Visiting the Pope’s summer residence: the Pontifical Villas and Gardens
We Romans are very lucky to have so many beautiful places in such close proximity. Can you believe that in just a 35-minute drive from the center of Rome you find yourself in the beautiful borgo of Castel Gandolfo, part of the Castelli Romani area? Not only does the town boast charming streets and splendid views of Lake Albano, it’s also home to the Pope’s summer residence. That’s right, Castel Gandolfo has been used for centuries as the summer residence of the Popes. But unlike his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict, Pope Francis rarely visited the Pontifical Villas, finding them way too luxurious. In 2014 he officially decided to open the residence to the public, allowing visitors to visit the Pontifical Palace and Gardens. Let’s get ready to dive into a short day trip from Rome packed with history, nature and delicious food.
The Pontifical Villas
Piazza della Libertà is the main square of Castel Gandolfo and is also where you’ll find the entrance to the Apostolic Palace. Once you go through security and walk up the stairs, you’ll find yourself in a large courtyard where some of the past Pope’s cars are on display. Here you’ll be given an audio guide that will accompany you for the first part of the visit: the museums that takes you on a journey through 500 year of history of the Popes. From portraits to painting, the museum section of the Papal Palace ends with the Portrait Gallery, with portraits of the Popes starting from Pope Julius II, elected on November 1st 1503, and ending with Pope Francis. Afterwards, you’ll leave your audio guide and enter the Papal Apartment. I found this part of the tour more interesting, you get to see the Pope’s chambers, beautiful halls, the library and the most beautiful: the Gallery of Alexander VII, packed with frescoes by Pierleone Ghezzi.
The Pontifical Gardens
In addition to the Apostolic Palace, you cannot miss out on the gardens, which were honestly a whole other level in comparison to the Papal Palace. If you’re into nature and botany, you’re going to fall in love with the Papal Gardens a.k.a. the Barberini Gardens, considered an extraterritorial zone of the Vatican City State. The gardens extend for 55 hectares from Castel Gandolfo to Albano, and are a true spectacle of Italian-style gardens: hedge mazes, various flower species, sculptures, fountains, tree-lined avenues and ancient ruins mix to create the perfect green escape from the city. The greatest development period of the Papal Gardens was during the Renaissance, when fountains, statues and hedge mazes were built. Get ready to enjoy the beautiful gardens, from the Magnolia Garden to the Belvedere Garden, far from the hustle and bustle of the city in groups of 15 people accompanied by a staff member. Visits to the Pontifical Villas and Gardens are from April to October and you can purchase your tickets online on the official website of the Vatican Museums.
Where to eat in Castel Gandolfo
After visiting the Apostolic Palace and Barberini Gardens, it’s time to enjoy lunch. If you’re looking for a place with a great view, head to Ristorante Pagnanelli, it overlooks Lake Albano from a charming terrace. You can taste yummy seafood and meat dishes typical of the area, in addition to a fabulous wine selection.