The gardens of the Papal city are among the most magnificent in the world – and there are now some new ways to see them. Joanna Moorhead reports.
When people say they’ve been to the Vatican, what they invariably mean is that they’ve either been to St Peter’s, or the Vatican Museums, or both. These are the only publically-accessible bits of the world’s smallest state: the rest of the 44-hectare site – population 842, including its most famous resident, Pope Francis – is out of bounds to non-VIPs.
Or at least, it was. Now, though, the Vatican State is beginning to welcome tourists into its inner sanctum, in a way it never has before. Two new tours have been opened up over the last few months, one allowing visitors to tour the beautiful Vatican gardens in a minibus, and the second, even more ambitiously, enabling them to walk round the gardens before hopping onto a train at the Vatican’s own station to the Pope’s summer residence of Castelgandolfo, 25 km from Rome.
A ride on the world’s smallest railway – just short of a mile, with a journey time of approximately three minutes – is an exciting way to travel: but it’s the Vatican gardens that are the real wow factor. They’re among the oldest gardens on the planet, having been started in 1279 by Pope Nicholas III, the first pope to live in the Vatican. Since then there have been 78 more popes, and most have left their mark on the garden, as well as enjoying its tranquillity: Pope John XXIII is said to have liked the Chinese pagoda, while Pius XII, his predecessor, apparently never wanted to see anyone during his daily walks, which were always at the same time of 4pm. The gardeners, apparently, had to hide if they saw him coming their way.
Paul VI had a roof garden built, while John Paul II – who was only 58 when he was elected in 1978 – liked to walk briskly along the pathways, perhaps in training for the skiing and alpine walks for which he was famed. Benedict XVI’s favourite area of the gardens, apparently, was the Lourdes grotto, which was a gift to the Vatican from the French city, back at the start of the 20th century.
Exactly where Pope Francis likes to head to in the garden isn’t revealed during the hour-long bus tour – perhaps that’s because that section is kept away from the route. But even if part of the garden isn’t on the itinerary, there’s a huge amount to see. In effect, a tour of the Vatican gardens is a tour of the Vatican city itself, complete with all its historic and quirky and fascinating buildings. You’ll see the convent of Mater Ecclesiae, built in 1994: once it was home to the Vatican’s head gardener but since 2013, it’s served as the retirement abode of Pope Benedict. Then there’s the Casina Pio IV, also known as Villa Pia, a cream-coloured, handsomely ornate villa which is the HQ of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; and St John’s Tower, a round structure on a hilltop where illustrious guests of the Pontiff are housed when they’re in town.
Perhaps the most currently famous Vatican building is also one of its least important architecturally: the Domus Sanctae Marthae, completed in the mid 1990s as a guest house for the many clerics who have to visit the Holy See on official business. The guest house is used as the residence for cardinals during a Papal conclave, and after his election in March 2013 Pope Francis chose not to move to the Papal apartments in the apostolic palace, another large building near St Peter’s, but to remain in the guest house. He is said to occupy an ordinary room there, with minimal furnishings: pride of place is given to a simple crucifix, and a statue of Our Lady of Lujan, the patroness of Argentina.
It’s not just the buildings that make the Vatican City well worth a tour: the gardens, of course, are a huge draw, and they’re spectacular: you definitely don’t need a keen interest in botany to get a sense of the huge wealth of plant types and garden styles that are represented and reflected here. The gardens are immaculately maintained – by a team of 30 gardeners – and the overall impression is of lush grass and greenery and perfectly-manicured lawns punctuated by flower beds of brightly-coloured flowers of all descriptions. There are pine trees and cypress; boxwood, palm trees and olive groves, magnolias and ivy, roses and begonias: and the whole place is kept irrigated by an aqueduct from Lake Bracciano, 25 miles north west of Rome, with a huge underground reservoir built during the 1930s by the nephew of Pope Pius XI, who was an engineer.
As befits the seat of the universal Catholic church, the garden styles and plants reflect not only Italy, but the world. There’s a flowery French section, a quintessential English garden; evergreen maples and plane trees from North America, cedars from Lebanon, jasmine from China, sago palms from Japan, eucalyptus from Tasmania, a pineapple java tree from Brazil and many more.
And there are fountains: more than 100 of them, including the elaborate Fountain of the Eagle, a huge rock edifice from which water cascades into a pond in five stages, and the fountain of Galera, which depicts a sailing ship of war with sails, ropes and guns that shoot water. And religious statues, of course, are never far away: as well as the life-sized Lourdes grotto, which includes the original altar from the French town itself, there’s a larger-than-life marble statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a gift from Mexico in the 1930s, and a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, created by Pope John Paul II in thanksgiving for his survival after the attempt to assassinate him in 1981.
For many years the Vatican’s railway station has been largely unused, since modern Pontiffs tend to leave the state by helicopter (the helipad is another of the sights on the gardens tour); but a few months ago, it reopened for business – and for tourists. Today pre-booked guests can look round the gardens and then board a train for, first, a three-minute ride through the Vatican itself, and then a 40-minute scenic journey through the Italian countryside to Lake Albano, site of the Pope’s summer residence and the town of Castel Gandolfo.
The Papal palace and gardens there are Vatican territory: there’s the chance to see another magnificent garden, and a tour of the Papal apartments is also on offer. If you’re on the round trip on the Vatican train, you have around three hours to enjoy Castel Gandolfo, and there are plenty of treasures to see, from Bernini’s church of St Thomas of Villanova to the church of Our Lady of the Lake, commissioned by Pope Paul VI, the Villa Santa Caterina, currently owned by the Pontifical North American college, and the Villa Torlonia, home originally of the Giustinani family, with spectacular grounds. There’s a pretty town square, and – as you’d expect in any Italian town – plenty of good restaurants including Ristorante La Gardenia, with views from its balcony across the lake, and Ristorante Bucci, another top-class eatery where the views are as good as the cuisine.