April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
On our last day before catching the plane, we took the autostrada A25 to Rome (or rather, to Fiumicino for our hotel near the airport), but stopped off in Tivoli, to see once again the Villa d'Este and Hadrian's Villa, both of which we had seen nearly 20 years earlier, after a meeting in Rome in 1986.
Leaving the Abruzzi National Park
But first, we had to traverse the northern length of the park, over the Passo del Diavolo (Devil's Pass) on a road that we expected to be closed on account of the Giro d'Italia. At least, that's how we had interpreted the sign on the main road where we had turned off to where we started the morning walk the previous day. But it turned out not to be a problem.
When we woke up, it was cold and the clouds were very low on the hillsides. The low cloud was troubling, because we knew we had to drive quite high before we got out of the park, but much of the cloud had burned off before we actually got started, and we didn't have to drive through it, though the remanent cloud still flowed over the peaks as we drove down from the Devil's Pass out of the park. Then, they seemed quite pretty! When we started out, the temperature was 11°C.
The scenery north of the park was just about as lovely as it was in the park. When me got near the autostrada, more mountains to the north came into view, higher and more snow-covered than those we had seen in the park.
When we got to Pescina, we had to drive very slowly, because there were crowds of people walking along and in the road. It turned out they were joining the crowd awaiting the cyclists of the Giro d'Italia at the town square. The advance cars were already arriving, but the policemen controlling traffic allowed us to make our right turn through the square and out of town. We didn't stop and wait to see the cyclists pour through on their way to Pescasseroli, Villetta Barrea and beyond.
Just before we got to the autostrada, the road flanked a gorge, on the opposite side of which was a rather impressive ruined castle. Unfortunately, it was very hard to find a suitable place to take its picture. The only one I got was much obscured by roadside bushes, and I'm not including it here.
After not very long on the autostrada, we reached the turnoff for Tivoli. By then, the temperature was 27°C, an increase of 16° over what it had been a couple of hours earlier at Pescasseroli. That was a bit of a shock to the system!
Tivoli and the Villa d'Este
Tivoli is a substantial town, which has quite a few tourist sites. It was the Emperor Hadrian who made Tivoli into a place for the rich to enjoy themselves out of the pollution of Rome. There are other Villas there besides his and the Villa d'Este, but we had no time to look for them. Even though this was a working Thursday, the town was crowded, and driving along the main highway was slow going. Eventually we managed to find the main square near the Villa d'Este. The square has a large pay parking lot, and provides a balcony view over the Latium plain towards Rome. But the lot was very full, and only by purest luck did we get a space just as someone was leaving.
The main reason to visit Tivoli town is to see the Villa d'Este, made famous (for classical musicians) by Franz Liszt. The Villa building is on the edge of the drop toward the Latium plain, with the gardens dropping further. The gardens are the object of the visit, not for the flowers and trees, but for the many fountains created by some of the great names of art. When we visited in 1986, on a Saturday, there were several wedding parties being photographed in lots of locations on the grounds. One after another, they would take up positions in front of the more interesting fountains. The elegance (and presumably expense) of the wedding gowns had to be seen to be believed. But ther were no wedding parties on this occasion.
The most dramatic of all the fountains is the great Bernini fountain set at the end of a series of rectangular fish ponds that stretch the width of the garden. Another rather startling fountain is the row of 100 identical triple jets that again spans the width of the garden. But there are many more. The two "rock piles" have water cascading both over the outside, but also in the hollow spaces within the piles. There is a "water organ" that is played like a normal air organ, a fountain in a grotto that looks like a peacock's tail, and the boat, which is supposed to be an allegory of the River Tiber from the mountains to Rome.
From the Villa d'Este, we walked through the old town of Tivoli for a while. It is full of little steep alleys and odd twists. Even with a map it's easy to get lost. But in the end we arrived at what was supposed to be a scenic bridge over a waterfall on the river that supplies the Villa d'Este fountains. But there was no water in the river, and the scene was more depressing than pictorial. We walked back to the car along the main road, more or less, and drove down the hill to try to find Hadrian's Villa.
The Villa Adriana is a famous site. It's only three or four kilometers from the Villa d'Este, down on the flats, and it's well signposted when you are far from it. But the sign that tells you to get off the main road onto the side road that leads to it is very easy to miss, and we spent a good half hour searching around for the site. It was rush hour, or seemed to be, because the traffic in the lower part of Tivoli was stop-start for a long way.
Hadrian's Villa is an enormous site, containing many huge buildings. It dwarfs Versailles, and probably in its heyday was every bit as grand. Hadrian designed it to represent in its different areas the different parts of his empire. Despite the size and grandeur of the place, it was all built in about 5 years around 130 AD. It began to be neglected soon after Hadrian's death, and although items from it were found and distributed among museums, excavations were not begun until 1870, and are still continuing. Much of the site is still deep under the earth. Here are just a few pictures to give an idea of some of the buildings.
The wall in the first picture is broken by a modern gap which allows one into the site. The wall looks long in the picture, but it is actually twice as long as that. It supported a roof cantilevered on wooden beams, to shade Hadrian and his friends as they strolled beside a reflecting pool (now dry). The Grand baths aren't as big as the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, but they are pretty impressive, all the same.
The pool lies in front of a banqueting area that is roofed over by a half-dome, but is open on the pool side. Judging by the tops of the statues that line the pool, the walk must have been roofed to shade the Emperor. The Teatro Maritimo is a circular structure enclosing a moat around a central island. It is said that Hadrian liked to watch shows from the place in the picture, the actors being on the island. Near it is a building that was supposed to be for a school of philosophy. The Temple of Venus is in a quite different part of the site. For us, the way we explored the Villa, it was almost the last building we saw before leaving. Just imagine, all these buildings and much more were designed and built in something like five years!
After the Villa d'Este and the Villa Adriana, it was time to head for the hotel for our last night. It was near the airport and near Ostia Antica, which we had hoped to visit, but it turned out to be too late in the day when we arrived.
Our last trip on the toll part of the autostrada caused a lot of difficulty. It was about 2km long, but when we got to the final toll plaza, there was no gate that would take cash. One had to have bought a toll card at some unspecified place (not the entry tollgate where we got an ordinary ticket). Without that special card, there was apparently no way to pay the toll. We had to get another ticket and take it to a Post Office or the toll authority in central Rome to pay the €1.30. Since it was after working hours, and we had to catch a plane in the morning, this was obviously impossible. Trying to pay this ticket turned into a real saga. The car rental agency, AVIS, refused to take it, and said we would be billed by the autostrada toll people, who would add a substantial service charge. When I got home, I tried to pay by bank transfer, but the bank said that capability had been terminated some years ago, and that there would be a service charge of some $50 to pay the bill. After a lot of hassles, I e-mailed the ENIT (Italian Tourist Authority) in Toronto. They were very helpful, and arranged for the charge to be dropped. It's a bit ridiculous in the first place to have a toll plaza at the end of the toll section of an autoroute that has no human attendants and no place to pay the toll in cash, and apparently not to accept credit cards, but only the special prepaid autoroute card!
This little bit of unpleasantness was reinforced at the Hotel Isola Sacra, where we had booked for the last night. Rather than seeking out a restaurant in the area, which didn't seem to be well supplied with such facilities, we ate in the hotel. Compared to what we had been used to, the meal was satisfactory but outrageously expensive. To make matters worse, they "accidentally" miscalculated the charge and added an extra €5 to the bill. Naturally, I did not round up the bill to create a tip, as I would normally do, so they probably lost more than the €5.
Apart from the parking ticket in Amalfi, which didn't show itself until 5 months later, these two events on the last day were just about the only times in Italy or Malta when we felt any sense of being improperly treated. Otherwise, the overall impression was of people being either very friendly and trying to help, or professionally efficient. I felt this was true in small shops, hotels, ticket offices, and anywhere we had money dealings with local people. South Italy, and particularly Calabria and Sicily, has a reputation of being Mafia controlled. If it is, they casual tourist doesn't see any signs of it. The whole trip was an exciting and delightful experience.