Anyone who lives or visits Rome has heard of Villa Borghese. For newcomers or tourists, the first thing to wrap your head around is that while we have all come to know the word villa, Villa Borghese is not one big palazzo or palace that brings to mind the Borghese Gallery. The villa of any town, large or small, is often the central park. Where my family comes from in a miniscule town in the Abruzzi National Park, the villa is about the size of a postage stamp.
In Rome, Villa Borghese, once the hunting grounds of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew or nipote of Pope Paul V (and where our word nepotism comes from), has so much on offer, that would make the Cardinal proud even today. He had wanted his land and edifices there to be a sort of multi-sensorial amusement park of the natural sciences, astronomy & the arts and, despite wars, building, snowstorms that damaged the trees, it has succeeded. But Villa Borghese has so much more than just the rental go-carts, mini-trains or Segways, and the sumptious gallery of art filled with Bernini sculptures and extraordinary masterworks.
|the hydro-clock in Villa Borghese|
Starting with the Borghese Gallery, you can see to either side, the gardens filled with orange and lemon trees and tulips in the summer. These were rare and exotic plants back in the day, and Scipione wanted to show them off. Further down, with its airy fanciful tops, you’ll see what was once his aviary. Along the way, and in much of Rome itself, you will also find buildings and walls sporting dragons and eagles, the heraldic symbol of the Borghese.
Further on, Scipione housed his horse stables, a planetarium of sorts, and kept a zoo for the exotic animals of his day, most likely where the current zoo or Bioparco is, a great place to visit with kids.
Enter Villa Borghese from Via Veneto and you’ll come to the Casa del Cinema, which shows an ecletic programming of exceptional films. With its expansive terrace opening to the park, it's also a great place to enjoy drinks on a summer night. Further on, there is a statue of Goethe, who once enjoyed strolls around the gardens here.
In summer, the park comes to life with a perfect copy of London’s Globe Theater offering Shakespeare in the Park. I love it, because it’s performed in Italian, so I can finally understand what’s going on! They offer cheap tickets in the ‘standing room only’ section on the floor, just like back in the day.
A magnificent horse show is held each year in the Piazza di Siena, also open to the public, and, during World Cup matches, I am always here for the large screen viewings, quick eats and drinks.
New museums have opened or old ones revived and reopened in the park as well.
The Museo Carlo Bilotti offers user-friendly and highly interesting art exhibits in what is now called the Orangerie, but was once actually Scipione’s House of Water Games.
The Pietro Canonica museum is located in what was called the little fortress, or Fortezzuola. Before it burnt down and ultimately transformed it into a museum, it was the Hen House, filled with ostriches, peacocks and ducks used for Borghese hunting parties.
Of course, any visit to the Villa Borghese means a lookout on the Pincio hill above Piazza del Popolo (where all the vehicles of every kind are for rent). For less bustling activity on wheels, head over to the little pond, where you can also rent boats and laze on the peaceful water, watched over by beautiful goddesses and swans.
In need of a pit-stop? You can use the clean public bathrooms near the Pincio near the tavern of the Hydro Clock – totally run on water – Alas, during my last visit, it was displaying the wrong time. When it's fine-tuned, it's an amazing feat of science, I can assure you. In the ladies' room there, they've taken to covering with tons of tape the ceramic plaque which is misspelled, rather than get a new one.
Turns out, ladies with a sense of humor were adding their own bathroom humor just like in ancient times...
But, Caveat Emptor! Don’t be tempted to sit down for a cappuccino & croissant at the bar, that’ll take you out 18 euro for two! Instead, when you get hungry, cross the park over to the Via delle Belle Arti and the GNAM: Rome’s Modern Art Gallery. Aside from the splendid works inside representing every major Italian artist of the 19th-21st centuries (and much, much, more) there’s a terrific cafè and restaurant, serving exquisite brunches on Sundays. In summer, eat out on the terrace for one of the best experiences in Rome. Or, if you have kids, walk down off the Pincio and into Piazza del Popolo and thru the huge gateway there. Across the busy road and off to the right is a great take-away place, serving pizza by the slice and other delectable treats. Although I'd put my money on the kids preferring the Burger King right there instead.
Nonetheless, Villa Borghese is heart-shaped, and it definitely wins my love in being a great place to visit anytime of the year.