Thursday, March 31, 2011

How on Earth...

As I believe I've written several times, this blog is as much a diary for me as it is a mass email to our family and friends. And so, when I have three weeks of exciting touring and have neglected writing any updates, I'm just not able to do one big update. I want more for myself, whether anyone else wants to read about it or not. So how on earth do I get caught up (shame on me for procrastination!). Having the chance to share my new home region with friends and family has been so exciting as I have gotten to either do new things or look at this life with fresh eyes. It's easy at times to let homesickness and loneliness take over. But for today, I'm sitting in our Glass House overlooking the sea and reflecting back on the last few weeks and the sheer diversity of our sightseeing (and looking at a huge column of smoke nearby, too big for a pile of burning rubbish, and wondering if I should walk down the street to check it out - insert here the very Italian, whole body gesture of a shoulder shrug, upturned hands, downturned mouth, and grunt).
Our excitement began with the agriturismo (from Agriturismo post)  in Tivoli (near Rome). I still cannot get over how relaxing and beautiful it was.

 With our friend, Paige, on her first day here, we visited the Villa d'Este and it's stunning gardens and water fountains, then drove on to Hadrian's Villa. But Villa d'Este was our main goal. All we knew about it was that one visits for the gardens. As it turns out, Villa d'Este is an actual villa, built about 800 years ago, then reconstructed in the mid 1500s. It's now devoid of all furniture, but oh my, the frescoes. Room after room after room of incredible walls and ceiling frescoes. Whereas the super-rich of today might have some nice artwork hanging here and there on a wall, the super-rich of several hundred years ago surrounded themselves with art. Quite literally, every single surface is a sight to behold, from paintings covering the walls and ceiling (no inch left unpainted) to intricate, marble patterned floors. Leaving the villa behind, we entered a fantasy land of water fountains. These were installed by the cardinal who was gifted the property about 1550.  There is a handy little map with a suggested route we followed in order to not miss a single one of the more than 20 water fountains. The fountains were a wonder for the time period and sparked landscaping inspiration all across Europe.
We enjoyed this fun fresco
I'd read that the other main sight in the area was Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa), but on this, we really knew nothing. Not a clue what it was, where it was (thank you, GPS), or why we should visit it...yet off we went. With only a couple of hours before closing and aching feet, we decided to give it a quick look anyway. Walking through the entrance, we began walking up a path...and walking...and walking. We had no idea it was so big. Finally reaching a huge stone wall that seemed to be some type of fortress wall, we followed it to another entrance, where we entered a land full of half buildings and huge complexes lying in ruins.

With all the activity and such going on, today is the first chance I've had to even read up on Villa Adriana. As it turns out, that area was as big as it looked, covering over 250 acres (much of it unexcavated - what wonders must exist under the dirt and grass!). Emperor Hadrian built it in the 2nd century A.D. as a retreat from Rome, and my favorite spot among the ruins is thought to have been yet another retreat. As Emperor Hadrian spent more and more time there, much of the court moved to the complex. A beautiful, circular ruin, arbitrarily called the Maritime Theatre, has an exterior portico surrounding a circular pool of water. In the center is an island holding a small house - this is thought to have been Hadrian's retreat...from his retreat. Quite interestingly, the Cardinal who reconstructed Villa d'Este (and installed it's gardens and fountains) stole/repurposed much of the marble and statues he used from the Villa Adriana, lying in ruins by that time. Among it's other wonders, Villa Adriana hosts a large bath complex, with the structures modeled after the Pantheon (which Emperor Hadrian also built) and a large, rectangular pool that was once lined with statues on three sides. The fourth held a covered dining area and a water feature in which diners sat behind a cascade of water falling into the pool. We quickly realized that we had neither proper information nor proper footwear to do this place justice and headed back to our car and the peaceful agriturismo.

The peace lasted until dinner time, when we couldn't find the restaurant we'd wanted to visit and instead had to take to the car and drive around town in search of a table. The town was tiny, hilly, and full of parked cars. In our attempts to drive through town, we made the mistake of following a larger van in hopes that he knew where he was going - hah! That driver was parking at the very top of this town, on an alley the width of a Smart Car that also had a row of parked cars along the side - and it was a dead end with no place to turn around. So, Nathan had to reverse down a cobblestone alley, in the dark, with stairs down the hills dropping off at points (no rails or curbs to stop our tires from going over these edges) and navigating a ninety degree turn with cars parked in the actual turn. He did it, we found a restaurant, Paige got a good meal at last, and Nathan had me drive home (the easy drive) so he could recuperate.

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