The Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo
The Catholic Church owns a lot of real estate, but few of their properties are as beloved as the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo. This baroque palace, designed by the legendary architect Carlo Maderno, served as the Popes’ summer home for hundreds of years. The fabulous architecture and precisely-landscaped gardens of Villa Barberini were the ideal escape from the heat of Rome in the summer. They could also serve as a hideout when certain Popes wanted to avoid public scrutiny or the demands of visiting world leaders. Although the Palace at Castel Gandolfo was a favorite hangout of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has decided not to use the house and has instead opened it up for tours with select tour operators.
Visiting the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo: What to See
The Apostolic Palace
The Apostolic Palace is perhaps the most popular piece of Vatican architecture (among the Popes, if not anyone else). It was conceived of and commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, who was also a great patron of Baroque art, including works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His chosen architect, Carlo Maderno, was also responsible for the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica. What strikes visitors today is not necessary how opulent the interiors of the palace are, but how intimate and homely. This was, after all, the place where Popes came for hundreds of years to unwind and relax. It was a safe haven from the political intrigues of the Vatican, as well as a strategic hideout from touchy diplomatic situations. When Hitler came to visit Rome during World War II, Pope Pius XI, who was pursuing a policy of neutrality, quietly withdrew to Castel Gandolfo to avoid meeting with him.
Pius also used the Apostolic Palace to house refugees, including Italian Jews. The special legal status of the Catholic church meant that people could not be attacked or taken from any land owned by the Vatican. By some estimates, the Palace and grounds of Castel Gandolfo hid and fed hundreds of Jewish refugees, as well as others, escaping the bombing of Rome. The gardens even had a makeshift maternity ward for pregnant refugees. Some 40 children were born there.
The palace has historically swung in and out of vogue depending on who is Pope. Pope John XXIII was often seen around town, chatting with the locals. Pope John Paul II spent, by one estimate, over 5 years of his 16-year pontificate here.
The Villa Barberini Gardens
Much of the Castel Gandolfo’s 55-hectares have been landscaped into beautiful gardens. This same plot once comprised the grounds of the ancient residence of Emperor Domitian. The Holy See picked up the property in 1596 but the shady holm oaks and cedars, along with the begonias and pansies you see today were not planted until Pope Pius XI renovated the palace after the Lateran Pacts in 1929. It wasn’t only plants that he added to the newly-restored grounds. Pius XI also modernized the place by adding radios, telephones, eating places, lights and even a greenhouse and cattle barns – which proved useful to help feed all those refugees during the Second World War.
Benedict XVI is said to have favored the shady lanes of the part of the gardens called the Giardino Della Madonnina. Visitors, on the other hand, tend to favor the jaw-dropping flower beds of the Giardino del Belvedere. This garden is especially popular in the spring when the flowers come into full bloom.
Many popes have left their mark on these gardens but perhaps the most controversial change was made by Pope John Paul II who added a chlorinated swimming pool.
Tips for Visiting the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo
The Papal Palace is open every day but Sunday, but can only be visited with a specially-certified tour group.
Tickets for the Vatican-led tour cost €26.00 and can be booked on the Vatican Museums website. Be aware that these tours only include the Apostolic Palace and only take place at 10:30am on Saturdays. They are also exclusively offered in Italian. For tours in English that also include the Vatican gardens and transportation, check out the Walks of Italy Official Vatican and Castel Gandolfo Tour.
Trains to Castel Gandolfo depart from Termini Station every hour and take roughly 40 minutes to arrive. If you take a Walks of Italy tour you will depart from Vatican City using the official train traditionally reserved only for Popes, the Swiss Guard, and Vatican citizens. Just 25 kilometers from Rome, the stunning landscape and calm atmosphere of Castel Gandolfo feel a world away.
Though not a place of worship, the Vatican authorities still mandate a pretty strict dress code at the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo. Visitors are expected to dress appropriately and will be refused entry if their shoulders and knees are not covered (this goes for both men and women).
The Best Time to Visit the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo
Because entry to the Papal Palace is restricted to pre-reserved tour groups, there are never any issues with crowds. The most important thing to consider when you visit is what sort of plants you would like to see in the gardens. Spring is obviously the best time to catch the giant flower beds in bloom but summer also holds many delights. Autumn and winter are the most peaceful and contemplative.
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