Not that I am obsessed by water but it does play a large part in my life -- one, maybe two showers a day, swimming three times a week, spring and fall trips to the beach. I'm sure that I even drink more than my share of the stuff. Water was on my mind last May as we drove northeast from Rome up a winding road to the hillside town of Tivoli. I remembered my architecture professor's lecture from 20 years ago: "There are two great water gardens in the world," he had said, the Generalife, a complex of gardens adjoining the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, and the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy."

I may have forgotten the rest of the professor's lectures, but over the years, I remained determined to experience the great water gardens firsthand. Every architect has a list of "must see" places, and the two gardens were high on my list. In 1984 I traveled to Spain with a friend and confirmed the professor's pronouncement about the Generalife. And then, last spring, just as scholars, writers and artists have done since 1590 when the villa and garden were complete, we set out to explore the magnificent hillside gardens and the stately chambers of Villa d'Este for ourselves.

I had no idea then that the experience would be so memorable. I have walked many gardens, but this one engaged all the senses with its mix of sculptural architecture and living landscape.

Typically I make it a point not to read about the places I visit until I get there. Usually I am prompted to travel to a special place by a personal recommendation (in this case Prof. Moore's lecture years ago), and I go carrying only a good map, a sketchbook and a trusty Michelin Guide. (I once drove 1,200 miles out of my way to visit a city suggested by a woman I had met briefly in a bar.) But many travelers are more sensible than I am and may find the following notes from my Villa d'Este sketchbook helpful.

Tivoli is a 20-mile bus ride or drive by car from Rome. The modern town of 40,000 inhabitants is reached by the Via Tiburtina, a road that generally follows the Anio River. The town is high up on a crest of hills overlooking the Reveling Valley.

We arrived late on a weekday afternoon and prepared for our one-day stay. A quick reconnaissance of the town on the lookout for a place to stay and a restaurant for dinner sent us to the outskirts, across the river, to a Romanesque stone structure with 20 rooms arranged around a quiet green courtyard. Converted from an old abbey, the inn's rooms had high ceilings, small windows looking out over the valley and large, heavy wooden doors.

Early the next morning we were back in the town square for a mandatory pastry and cappuccino, eager to start our adventure. The villa is off the Piazza Trento at the rear of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore and is entered through a modest entrance marked by the d'Este coat of arms -- eagles and fleur-de-lis -- hardly an auspicious beginning. The fact is that the Villa d'Este is not particularly distinguished as Renaissance villas go -- a loggia on three sides of a courtyard, a grand stair to the upper apartment chambers and stairs down to the noboli, or nobles' private chambers, below -- quite unassuming at first glance.

Actually the villa was originally a convent for Benedictine nuns, later the residence for the governor of Tivoli. Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, who had ambitions to be pope but failed to be elected, accepted governorship of Tivoli in 1549. D'Este desired a palace becoming of his stature, an impressive retreat in which he could entertain and conduct business. The new governor promptly directed architects Pirro Ligorio and Giacomo della Porta to work out plans for transforming the building and grounds into a magnificent villa.

The architects were faced with the existing structure, which at that time was a plain, three-story Romanesque building that Ligorio proceeded to enrich with decorative detail as well as a Florentine-style loggia. But the biggest challenge for the architects lay in the villa's site, with its two sides bounded by a steep hillside. Their ent went into reshaping the hillside.

*Today, a tour through the villa itself offers only the slightest introduction to the grandeur of the garden beyond. The high ceilings and walls of the chambers are frescoed in the Renaissance manner of exaggerated perspective depicting local scenes. On one wall of the Central Hall there is a frescoed view of the villa and gardens according to the original plans. Small mosaic fountains adorn the walls of the noble's apartment in the same way that fireplaces occupy other villas. A visitor is enclosed in rooms of quiet dark beauty.

But step outside onto the formal terrace, and you are met by the most dramatic change. First there is a sweeping view across the valley to the distant Sabine Mountains, followed immediately by your first glimpse of the gardens stepping down the hillside to the bottom 150 feet below. The view is as it must have appeared on the architects' drawing board: originally quiet, sharp and precise; now lush and overgrown.

The visitor's first view into the gardens shows them to be characteristic of Italian Renaissance outdoor planning -- grand and generous without the more formal control of a French or English garden of the period. There is neither the spectacular display of color normally found in the French garden nor the lively sound of birds overheard in the English estate; instead there is a thundering roar of water coming from the rich green canopy of trees below.

In the famous Spanish garden of Generalife water is hardly seen (marked only by a narrow slit in the pavement) and barely heard (as a trickling sound). Here water seems to spring from beneath the villa and, like a mountain stream, rushes madly down the hill. At least that is the impression one gets from the sound, if not the sight of water. In fact, it is under the villa courtyard where the reservoir that feeds the fountains is located. The reservoir is in turn fed by a great aqueduct that extends under the town from the River Aniene. However, the irony is that from this vantage point, only placid ponds can be seen, not great fountains or waterfalls. It is as if the sound deafens the view.

Undisciplined nature, overgrown trees and lush vegetation obscure the fountains below and distinguish our view today from architect Ligorio's original conception more than 400 years ago. While the Renaissance ideal was for man to control nature and dominate the landscape with his constructions, in the late 20th century man can only hope (at least in the great water gardens) to maintain nature. Water here seems to defy our grasp as it betrays the architecture and engineering of the gardens in its effort to escape control.

The gardens of Villa d'Este are arranged on five principal levels or terraces that stretch across the site; stairs and ramps connect the levels. Originally the villa's main entrance was at the base of the hill, and, looking down from the top today, it's easy to appreciate the challenge of climbing that hill that faced visitors in those days. Given the earthwork involved in creating this garden, it is hard to believe that even a hundred artisans and craftsmen completed the work in 10 years.

The upper garden is located on the steepest portion of the hill, and while the architects did their best to recontour the hillside they were finally faced with three types of spaces on which to organize water displays:

Terraces, flat planes suitable for ponds and pools. Here the surface is like a shelf that projects out from the original contours of the hill.

Walled enclosures, created by cutting back into the hill and thereby providing opportunities for waterfalls and sculptured backdrops to fountains.

Balconies, formed by grading and filling earth to provide special overlooks to the garden levels below. BAT10 We spent most of the day decorative detail as well as a Florentine-style loggia. But the biggest challenge for the architects lay in the villa's site, with its two sides bounded by a steep hillside. Their ent went into reshaping the hillside.

*Today, a tour through the villa itself offers only the slightest introduction to the grandeur of the garden beyond. The high ceilings and walls of the chambers are frescoed in the Renaissance manner of exaggerated perspective depicting local scenes. On one wall of the Central Hall there is a frescoed view of the villa and gardens according to the original plans. Small mosaic fountains adorn the walls of the noble's apartment in the same way that fireplaces occupy other villas. A visitor is enclosed in rooms of quiet dark beauty.

But step outside onto the formal terrace, and you are met by the most dramatic change. First there is a sweeping view across the valley to the distant Sabine Mountains, followed immediately by your first glimpse of the gardens stepping down the hillside to the bottom 150 feet below. The view is as it must have appeared on the architects' drawing board: originally quiet, sharp and precise; now lush and overgrown.

The visitor's first view into the gardens shows them to be characteristic of Italian Renaissance outdoor planning -- grand and generous without the more formal control of a French or English garden of the period. There is neither the spectacular display of color normally found in the French garden nor the lively sound of birds overheard in the English estate; instead there is a thundering roar of water coming from the rich green canopy of trees below.

In the famous Spanish garden of Generalife water is hardly seen (marked only by a narrow slit in the pavement) and barely heard (as a trickling sound). Here water seems to spring from beneath the villa and, like a mountain stream, rushes madly down the hill. At least that is the impression one gets from the sound, if not the sight of water. In fact, it is under the villa courtyard where the reservoir that feeds the fountains is located. The reservoir is in turn fed by a great aqueduct that extends under the town from the River Aniene. However, the irony is that from this vantage point, only placid ponds can be seen, not great fountains or waterfalls. It is as if the sound deafens the view.

Undisciplined nature, overgrown trees and lush vegetation obscure the fountains below and distinguish our view today from architect Ligorio's original conception more than 400 years ago. While the Renaissance ideal was for man to control nature and dominate the landscape with his constructions, in the late 20th century man can only hope (at least in the great water gardens) to maintain nature. Water here seems to defy our grasp as it betrays the architecture and engineering of the gardens in its effort to escape control.

The gardens of Villa d'Este are arranged on five principal levels or terraces that stretch across the site; stairs and ramps connect the levels. Originally the villa's main entrance was at the base of the hill, and, looking down from the top today, it's easy to appreciate the challenge of climbing that hill that faced visitors in those days. Given the earthwork involved in creating this garden, it is hard to believe that even a hundred artisans and craftsmen completed the work in 10 years.

The upper garden is located on the steepest portion of the hill, and while the architects did their best to recontour the hillside they were finally faced with three types of spaces on which to organize water displays:

Terraces, flat planes suitable for ponds and pools. Here the surface is like a shelf that projects out from the original contours of the hill.

Walled enclosures, created by cutting back into the hill and thereby providing opportunities for waterfalls and sculptured backdrops to fountains.

Balconies, formed by grading and filling earth to provide special overlooks to the garden levels below. BAT10 We spent most of the day in the gardens, working our way from the villa to the bottom of the hill. We found 10 of the water displays particularly fascinating, and I sketched a view of the gardens, with those sites numbered, to use as a map to the fountains.

1. The Grand Terrace. This first formal terrace extends the length of the villa, the surface carefully planted with clipped myrtle hedges and grass. Like a grand foyer to a palace, the terrace provides a stately means for arrival and departure to and from the gardens below. A cafe' at one end of the terrace suggests future reward to the visitors willing to descend the 150 feet down the hillside and back up again.

2. Ovato Fountain. A good vantage point from which to see the egg-shaped Ovato Fountain is the east end of the Grand Terrace. The most baroque design in the villa, the fountain appears to be carved from the rock of the hill. An upper basin receives a tremendous volume of water underground that churns and cascades over the rim in a solid curtain of water into the oval pool below. A semicircular arcade on each side of the upper basin allows one to walk around and under the waterfall. For the child (or young at heart) there is the excitement of active involvement with water -- its sight, sound and touch -- that sets the Italian garden apart from its Spanish counterpart in Granada. The morning we were there, a busload of Italian 8-year-olds had descended the garden and were, one by one, breaking the curtain of water at the Ovato Fountain with their hands.

3. Hundred Fountains. The long terrace that leads west from the Ovato Fountain is spectacular -- a long avenue (again the width of the villa) that is bordered on one side by three tiers or water raceways fed by individual jets of water, from the first to the second to the third tier. The overall effect is stunning: the seemingly infinite view multiplied by endless arcs of water. Surely, there must have been 100 jets of water, although I did not count to make sure. The design is Renaissance illusion at its best.

However, American visitors beware: The Hundred Fountains are not precisely the fountains we have seen depicted in 16th-century lithographs, or even the ones we may know from the sharp clarity of a 1920s photograph. As with many ancient monuments, the structures here are battered by age, weather and plant growth. Each of the fountains at Villa d'Este is worn and overgrown with moss. Mosaic tiles are missing, frescoes are faded. (Remember that the Parthenon was originally multicolored.) The original design in all its glory can only be imagined, "the impression full of tragic grandeur," remarked author Edith Wharton in 1907.

4. The Rometa. At the end of the terrace of the Hundred Fountains is the "Rometa" Fountain, or fountain of little Rome. This is an architect's delight because the fountain, situated on several levels, depicts a model of ancient Rome with miniature buildings and monuments that in the cardinal's time formed a background for an open-air theater. Again the scene must be imagined, as nature has overgrown the ancient city model, obscuring the principal buildings from view. From here, a sloping path leads to the next level of the garden.

5. Owl Fountain. This fountain, at one end of the third terrace, was one of the several hydraulic toys that originally existed in the gardens. Hidden in an elegant baroque niche was a mechanical owl that, from time to time, would jump out and give a loud screech (the movement and sound were powered by water).

6. Dragon Fountain. This fountain, at the center of the third terrace, reportedly was created practically overnight to honor Pope Gregory XIII's visit in 1572. The background consists of a semicircular court and stone niche flanked by Ionic columns cut into the hillside. The fountain is one of the most artistically designed water events at Villa d'Este. Water sprays upward from the mouths of four great dragons in the center of a shallow pond to form a single column of water that rises 30 feet into the air. The imposing monsters have successfully fought off any intrusions by nature and the composition remains remarkably intact.

7. Water Organ Fountain. This is perhaps the most famous fountain at the Villa d'Este -- a great eight-sided structure that dominates the end of the third terrace (not unlike the altar of a baroque church). A central kiosk, designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini, originally housed a mechanism that actually played a tune imitating the sound of an organ. Richly decorated with carved and sculpted ornaments, this ensemble was intended to display the owner's wealth as well as to entertain. While the water organ may not have inspired Franz Liszt, who spent the last years of his life in the villa, it has drawn wonder from visitors ever since it was completed after the death of Ippolito d'Este. Today the sound of water plays notes in splashes. Orpheus and Apollo stand quietly in niches on either side of the structure, surrounded by silent allegorical symbols carved in stone and marble.

8. Neptune Fountain. Less known than the Organ Fountain, but much more spectacular today, is the more recently reconstructed Neptune Fountain that extends the waters of the Organ Fountain to the next level of the garden below. Looking up from the fourth terrace, the illusion is one of distance, with multiple cascades of water that will surprise the most experienced student of Renaissance design. Is it one or two fountains? Where does one stop and the other begin?

9. Fish Ponds. The fourth terrace is unlike any other: three long basins that stand out in contrast to all of the fountains experienced before. Here the water is still, sheets of glass that mirror the clouds and azure sky above. Free from overhead trees, this is the terrace where the warm Italian sunshine penetrates the garden. Maxfield Parrish's beautiful watercolors painted at the turn of this century best capture the glow of the gardens in this light, with the water in repose and the landscaping lush dark green in the background. Surrounded by beds of hydrangeas, callas and roses, the garden is full of mystery and surprise.

10. Cypress Rotunda. Near the bottom of the garden, on the fifth and final terrace, is a circular clearing centered on the Fish Ponds where centuries of old cypresses guard four small pools of water. The rotunda formed by the cypress trees arranged in a circle around the ponds is a perfect retreat from the progressive displays of water viewed before. In contrast to the attention captured earlier by water, here one can focus on dense green trees: living sculpture that is molded but moving.

Beyond the Cypress Rotunda there are formal gardens, more walkways lined with polyanthus and annuals. And there are still other lesser fountains -- sensuous and endearing, such as the Fountain of Nature, containing a sculpture of the many-breasted Diana, or the Fountain of Ariadne. These more modest fountains are located at the lower edge of the estate.

There are a number of alternative paths and steps back up the hill, past water that leaps and churns over stone frogs and gargoyles. And there is constantly the unexpected -- hidden grottoes, mythical beasts, sea gods, nymphs, sprouting jets of water -- to make the climb easier.

The many levels of meaning and symbolism throughout the garden raise questions: Why in the villa of a cardinal does the sculpture reflect all of the Greek mythical gods? Did the cardinal have a secret carnal self he expressed in his sculptural garden?

Sitting on the upper terrace drinking a beer that afternoon, we fantasized about what life must have been like at the villa before the cardinal's death in 1572. (Two other cardinals maintained the villa and gardens until the 17th century.) We imagined our grand arrival, mingling with a parade of guests, walking under the Ovato Fountain, sitting near the Rometa Fountain to watch a short play. We saw a crowd gather to witness the playing of the Organ Fountain and other guests eating near the Fish Ponds, later moving up the hill to dance on the Grand Terrace. That was a time when only thousands of fireflies and moonlight illuminated the gardens. But it was also a time when the rush of water delighted the senses -- and that delight remains today.