Gardens are often washed away by floods, but Villa Gregoriana, which reopened last month in Tivoli, Italy, was actually created by one. Rescued from abandonment by the Italian Environment Foundation (FAI), the vertical garden (there's actually no villa) offers one of the most romantic walks in Europe. It winds through luxuriant wooded paths, natural grottoes and ancient ruins, and leads to a spectacular 120-m waterfall. The landscape, featuring 2nd century B.C. architecture, inspired such 17th and 18th century artists as Nicolas Poussin and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and became a must-see stop on the Grand Tour. Later, Villa Gregoriana was admired as much for its role in averting floods as for its natural beauty.
The flood-prone Aniene River washed away a good part of inhabited Tivoli in 1826, so Pope Gregory XVI, as sovereign of the Pontifical States, made the bold decision to dig a tunnel through Mount Catillo on the right bank, which diverted the river to the other side of the mountain and down a precipitous gorge. There, Cardinal Agostino Rivarola was given the assignment to create a landscaped public park. His design features terraced walkways and craggy steps, which lead to clearings with dazzling views of waterfalls and temples dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and Tiburnus, the mythical founder of Tivoli who ousted the occupying Sicilians from the area. But over the last half of the 20th century, Villa Gregoriana became a neglected jungle of brambles, brushwood, ivy and weeds, obscuring the views and grottoes and covering the limestone walls' natural whorled designs.
After FAI's restoration, all is as it was back in the 19th century, and birdsong and the rush of water on the rocks fill the atmosphere. Architect Gae Aulenti's visitors' center offers audio guides, and next summer guests will be able to take illuminated evening walks. The restoration, which includes the replanting of tree and shrub species from Rivarola's original garden, will continue for at least another year. Villa Gregoriana is once again worthy of the most splendid of Grand Tours. tel: (39-06) 3996 7701; www.pierreci.it