Thursday, 10 July 2014

Villa D'Este - I never promised you a water garden

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Along with the sunshine there's got to be a little rain sometime.....

Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit

We are seated on the terrace of an ancient Italian palazzo, now turned B&B, in the narrow back streets of the old town of Tivoli, tucking into our first cappuccinos of the day and a rather good breakfast spread of ham, cheese and a variety of different breads.  There is also a yoghurt each with the word 'intero' stamped on the label.  I'm wondering if this is a sympathetic hint.  Our accommodation has the quirkiest of bathrooms converted from a narrow steep stairway with the shower at the top, handbasin at the bottom and half-way up the dimly lit stairs is, not Christopher Robin, but an antique porcelain toilet! On our arrival I had joked that this is not the place to have an upset stomach in the middle of the night! :(

The breakfast terrace is al fresco but part of a large internal courtyard with the outdoor terraces of other houses overhanging at different levels, all linked together in a higgledy piggledy fashion all displaying part of their owner's lives.  I am contemplating this and my expression must be moving in tune to my thoughts as the Bedsock suddenly asks me "What are you thinking?".  "I'm thinking that there are an awful lot of ornaments,  plant pots and pieces around these terraces and wondering where the best place would be in the event of an earthquake" I reply.  Judging by the expression on his face, next time I would be better to just say "nothing" as the Bedsock always does.

Villa D'Este when the water flows

The downside of having a highly active and vivid imagination is that I am always planning for disaster scenarios - but I have had no premonition of the day's potential disaster.  After all we are merely wandering a few hundred metres through the town to the lovely Villa D'Este, garden of fountains.  Even before Monty Don got excited about it on his Italian Gardens series I had wanted to visit - we hadn't been able to fit it in during our last visit to Rome so in many ways this holiday had been planned around it. It's a perfect, sunny morning after the torrential rain and thunderstorms that have dogged the last few days of holiday.  Our travels may be coming to an end but I have saved the Villa D'Este til last, after Ninfa it may not be the best but it is certainly been at the top of our Italian garden wish list - I can't wait to see the corridor of 100 fountains

100 fountains but will the gargoyles be gargling for us?

We have arrived early(ish) to avoid the crowds but as we approach the reception desk DISASTER! There is a sign up saying the fountains are not on. I stare at the sign in disbelief.  Then I stare at the lady behind the desk in disbelief. "What do you mean the fountains are not on?" I gasped. "We've come all the way from the UK just to see the fountains" I exaggerate slightly.  "It's because of the rain" replies the receptionist.  My head explodes.

"What do you mean because of the rain" I rant "You mean to tell me that in the 1500s Ippolito d'Este created a fabulous fountained f*****g garden using only natural water pressure and yet in this day and f*****g age a bit of rain has stopped the whole damned show? Even British Rail hasn't come up with a worse excuse!"  This rant went on a fair bit longer and it is possible (hopefully) the swear words were only in my head.  Eventually the Bedsock calmly asks when the fountains will come back on.  The receptionist shrugs, at first she says they don't know but we can go in to see the gardens anyway. Why would we want to pay to see a 'water' garden with no water? It will be like going to a Rolling Stones concert with no Mick Jagger! I start to weep and tear my hair out.  "Maybe eleven o'clock" they will be back on" says another receptionist.  We decide to go for another cappucino then return.  My heart has sunk and I'm worried that the sign on the desk saying the 'fountains are off' is rather well-used. I am also irrationally annoyed by the woman taking ipad photos in the Piazza where we are having our coffee. 


Later, googling will inform me that the fountains being turned off is far from unusual and that many visitors are in for a disappointment.  Apparently, after a lot of rain the river supplying the fountains silts up and they shut the supply off.  As Tivoli is in the 'thunderstorm corridor' of Italy, this must happen quite often.  They still let people into the garden at full price though!!

We return to the reception an hour later with a certain amount of trepidation. "Are the fountains back on yet?" I query. "I don't know" shrugs the receptionist as if it is all a bit irrelevant.  The more helpful lady finds out for us.  You can judge from my pictures of the most fabulous, fascinating, f*****g fountains in the whole world whether they were on or not!


Not since the fountains of Barcelona danced to the sound of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé have water features been this wonderful.


Glorious grottos - we particularly loved the lichen and the ferns which looked like bunches of hanging grapes


OMG! Look! there she is again in full ipadding mode!


Gargling gargoyles


The Italians seem very keen on the tits squirting water theme - particularly useful if you have nine of them.


Everywhere they could flow water they flowed water


We loved this boat fountain


OMG! Is there no stopping her?


 Was Villa D'Este the perfect bucket list garden? Of course it was - it was full of fun, frivolous, frothy, frolicking fountains [FFS! that's enough fs Ed. ]


Travellers tips: If you are visiting check the weather forecast on previous days when rain may have built up. If they say in the morning the fountains are off - try again later in the day.  Try and allow some leeway in when you visit by staying nearby for a couple of days -visit the Villa Adriana (a few kms away) and if you are very fit the Villa Gregoriana has a deep gorge you can walk down close to the Villa D'Este.  The town of Tivoli itself is a bit scruffy and no great shakes and be warned that the unattractive industrial suburbs of Rome stretch pretty much right up to Tivoli itself so not the nicest way to approach such a gem.





Friday, 4 July 2014

Villa Lante - Boxed in

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The third garden on our Lazio list, Villa Lante, was our first  Italian Renaissance garden.  Formally styled, highly controlled, no discernible flowers.  I remember Monty remarking that in some of the Renaissance gardens these box hedged patterns would originally have been home to flowers and herbs but I quite like the sparsity of colour and rigidity of design at Villa Lante.  As it happens it is not Monty that has drawn us here but a recommendation from Alys Fowler on twitter where she mentioned that it was charming and quiet.  Alys was right on both counts - it is small, perfectly formed and surprisingly, we have the place to ourselves.

Villa Lante is an example of the Mannerist phase of the Italian Renaissance - you can read the 'science bit' here.  I don't generally read too much information in advance of visiting the gardens, I prefer to have a rough idea of their history and then my own emotional response to them. I wonder if this is a mistake. I know how much difference having an audio guide makes to the experience of visiting an art exhibition and how it can give life and purpose to paintings and artwork that I might otherwise just wander past.  Do I need to understand a garden to appreciate it?

There is plenty to appreciate at Villa Lante whether you are informed or not. The intricate and precise patterns of the box hedging


fab fountains


statues with the requisite lichen and moss


But there was also an annoying  down side to Villa Lante - when we visited,  much of what is a relatively small garden in the first place, was chained off.  Even the main terrace with its maze of box hedging was only possible to view from a central walkway, yet everything about it begs you to wander through the design itself and discover its hidden fountains.

What strikes me first during our visit is that the garden is designed to be viewed from the top terrace and there are going to be a heck of a lot of steps to climb. My energy is limited so hauling myself to the top had better be worth it!

When I did a day's Photography Course with Clive Nichols at RHS Wisley the one thing I remember is his advice that the lens you should use most for garden landscapes is your telephoto to bring the background into the foreground.  The two photos below illustrate why - the first makes the top terrace of the garden seem a realistically long way away,


the second, taken with the telephoto lens, is the more attractive picture, but gives the impression that you could be up to the top with a leap and a skip.


I am determined that having come all this way I am not missing out on the top terrace view, I want to get the shot of the view down the terraces from the top of the long rill. Here we have it


and for no obvious reason some b****** has stuck a builders rod  and tape right in the middle of it spoiling the shot!  I am tempted to take it out to get a perfect photo or to photoshop it out later on but am minded to remember Anne Wareham's views about prettifying and perfecting gardens in this way, airbrushing out their faults like magazine models.  (It is odd how Anne has come into my consciousness at these gardens, I feel like she is there with me EEEEK!)


This was the Bedsock's favourite bit of the garden - the grotto at the top. By this time we were so annoyed by the amount of restrictions to the public that he took the chains down for his photo.  I guess these chains were to discourage small children from drowning themselves and adults from paddling in the water.  Personally I would either give people credit for some common sense, or discourage small children by not letting them in,  or let them suffer the consequences. Otherwise, unusually for Italy, it all gets a bit 'health and safety'.

Overall a very lovely garden with fabulous vistas, compact but with interest on each different terrace.  Is it a 'bucket list' garden? For me it is grouped with other slightly similar Renaissance gardens at least one of which should be seen before you pop your gardener's clogs.  I was glad that we had picked Villa Lante from this genre.

As I waited for the Bedsock to retrieve the car and collect me from the gates I noticed this chic, intricate, moth.  I tweeted a photo of it requesting identification and resident twitter expert on everything Simon Suter identified it as a 'boxtree moth'. By coincidence a night later there was a TV programme warning about the imminent invasion of the UK by these critters.  It was no coincidence that the 'boxtree moth' was hanging around a garden full of hedges!


BTW  A little brain teaser for you.  12 letters. What do you call someone who likes making love to an entomologist?