Martin O’Brien visits the Papal Gardens at Castel Gandolfo
Thanks to the ‘Pope of Surprises’ there is a new ‘must see’ destination for the countless thousands of pilgrims and tourists who converge on Rome from all over the world.
That’s because in March Pope Francis took a bold decision to open to the public part of the 136-acre Papal Gardens at the Pope’s traditional summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban Hills about 20 miles south east of Rome.
Francis ordered the opening of the Barberini Garden, named after Pope Urban VIII, the first Pontiff to flee the heat of mid-summer Rome for the refreshingly cool hilly air by volcanic Lake Albano in the early 17th Century.
The move has thrilled visitors who come to what is fast becoming an immensely popular attraction.
And no wonder for the word ‘garden’ is a massive understatement.
This must be one of the most striking open air Roman museums anywhere.
The ruins of the villa of Emperor Domitian with his partially preserved theatre, and the remains of his seven-metre-wide, 300-metre long covered marble pathway or cryptoporticus built to shelter him from the rain, is also where Pope Pius XII, Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty and others sheltered thousands of refugees and local civilians during WWII.
And then you have the gardens, a constellation of gardens, among the most finely manicured and most dramatically appointed in the world.
There is an enchanting array of holm oaks, pencil pines, cypresses, the ubiquitous Roman umbrella trees, lemon and orange trees, striking geometrical patterns depicting papal coats of arms in boxwood I think it was, alongside azalea and rhododendrons to mention a few.
When I waited for the 11.30am, 90-minute guided tour to begin on a Saturday morning earlier this month, an attendant at the Villa Barberini took a stream of phone calls from Italian people asking if there were any places available that day.
Other visitors were turning up without tickets somehow hoping to pay on the spot and get into the gardens.
It was explained to all that tickets which are reasonably priced at €26 (with concessions) must be purchased online in advance through the Vatican Museums website (mv.vatican.va) and that the Barberini Garden had been booked out for quite some time.
The website also details the low-priced train and bus connections to Castel Gandolfo. Be prepared for a 15-minute walk uphill from the train station into the village. A taxi from Anagnina, at the end of the Metro A line out of Rome costs €35.
The gardens are open Mondays through to Saturday mornings. I had booked my ticket in the nick of time almost eight weeks in advance.
Groups are also catered for. A group of 15 people, for example, will cost €450 and when you book you indicate whether you want an English speaking or an Italian speaking guide.
Our English speaking guide spoke acceptable English and shared a wealth of historical anecdotes including the revelation that the hapless Innocent XII arrived here for the first time one terribly rainy and foggy evening in April 1697 so sad and so fed up that he stayed one night and never returned.
Given the demand for what’s becoming one of the hottest tickets in Italy, there will be inevitable disappointment. One gets the impression that the Vatican Museums staff are understandably feeling their way, managing a staggering attraction whose access to the general public seemed unimaginable as recently as a few months ago.
When you arrive in Castel Gandolfo, an attractive hilltop medieval village exuding an air of timeless tranquillity, there isn’t even a sign telling you that you have to walk several hundred yards down a gentle hill to the Villa Barberini to meet your guide and proceed down a magnificent tree-lined avenue into the gardens proper.
Last week there were just five free dates in June left where you could buy two tickets and five dates in July, three of the latter on Saturdays, for which you could buy two tickets. They were not yet accepting bookings for August. The Vatican says the garden “is not currently accessible to wheelchair users or persons with reduced mobility”.
The opening of the garden has brought some badly needed cheer to the traders of Castel Gandolfo who are disappointed that the Pope stayed in the Vatican last summer, rather than follow the example of predecessors who drew huge crowds for the Sunday Angelus not just in the summer months but at other times of the year also.
There happened to be three Loreto Ireland sisters in our group, including Kerry-born Sr Marian Moriarty IBVM, Institute Leader based in Rome.
Sr Marian is “delighted and grateful” that the Pope “is sharing the gardens with the people”.
However since last year she has been very aware of the “economic impact” on Castel Gandolfo of an absent Pope and says the authorities must rise to the challenge of mitigating this by being “more organised in looking after people when they arrive”.
Pope Benedict XVI made an average of four visits to Castel Gandolfo a year and in 2005, his first year in office, stayed for a total two months between the beginning of May and the end of September.
One Vatican analyst has calculated that Saint John Paul II who loved the place and had a swimming pool built here, spent a total of five years and 16 days here in a pontificate lasting more than 26 years.
He spent much time in prayer at a grotto to the Blessed Virgin in the Barberini Garden by a beautiful pond of water lilies.
Pilgrims wishing to say prayers here will have to keep them short as our guide moves our 20-strong group along fairly briskly as there is so much to see.
There is no indication that Pope Francis – who was not much into holidays during his period as Archbishop of Buenos Aires – sees Castel Gandolfo as a personal vacation destination. His decision to stay in the Vatican last summer was seen as show of solidarity with poor people who cannot afford to go on holiday.
Francis has made three days trips here – one to have lunch with Pope Emeritus Benedict – and to the disappointment of locals has never stayed overnight.
There is a hint reading all the material on the Vatican website that the facility may be in time extended beyond the Villa Barberini.
And with Francis showing no interest in the Pontifical Palace (where Pope Benedict XVI famously ended his papacy and where Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI ended their earthly days) one wonders if it could be included in the programme at a future date, something Sr Marian and many others would like considered.