Castel Gandolfo, where the popes go on holiday
Castel Gandolfo is a village overlooking Lake Albano, which the popes have made their summer holiday residence. Thanks to Pope Francis, the Papal Villas, the Papal Palace and the Barberini Gardens, which have been welcoming popes and high prelates during the summer months for 400 years, are now open for visits. On the shores of Lake Albano, 30 kilometres from Rome, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy welcomes you with its landscape quality, buildings designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the remains of Roman imperial villas.
Palaces of the Pope
The papal residence of Castel Gandolfo stands on the remains of one of the most famous villas of antiquity, the Albanum Domitiani, the immense residence that the emperor Domitian commissioned to be built on the shores of Lake Albano, on which he loved to sail.
The villa was later abandoned, as Emperor Hadrian had the villa at Tivoli built, while another emperor, Septimius Severus, preferred to settle one of his legions there.
Systematically plundered of its marble, which was also used for the construction of Orvieto's beautiful cathedral, centuries of abandonment followed for the Roman villa. Then, in the 13th century, a stronghold of the Gandolfi family was created among its ruins, which was later incorporated into the fiefdom of the Savelli family, who were forced to cede it to the papacy to settle a debt.
It was 1604 when the territory was declared an inalienable patrimony of the Holy See and Carlo Maderno, one of the designers of St Peter's Basilica, was commissioned to build a Papal Palace.
Under Pope Alexander VII, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was also commissioned, and he built the church of St Thomas of Villanova with its elegant slender dome and a fountain.
With the end of the Papal States in 1870, the papal residence was abandoned for 60 years, until the Lateran Pacts resolved to restore it.
With the acquisition of Villa Barberini, the gardens were also laid out, and in 1934 the 16th-century Vatican Observatory (Specola Vaticana) was moved to Castel Gandolfo, because the sky in Rome was too bright and was no longer suitable for observing the stars.
Thanks to the will of Pope Francis, since 2014 the papal complex of Castel Gandolfo, which enjoys the same extra-territorial privileges as the Vatican, has been open for visits.
What to see in Castel Gandolfo
If you enter the village from Porta Romana, you will find yourself in the elegant Piazza della Libertà overlooked by the Papal Palace, the Church of St Thomas and the fountain, both by Bernini.
On the eastern flank of the square is the road leading to the Belvedere, where you will suddenly see Lake Albano in all its beauty. Opposite the Belvedere is the entrance to Villa Barberini, with its Italian garden.
All that remains is to go down to the lakeside beaches to relax a little, or head to a restaurant to try a frittura di latterini, small fish from the lake which is served fried, and goes well with a glass of Colli Albani wine.
The village also has an open-air street art gallery, with works by Italian and international artists. Images of a dreamlike Castel Gandolfo are portrayed here, along with Caravaggesque Madonnas and other works on the themes of women's dignity, hospitality and social commitment against the mafia.
By train from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo
Castel Gandolfo can also be reached by train directly from the Vatican City. Not everyone knows that next to St Peter's Basilica there is a lavish station served by tracks connected to the national train network. It was built in the 1930s under the Lateran Pacts, and a passageway in the Vatican walls was opened to allow the trains to pass through.
The first pontiff to use the Vatican railway station was John XXIII, on 4 October 1962, for a pilgrimage to Loreto and Assisi, but the railway was only occasionally used by the popes, and was used mainly for freight.
Now tourists who wish to visit Castel Gandolfo can use it, on Saturdays, from spring to autumn, by prior reservation. The train arrives into Albano Laziale, then continues by shuttle bus to the papal residence complex.