The gorgeous Castel Gandolfo, located just outside of Rome, has always been reserved for the enjoyment of the Pope and his visitors but Pope Francis has just opened his private gardens to the public, for the first time ever. Garden party, anyone?
The place has been the summer residence, “holiday home,” for the popes for centuries, being scooped up in 1596 after its previous owners went bankrupt. Pius XI did a good job of modernising it in the 1930s and also built a farm that produces all the fresh fruit and veg for the Vatican dinner table. John XXIII used to enjoy escaping the castle grounds to hang with the locals, much to the chagrin of his security team. John Paul II spent many years here, enjoying the private swimming pool (the paparazzi probably loved that!) and finally Benedict XVI enjoyed his stay here, even months after handing in his resignation.
As for the current Pope, he has set foot on the grounds exactly three times since taking the title and has yet to stay overnight. Maybe country retreats just aren’t his thing, in any case, he has ordered these extraordinary grounds to be opened to the public for the first time in history. This will be an ideal side trip for any architecture and garden buffs on holidays in Rome.
Of course you won’t be able to just stroll through the villa and snap shots of the pope’s bedroom. There will be some restrictions in place. Firstly, the property will only be open to visitors from Mondays to Saturdays. The Villa Barberini section of the 55-hectare property will be open, with its beautiful parterres and oak parks where Emperor Domitian’s country residence remains once stood in the first century AD.
Taking a tour:
Tours of the property are 90 minutes long and will lead visitors along the shady pathways through the Giardino della Madonnina. It’s not until you reach the balcony that overlooks the Giardino del Belvedere that you can really appreciate the scale and beauty of the place. A walk along the ruins of Domitian’s villa, blackened by fire and covered in graffiti, just go to show how many men were sheltered here during bomb rains in WWII.
A tour, which much be booked in advance on the Vatican Museums website, is the only way to visit the gardens. It costs €26 per person and tours are available in both Italian and English. Visitors wearing shorts or sleeveless tops will not be admitted.
- Tour times: Monday-Saturday at 8:30, 10:30 (Saturdays only, tour led in Italian) and 11:30
- Note: The gardens contain many stairs and are therefore not currently accessible to wheelchair users or travellers with reduces mobility.
Castel Gandolfo is the summer residence of the Pope and is perched rather dramatically looking over Lake Albano. It’s about 20 miles to the south of Rome. Take the train from Rome Termini station to the village of Castel Gandolfo. They depart once an hour, take around 40 minutes and cost a mere €2.10. If you hope to explore some more of the countryside, it’s probably better to hire a car from Rome in the day.