VATICAN CITY — People visiting or living in Rome now have another jewel of nature and architecture to visit: the Pontifical Gardens in Castel Gandolfo.
Pope Francis came up with the idea to open these private papal gardens to the general public, starting March 1.
The papal property at Castel Gandolfo covers almost 136 acres, which is more territory than Vatican City’s 108 acres. The walled grounds include a papal summer residence, the summer residence of the Vatican secretary of state, the Vatican observatory, extensive formal gardens, woodland, hay fields, a working farm, a dairy and beehives.
The papal villa, which is built atop the ruins of a Roman emperor’s country residence, has been a second-home for popes since 1626. Perched in the Alban Hills overlooking a volcanic lake, the papal residence south of Rome has served as a quiet and cool place to escape from Rome’s intense crowds and summer heat.
But last year, Pope Francis made just a few brief visits to the villa and there are no signs he plans on using it as a vacation getaway like his predecessors have. Not letting a good thing go to waste, he has decided to throw the gates open to the public for organized tours.
People will need to book ahead online through the Vatican Museums’ website.
Ticket price per person is 26 euro ($36) and visitors will need to get to the entrance of the pontifical villas on their own before the tours start at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday. A special combo ticket of 42 euro ($58) will get you a Saturday garden tour (which has an additional Italian language-only tour starting at 10:30 a.m.) along with a “no-line” special entry to the Vatican Museums on the following Monday.
There are a number of restrictions involved with the tour. For example, a lot of walking is involved so it is not recommended for people with limited mobility nor is it wheelchair accessible. Also, modest dress is mandatory so people wearing shorts, miniskirts or tank tops will not be permitted entrance.
However, it’s not the first time the papal grounds and villa have been opened to the public. During World War II, Pope Pius XII opened the doors of the villa to thousands of people fleeing the Nazi army. He also gave up his bedroom to expectant women among the refugees and fifty babies were born there during the war.
When Blessed John Paul II stayed there, he used to play hide-and-seek with the children of the gardens’ employees. Pope Benedict XVI liked to use his time there to write and, in the evenings, play his favorite works of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven on his piano, to the delight of the staff who’d overhear the tunes through the open windows.