I’ve got a “free day” in Rome before the rest of the family arrives… a Google search for the best walks around Rome leads me to Tivoli. It’s less than an hour away, and seems to offer the opportunity for some short walks, as well as Villa Gregoriana with its waterfalls and grottoes. (There’s also Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, which I don’t have time to visit.)
I make my way from the station to the famous Villa Gregoriana, about a 10-minute walk away. After disastrous floods in 1826 which destroyed almost all the homes in the oldest part of Tivoli, there was a public competition find way to deviate the course of the Aniene river and prevent future floods. The project was authorised and financed by Pope Gregory XVI. Following the diversion of the river the Villa Gregoriana park was created using the old river bed of the Aniene.
The best project for diverting the river was judged to be that of Clemente Folchi, who proposed a digging a tunnel through Monte Catillo. A short diversion from the main path through Villa Gregoriana leads to the exit of the twin 300-metre tunnels, known as the Cunicoli Gregoriani (Gregorian Tunnels). They vary from 10 metres in width at the entrance to 7.20m at the exit.
The massive project to divert the river moved the course of the Aniene, and shifted the falling point of the water away from the residential area. Even during a relatively dry period, the flow of water is pretty impressive.
Slightly further down the main route are the remains the Villa of the Roman patrician Manlius Vopiscus. The villa was built in limestone, and the ruins that can be seen formed the foundations of the residence. A flood in 105BC destroyed part of the town, and swept away the villa.
As the main path descends into the valley, there’s a view of the lower falls. Perched above the river is the acropolis of ancient Tibur, located on an isolated rock opposite the waterfalls. Built in the 1st century AD, the site had two temples perched on the edge of the precipice.
Another side path leads to a viewpoint overlooking the Great Waterfall; along the path are small caves and grottoes that are common in the porous travertine limestone.
There are a views of the river from along the narrow path. It looks very placid (the green colour being from the limestone) and it’s hard to imagine how the Aniene vally was referred to as the “valley of hell”, before the river was diverted.
It’s an impressive view of the artificial waterfall as the river emerges from the two tunnels from the viewpoint, with the water falling 105m into the valley below.
After this diversion to the waterfall lookout, the main path descends to the Ponte Lupo clearing, at the base of the falls. Prior to the river’s diversion, the Ariene river formed a small lake here.
Below the Ponte Lupo clearing, a natural bridge is formed when the river goes underground and into a tunnel. Called the “Mermaid’s Grotto” by the Swiss landscape artist Louis Ducron (at the end of the 18th century), the underground passage is thought to have been formed in the huge flood of 105AD.
The path then climbs up the opposite of the valley, splitting into two routes. The more scenic option starts with a tunnel carved into the cliff, with side openings offering views of the underlying chasm (Miollis tunnel). A very short diversion to the Nymphaeum viewpoint, an artificial cave looking out over valley below.
Another diversion leads to Neptune’s Grotto, carved out by the river centuries ago.
Due to the unusual geological composition of non-compact travertine (also known as calcareous tufa), which is highly porous, the grotto has many stalagmite-like formations.
Re-tracing my steps, I backtrack to see what the alternate route to the top is like – it’s much less impressive, but boasts views over the Aniene Valley. Directly opposed is the convent of Sant’ Antonio (thought to be built on the ruins of the Villa of Horace), and you can just make out a train that’s coming into Tivoli from Rome.
The route finishes at the Temple of Vesta and Tiburnus. There are ten surviving Corinthian columns of the Temple of Vesta, which includes a frieze at the top with festoons and bucrania. In the distance, above the town, I can see a large cross on a hill which is my next destination…
From the temples at the exit of Villa Gregoriana, I walk back through the town, in the vague direction of the large cross on top of the hill… After following the main road (Via Quintilio Vaso) uphill for a few hundred metres, there’s a steep and narrow road (Don Strada Nello Del Raso) that heads past of a block of units. It seems promising, so I can continue upwards, with some nice views of the town.
A little further there’s a foot-track off the road, and even some signage that would help if I actually knew where I was heading… I continue with a bit more confidence, as I do have a map that shows a “330” trail, which corresponds with the sign at the start of the trail.
Even from the start of trail, there’s some nice views of Tivoli and the Temple of Vesta below.
While the views are great and I’m clearly on a path that’s going somewhere, what’s a bit perplexing is that I seem to be heading past Monte Catillo and its prominent cross, and there’s no been no obvious turn-off to the rocky peak (I’ve also seen references to the cross being on Monte Della Croce, which is just below Monte Catillo).
I continue along the track… what I don’t expect to find in what seems to be the middle of nowhere is a soccer field!
I’m now well above the cross, so I veer off the marked route and head directly towards it, down the ridge. It’s a bit rocky but it’s not difficult walking and takes about 15min to reach the base of the cross. There’s panoramic views over Tivoli, with the railway station on the left and historic town directly ahead.
I can see the track I’ve been on snaking up the hill – but there’s no plaque or information about why such a large cross has been put here.
There’s no obvious track down from here (I thought maybe I’d missed the track to the peak), but it’s pretty easy to find a route back down to the main track. There does seem to be a side-track up to the cross, but it’s not obvious and not sign-posted.
I’ve still got a bit of time, so I re-trace my steps up the hill, past the soccer field and onwards… As the trail rises, there’s increasingly expansive views over Tivoli and beyond.
The track swings to the north, and after being fairly exposed it enters a forest consisting of cork oaks. There’s a few side-trails here, but the main one continues up and over Monte Giorgio. As you climb further up there’s a view to the east of the village of Bivio San Polo below and Castel Madama in the distance.
The track passes a gate as it keeps heading up the ridge, and about 500m after the gate I seem to be at about the the highest point, with the track now continuing north along the ridge.
I turn back as the track starts to descend slightly, as I have a train back to Rome I need to catch. I enjoy one final vista of Tivoli and the surrounding countryside before re-tracing my steps.
It looked like a longer circuit would be very feasible, and I discover later a useful blog post which describes a longer circuit, including the route I’ve taken.