliking the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, Hadrian began construction of his villa in A.D. 118. The 250-acre complex, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, eventually contained some 30 buildings that offer an intriguing insight into the emperor's personality and wide-ranging interests. As he was a great admirer of the Greeks, his villa included a small Greek amphitheater, the grass-covered remains of which can be seen today.

He also built Greek and Latin libraries, baths and a charming small retreat within the compound known as the Villa d'Isola. This was surrounded by a ring-shaped pool and accessed by drawbridges. Occasionally eager to escape from life at his court, Hadrian used the Villa d'Isola as a private sanctuary. Other spectacular features of the site include the Canopus pool and the Serapeum complex, and a vast maze of hidden tunnels that were used by servants to heat the villa and carry supplies without disturbing the emperor and his court.

After Hadrian died, he was buried in a mausoleum on the western bank of the Tiber in Rome that was subsequently transformed into a fortress, the Castel Sant'Angelo, by the papacy. Today, many of the mosaics and statues that once decorated his villa can be seen in the Vatican and Capitoline museums. Hadrian's Villa was eventually abandoned and, over the centuries, much of its marble was carted away for use in other local building projects, notably the nearby Villa d'Este.

Built during the 16th century for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, the Villa d'Este is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although it is a remarkable building with superb views over the surrounding countryside, the main reasons for its renown are the spectacular gardens. Comprised of a series of terraces with lush plantings and extravagant fountains, these descend a hillside before giving way to stately promenades leading to the villa's wrought-iron gates. Highlights of a leisurely tour here include Bernini's beautiful Fontana del Bicchierone, the Viale delle Cento Fontane (Pathway of 100 Fountains) and the Fontana dell'Organo Idraulico, which plays a hydraulic organ.

On a warm day, there is nothing more refreshing than taking a seat near the gardens' Aniene waterfall — which drops 525 feet and creates a fine cooling mist — to enjoy the birdsong and the unforgettable views.

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who they are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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