"Just a bit further," I puff, trying to follow my GPS, look out for signs and walk up a hill, hoping I am right.
My mum and I are on a daytrip to Tivoli, about 30km east of Rome, to see two very different UNESCO World Heritage-listed villas: Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. Though built 1400 years apart, the two villas are intimately connected.
There are a few guided bus tours to the villas from Rome but to save money and give us the freedom to spend more time at each site, we decided to take public transport. We do eventually make it to our first villa — two Metro trains, one bus, a 2km walk and 2.5 hours later.
Hadrian’s Villa is much more than its name suggests. Built by the Emperor Hadrian as his summer retreat almost 2000 years ago, the buildings and gardens covered 81ha. The emperor decided he liked the villa so much more than the palace in Rome that he eventually governed from here, moving his whole court with him. And while much of the area is unexcavated, you can easily spend three hours exploring what is considered to be one of Italy’s most impressive ancient ruins.
The ruins are both more exciting and more pleasant than other famous ancient Roman sites I’ve visited, such as the Roman Forum or Pompeii. Visitors are allowed mostly unrestricted access to the grounds and there are so few other tourists it feels as though we have the place to ourselves — and perhaps even that we have discovered rooms, views and mosaics that other tourists have missed.
It is not difficult to imagine how magnificent the complex must have been, with three-storey marble-clad buildings, striking roofs, detailed mosaics, sculptures and manicured gardens. Among the sports stadium, multiple bath houses, temples, pools and underground passages, the sites not to miss include the Maritime Theatre and the Canopus.
The former, a small circular building surrounded by a canal, a covered portico and then another building, is thought to have been the emperor’s private retreat. The only way to enter the inner building was via a drawbridge, which enabled the emperor to prevent people from bothering him. Apparently he also enjoyed swimming in the canal, although I hope it was not the same shade of green it is now.
The Canopus, named for an ancient Egyptian coastal town, consists of a long rectangular pool originally surrounded by columns, arches and sculptures. Many of these priceless treasures were excavated between the 16th and 18th centuries, ending up in palaces and museums around the world. Eight of the most famous are now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Some of these treasures are also thought to have been moved to our next stop, Villa d’Este. This is much easier to find, being in the centre of Tivoli, near the main piazza.
Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, a governor of Tivoli in the 16th century, employed archaeologist Pirro Ligorio to create his grand design, as well as conduct excavations nearby at Hadrian’s Villa. It seems the ancient villa provided not only inspiration, but also a valuable source of marble for the construction.
The villa itself is not particularly noteworthy; rather it is the mythical garden full of hundreds of fountains that is most spectacular.
Built on the side of a hill, the fountains are gravity-fed and each represents something unique, such as the god Hercules, or the city of Rome.
The water is even used to create music at certain times of day via a hydraulic pipe organ.
The soothing sound of running water follows our every footstep through the gardens, reminding us of the Romans’ engineering prowess.
More than nine hours after we’d set out, we make it back to our Roman apartment, with a mixture of relief and pride at having navigated a foreign public transport system to visit two truly exceptional examples of ancient and Renaissance Italy.