Postcards from Italy

A Papal Retreat: Castel Gandolfo

Rome is one of the world’s great cities: repository of stunning art and architecture; birthplace to iconic pasta dishes; and vibrant capital formed over almost three millennia of history. Despite its La Dolce Vita-tinged joie de vivre, the Eternal City can also be slightly overwhelming, with a relentless pace and urban bustle that is unsurprising for a metropolis of millions but not the relaxing atmosphere you may want on holiday.

Villa Barberini Pontifical Gardens, Castel Gandolfo(Photo by Sonse via Flickr)

If you find you need a break, there are a number of easy day trips that take you out of the city for a few hours of respite; one of the most delightful is Castel Gandolfo, where popes have retreated from the heat and politics of the capital during the summer months since the 17th century. Set just 14 miles (24 kilometers) outside the city limits, this sprawling estate is located deep in the hills of the Castelli Romani overlooking Lake Albano, an area known for its pretty towns, bucolic countryside, and respectable wines.

The Apostolic Palace and Barberini Gardens at Castel Gandolfo

Villa Barberini Pontifical Gardens, Castel Gandolfo(Photo by Sonse via Flickr)

The Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo was built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII by Baroque architect Carlo Maderno, known primarily for creating the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica. Urban VIII was a member of the wealthy and powerful Barberini family, and had no qualms about creating an opulent villa and estate where he and his vast entourage could relax each summer (he is, in fact, remembered for the amassing huge debts during his pontificate). The property was used as a papal residence for more than three centuries, and is spread over 135 acres, including a 75-acre farm—added by Pope Pius XI in the 1930s—that supplies both the Vatican and the farm shop with vegetables, fruit, honey, and other fresh products; the stunning Barberini Gardens created around the ruins of the Roman Emperor Domitian’s country villa dating from the 1st century AD; and the swimming pool that raised a stir when added by Pope John Paul II.

The gardens and villa were opened to the public by the “people’s Pope”, Pope Francis, for the first time in history in 2014 and 2016; visitors can choose to tour the grounds, palace, or both. The site is only open to the public via guided tour, and reservations must be made through the Vatican Museum website.

The Barberini Gardens (Villa Barberini) features historic holm oaks, impeccably maintained parterres, and pretty fountains and ponds set among ancient Roman fragments of pavement, marble columns and statues, and other remains of Domitian’s pleasure palace. Garden tours generally include the Giardino della Madonnina and the the Giardino del Belvedere’s scenic overlook, as well as glimpse of the helicopter pad where two Popes met for the first time in history when Pope Francis took the reigns from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

Villa Barberini Pontifical Gardens, Castel Gandolfo
(Photo by Sonse via Flickr)

The palace is a jewel of Baroque architecture, with lavish interiors decorated with the Barberini family symbol (the bee) throughout. Highlights include the displays of historic cassocks and other pontifical vestments, portraits of popes over the past three centuries, the imposing banquet table reserved for state dinners, and surprisingly humble private apartments and bedroom. Be sure to pause before the many windows and balconies to take in views over the surrounding gardens, Lake Albano in the distance, and the Mediterranean Sea on the horizon when skies are clear.

Palazzo Apostolico di Castel Gandolfo
(Photo by Sonse via Flickr)

The Town of Castel Gandolfo

Lago Albano • Lake Albano(Photo by Sonse via Flickr)

Most visitors to Castel Gandolfo head straight to the Apostolic Palace and Barberini Gardens, but the town itself is a delight, with invitingly picturesque streets and squares perfect for a leisurely stroll or lingering cappuccino. Admire views over the rolling countryside and placid lake, and feel worlds away from the chaos of Rome. The main Piazza della Libertà is lined with cafés and shops, and there are a number of restaurants in town with panoramic terrace dining where you can sample the area’s acclaimed pecorino (sheep cheese) and porchetta. Pop in to admire Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s San Tommaso di Villanova, commissioned by Pope Alexander the VII in the mid-17th century and home to a handsome crucifixion by Pietro da Cortona.

Lago Albano • Lake Albano(Photo by Sonse via Flickr)

Lake Albano

Castel Gandolfo(Photo by Tomasz via Flickr)

After touring the palace and exploring the town, follow the main road downhill to Lake Albano just below Castel Gandolfo. The promenade along the lake shore is lined with eateries to one side and beach clubs to the other, where Romans escape on hot days to relax on the black volcanic beaches lapped by limpid lake waters. Settle in at one of the lakeside cafés and sample the local red and white DOC wines produced in the Castelli Romani hills, hire a lounge chair and sun umbrella to while away the afternoon, or rent a bike or boat to explore by land or sea. Other points of interest in the surrounding Castelli Romani Regional Park are the historic towns of Arriccia, Nemi, and Frascati, and Lake Nemi.

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