MOTHER AND I ENTERED Rome’s Termini Station at the height of rush hour. Commuters of every ilk were hurrying for trains: businessmen toting leather attaché cases, women clacking along in stiletto heels, students with backpacks and art portfolios, mobs of nuns and priests, beggars and thieves. It was a Roman pageant worthy of a Fellini finale.
We made our way to an automated kiosk and bought two tickets to Tivoli. The electronic schedule told us which platform to report to, and we went there directly, only to find a train bound for Ostia Antica. I tried another kiosk and the same platform number came up. Mother spotted a blue-blazered Trenitalia representative standing idly beside some luggage. Employees of the Italian rail system can be a surly lot, so we approached him with caution.“Scusi,” I said. “Does the train to Tivoli leave from this, uh, binario?”
“No inglese,” he said.
I pointed at the tracks. “Tivoli?”
He didn’t deign to respond, but his face told me what I could do with my impertinent questions.
“Tivoli Stazione?” attempted Mother.
“No Tivoli! No!”
We returned to the kiosk, and it gave us the wrong information again.
“If we don’t find the right platform, we’re going to miss the train,” said Mother, always keen to relay the obvious.
I bent down and examined the base of the kiosk.
“What in the world are you doing?” she said.
“I’m going to uproot this useless machine and hurl it in front of the next Eurostar express.”
Before I could achieve optimum leverage, a young man in tortoise-shell spectacles intervened.
“Pardon me,” he said. “I overheard your conversation with the porter. Can I help?”
“Please,” said Mother. “We have tickets to Tivoli but we can’t find the platform.”
“I will consult the schedule.” He tapped the kiosk screen rapidly.
“You speak very good English,” said Mother.
“Thank you. I study English. It is the world language. Ah, here we are. Tivoli. The platform number is correct.”
“It is?” said Mother.
“Yes. But you’re at the wrong station. The Tivoli train does not leave from Termini today.” He pointed at a small letter code next to the platform number. “This represents Tiburtina Station, not Termini Station.”
A sizable shock surged through my frazzled nervous system. “My God. Where’s Tiburtina? I’ve never even heard of it.”
The young man smiled and said, “No problem. Just get on Metro line B. It goes to Tiburtina Station. Four stops maybe.”
“Thank you so much,” said Mother. “You saved us. We would never have figured that out.”
I seconded Mother’s gratitude, profusely.
“I am very glad to help,” he said. “If I was in your boots, I hope someone would do the same for me.”
We bounded down the steps to the subway and slammed into a wall of Romans. I pushed my way through.
“Slow down,” said Mother, grabbing hold of my jacket. “We can always catch the next train to Tivoli.”
“I got out of bed at seven o’ clock so we could get the first train, and we’re damn well going to get the first train.”
I burst out of the crowd with so much momentum that I nearly took a nosedive onto the tracks. Mother had to pull me back as I teetered on the edge of third rail oblivion. When I’d sufficiently recovered my composure, I asked her if the sign at the top of the stairs had read line A or line B.
My face must’ve betrayed some concern, because Mother instantly panicked.
“What have you done now?” she said. “Led us to the wrong track?”
A train pulled up. The windshield was marked Linea A, but by now I’d completely forgotten what line the young man had told us to take. “Did he say A or B?”
“How should I know?” said Mother. “You’re in charge of listening to directions!”
The train doors slid open. Passengers exited. “Should we get on or not?” said Mother.
I opened my mouth to reply, but a powerful shove to my lower back stifled any hope of communication. We were consumed, instantly and utterly, by a wave of work-bound humanity that carried us, like senseless jellyfish, into the furthest corner of the subway car. Mother’s agitation had progressed to a stupefied aphasia. Her stricken eyes pleaded with me for some meager reassurance.
“I think he said Line B,” I said.
This was not the reassurance she was seeking. I found the route map on the back wall and read out the stops: Vittorio Emanuele, Manzoni, San Giovanni…all the way to Anagnina. There was nothing even vaguely resembling Tiburtina. We got off at the next stop, trudged up one flight of stairs, down another, and hopped the train back to Termini. At Termini, after making a thorough study of the map, we boarded line B, in the right direction, and alighted at the elusive Tiburtina station.
We’d missed the first train to Tivoli by forty minutes. It would be a while before the next departure, so we took our time finding the platform. Tiburtina is smaller than Termini, but just as perplexing. After a number of wrong turns, we found ourselves on the indicated binario with a group of befuddled Germans. Three blonde women studied tickets while their husbands hunted around for information in the mother tongue. One of them noticed my milky complexion and came over.
“Tivoli?” he said, hopefully.
I rewarded his optimism with a friendly “Ja.”
This confirmation, delivered by a worldly, self-assured travel aficionado (me), who obviously knew a thing or two about the Italian rail system, visibly pleased him. He trotted back to his compatriots with the good news.
“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” said Mother. “I hope you know what you’re doing this time.”
“That remark shows a highly insulting lack of confidence in my navigational skills,” I said. “In the interest of maintaining a harmonious attitude, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear it.”
The train arrived and we climbed aboard. There wasn’t much to see for the first few miles, just endless blocks of suburban apartments with laundry on every balcony. Italians, due to high electricity rates, shun mechanical dryers and hang everything, from panties to pillowcases, in the open air. Some actually claim to prefer this method because of the natural scents that freshen their linens. I was fortunate enough to witness one of these aromatic infusions first hand, when our train rounded a corner and belched a cloud of black smoke up five floors of clotheslines.
The buildings and their diesel-dried socks soon disappeared, replaced by the weedy rubble of the Campagna. Little hillocks, dotted with shards of glinting pottery, rose up from the flat landscape. There were fallen columns and ruined arches, the detritus of ancient habitations. I nodded off, dreaming of the sprawling farms and great country seats that had once covered these lowlands. I was chasing an impudent slave girl through the haystacks, when the train screeched to a halt. Most of the passengers in our carriage began to disembark, including the Germans. I shook Mother awake.
“This must be Tivoli,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Tivoli? Already? Are you sure?”
I glanced at my watch and saw that I’d been asleep for a half hour. “We’re lucky we didn’t wake up in Perugia. C’mon!”
We gathered our possessions and dashed off the train. The Germans were already congregated around the Tivoli Station sign, posing for pictures. If one of the women hadn’t called a stop to the proceedings, they would’ve filled every gigabyte of their memory cards with photos of a rusty railroad sign.
The air smelled strongly of sulfur from the thermal springs outside of town. In Etruscan times, these waters were renowned for their healing properties. Later, Roman emperor Augustus built baths over them so he could soak his rheumatic bones in the stinky liquid. There’s still a spa in Tivoli today, frequented by wealthy nincompoops in search of cosmetic miracles.
Based on the state of the men’s room at the train station, it’s safe to assume these pampered guests don’t arrive by rail. The stench inside made the sulfurous emissions of the spring seem fragrant by comparison, and the swarm of resident flies rivaled anything you’d see over the carcass of a deceased camel. The toilet, if it could be called such, was nothing more than a hole in the floor, over which you’re expected to squat like a Neanderthal. I’d heard that a few of these primeval potties still existed in Italy’s more bucolic regions, but this was the first I’d seen.
All of the tourists at the station were heading for the Villa d’Este, so we set out together. The Germans unfolded a map and took the lead through the sloping streets. Mother was still tired, and soon found herself at the rear of the caravan. I dropped back to join her, extricating myself from a monosyllabic conversation with a female Caucasian whose dreadlocks had reached gorgonesque proportions.
One gray-haired woman had fallen even further behind than Mother, and didn’t seem to mind. She hobbled along with a cane, pausing at intervals to rest and take in the scenery. Mother and I were photographing Rocca Pia, the four-towered papal castle, when she caught up to us.
“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” she said.
Rocca Pia dominates its surroundings—an impenetrable, immovable mass of stone. Gorgeous wasn’t an adjective that immediately leaped to mind.
“It’s certainly intimidating,” said Mother.
“It had to be,” I said. “The people of medieval Tivoli were quite unruly. The pope needed a fortress to keep them in line.”
The woman leaned forward on her cane and squinted at the castle. “Probably dumped boiling oil on the buggers.”
I told her that Rocca Pia had a very interesting history. “It was here that Saint Ignatius of Loyola read out the charter of the Society of Jesus to Pope Paul II.”
“You Catholic?” she said.
“No. But I find the Jesuits fascinating.”
“Tricky devils, I call ‘em. Going to the villa?”
“Yes,” I said. “And you?”
“No. Been to Rome before, though. Name’s Jane. From north London. You Canadian?”
“American,” I said. “But don’t worry, we won’t shoot you.”
Jane guffawed. Mother told her we were from Erie, Pennsylvania.
“Well, that’s almost Canada, isn’t it?”
“Just about,” I said. “Ontario is right across the lake from us.”
“Sure. Been to Niagara Falls. Got a sister in Toronto.”
Mother thought this was an opportune moment to discuss, once again, the relative smallness of the world. The Germans had vanished from sight, and were probably already touring the villa, presuming some photogenic traffic sign hadn’t sidetracked them. I prodded the women forward.
“Are you all by yourself?” said Mother.
“Always travel by myself,” said Jane.
“I’d be too scared.”
“You learn who to talk to and who to leave alone.”
I could understand Mother’s concern. The woman looked highly vulnerable, with her cane, hunched posture and ample girth. When purse-snatchers go to bed at night, they probably dream of Jane.
“Longer walk than I reckoned,” she said, pausing to mop her brow.
“Should be about fifteen minutes,” I said.
Her only response to this estimate was a pained wheeze. I told her there was a bus if she’d rather wait and ride down.
“I better,” she said. “Or you might have to carry me.”
I continued on with Mother into the center of town, where the Villa d’Este signage was sparse and misleading. We were wandering confusedly around the Largo Garibaldi when a bus pulled up and disgorged Jane.
“Weren’t parted long, were we?” she said. “So where’s this villa?”
“No idea,” I said. “I think we should’ve stuck with the Germans.”
We made our way across the square to a busy café, hoping to get directions. Everyone was sitting outside sipping coffee and enjoying the warm weather. A man with a neatly trimmed beard sat at an outer table, talking to a woman in a purple dress.
“Let’s ask this fella,” said Jane. “Scusa me, senor, where’s the villa?”
He pointed at the road without looking up from his coffee.
“Don’t see no villa.”
He slammed his cup down, and the woman in purple threw back her dark hair, laughing luxuriously.
“What’s so funny?” said Jane.
“My husband cannot stand to be interrupted,” said the woman. “See how red you’ve made him?”
The man gave her a murderous look, which only increased her amusement. “The entrance is across the street,” she said. “But watch out for construction.”
“Scaffolding?” I said.
“Of course!” Her eyes twinkled with mischief.
“Thanks,” said Mother. “We didn’t mean to disturb you.”
The woman laughed again, and halfway across the largo, we could still hear her.
“Strange lot, these Italians,” said Jane.
We found the entrance, and mounted a stairway that lead into the Villa d’Este. Jane headed straight for the gardens, as many visitors do, but we chose to explore the villa first. It was built by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, son of Lucrezia Borgia and grandson of Pope Alexander VI. When d’Este was appointed governor of Tivoli in 1550, Pope Julius III presented him with an entire Benedictine monastery to live in. The Cardinal was displeased, put off, perhaps, by the lingering asceticism of his monkish predecessors. So he decided to gut and heavily modify the property, creating a new residence more in line with his sumptuous tastes. He employed the greatest architects and artists of his time, and the result was magnificent, even for a Borgia cardinal.
These days, the villa is devoid of furnishings and rather bleak—an empty, mildewed shell. The walls, however, are still coated with vibrant frescos, full of sibyls, satyrs and leering monkeys. The Room of Venus is especially mysterious, with its empty niche where the pagan love goddess once stood.
We drifted through silent corridors. Now and then a stray tourist would materialize at the door of some forgotten gallery, only to vanish into its depths as we drew near. The rooms were so deserted that teenagers had taken to marring the walls with romantic declarations: “Ti amo, Rocco! Io sono tuo!”
We exited onto the grand loggia, through a portal shaped like a triumphal arch, and gazed down at the terraced gardens below. D’Este wanted to re-create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in his backyard, and he couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate location. Medieval Tiburtini called the spot Valle Gaudente, or the Valley of Pleasure-Seeking. Beyond the gardens, the landscape fades from the Appenine foothills into the vast plains of Lazio. It’s a marvelous panorama, but to experience the true wonder of the Cardinal’s paradise you must descend into it.
D’Este rerouted the Ariene River to feed his aquatic fairyland, and its dancing waters spurt from the mouths of stone gods and dragons. There are hidden grottos and fishponds and cataracts and fountains. At regular intervals a baroque water organ erupts in high-pitched saltarellas and courtly romanescas. This hydraulic instrument was a marvel of its time. Guests refused to believe that water alone could produce such charming music, and insisted that a midget organist must be secreted inside.
We walked along the Avenue of a Hundred Fountains, a 330-foot-long, tri-level watercourse, with terraced streams representing the three rivers of Tivoli: the Albuneo, the Aniene and the Ercolaneo. Along their symbolic banks eagles, lilies, boats and obelisks spout gloriously toward the heavens. Below are a hundred dribbling gargoyles, their chins bearded with vegetation.
The avenue terminates at the Fontana dell’Ovato. Backing its gumdrop-shaped cascade is a nymphaeum, riddled with damp grottos, each fronted by its own gushing naiad. We spotted Jane sitting on an overlook, and climbed up to her.
“Oh, hullo,” she said. “Isn’t it peaceful?”
“It’s wonderful,” said Mother. “Maybe I’ll retire to Tivoli.”
Jane chuckled and said it would sure beat the pensioner’s home.
“Is that where you live?” said Mother.
“Lord no! Not yet, anyways.”
“I didn’t think so. You seem so independent.”
“The only caretakers I have are at the pub.”
We rested our arms on a worn stone parapet and watched the waters play. Above the font sits a marble sibyl, ensconced in greenery.
“You can ask her the future,” I said. “The Tiburtine Sibyl is a great prophetess.”
Jane said she had a mate named Sibyl, and that the only thing she ever predicted correctly was the final tally of a 1989 Manchester United/Liverpool fixture.
As she was obviously unfamiliar with oracular mythology, I took the opportunity to expound: “The Tiburtine Sibyl lived here, in Tivoli, or Tibur, as the Romans knew it. Caesar Augustus came to her to find out if he should be worshipped as a God.”
“Full of himself, wasn’t he?” said Jane.
“The Sibyl told Augustus that he was not immortal, and that one day a greater man than he would be born. Can you guess who it was?”
“Donald Trump,” said Jane.
This produced a great deal of unbridled merriment in the women. When they settled down, I proceeded. “I’ll give you a hint. His mother was a virgin.”
“Yes, Him. It’s an intriguing little crossover myth. You have a pagan oracle predicting the birth of Christianity. Medieval Christians attached as much importance to the Sibyl’s prognostication as they did to the divinations of the biblical prophets.”
“Is that so?” said Jane, fidgeting with her scarf. “How do you know all this stuff?”
“Herr Baedeker. And Rick Steves, of course.”
Mother and I left Jane to her contemplations. After we’d peeked behind all the hedgerows and explored every mossy retreat, we doubled back to the central path. As I hiked beside the gurgling water trough, my eyes were drawn upward, to the towering jet of the Dragon Fountain, and still further, to the aged villa itself, ruling over the gardens like a stately but deteriorating monarch.
Ippolito II d’Este’s ecclesiastic career, despite its promising start (he inherited the Archbishopric of Milan at the age of ten), was disappointing. He wanted to become pope, like his grandfather, but his candidacy was crushed amid charges of simony. The villa became his consolation and obsession. He now lies eternally in its shadow, entombed in the neighboring church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
When we returned to the station, Jane was already on the platform.
“Delay,” she said, frowning. “Hour, at least.”
We found a bench, and had a chat. Jane waxed rhapsodic about her favorite football club, the Tottenham Hotspur. Mother contributed a number of embarrassing anecdotes dating back to my days as a youth soccer prodigy.
As the sun went down over Tivoli, the air grew frigid. I suggested we suspend our conversation and move into the waiting room.
“Not me,” said Jane.
I asked her why, and she told me to take a look for myself. Inside, there were a handful of grimy plastic chairs, each one occupied by the sort of burly rustic you’d expect to find mucking out a pigpen. Two of them, possibly brothers, had sacks of produce resting between their muddy boots. One was eating an onion, the other a potato. I went back outside.
“Well?” said Jane.
“There’s a man in there with onion skins in his moustache.”
“Told you these Italians were a strange lot.”
When the train finally arrived, we found a quiet car and gabbed with Jane all the way back to Rome.
“You’re good people,” she said as we parted. “Glad I met you.”
DAN MOREY is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. He’s worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent and outdoor journalist. His writing has appeared in Hobart, decomP, McSweeney’s Quarterly and others. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. Find him at danmorey.weebly.com.