VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis' desire for a church whose doors
are wide open isn't just a metaphor for encouraging a greater
spirit of welcoming.
He also has been giving real orders to Vatican staff to lift
the locks on places and spaces that were long closed to the
general public - the latest being the papal summer home in
the hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo.
The head of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, said the
pope told him he did not want the rich botanical and
architectural treasures of the papal gardens and villas to be
wasted, especially since the pope had no intention of ever
spending his summers there with "too much to do in Rome."
The pope told him, "Arrange for opening them up" to the
public, Paolucci told reporters Sept. 11 during an inaugural
tour of the new offering.
"It took a pope from the end of the world to give us such a
beautiful gift," Paolucci said.
But the pope's initiative goes even further by making the
summertime papal property even more accessible to visitors in
Rome by linking Vatican City State with the so-called "second
Vatican" by a regular train service.
The tiny train station of the smallest country in the world
is now open to ticketed tour goers so anyone can take a
specially chartered train that leaves every Saturday for a
round trip journey to Castel Gandolfo, just 13 miles away.
The train goes a few hundred feet before it passes the
bricked Vatican City walls and enters Italian territory. It
heads southeast going through Rome's apartment-block
neighborhoods and graffiti-strewn buildings. Soon it meanders
across grassy fields, following an ancient Roman aqueduct
along the Appian Way, until it cuts through dark tunnels and
opens out onto the hills of the "Castelli Romani" regional
Even though sightseers will be taking a regular commuter
train to the new tourist destination, the Vatican Museums and
Italian railway pulled out all the stops for special guests
and reporters Sept. 11 with a preview of the new tour in a
coal-powered steam locomotive from 1915. It had been used by
the Italian royal family and once carried Pope John XXIII to
Loreto and Assisi in 1962.
With thick black soot belching from the smokestack and fluffy
plumes of white steam whistling from the regulator, one
onlooker commented that it looked like the colored smoke from
a Sistine Chapel conclave signaling voting results for a new
pope. But most people just shook their heads in disbelief
that such a carbon-laden footprint could so closely follow on
the heels of the pope's latest encyclical, which denounces
man-made causes of global warming.
Tourists - taking a regular electric train - can choose two
itineraries and must book ahead online at museivaticani.va.
A full-day ticket for $45 starts with a two-hour visit to the
Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. After a one-hour walk
through the Vatican Gardens, there is a one-hour train ride
from Vatican City to Castel Gandolfo with a one-hour
mini-train ride through the pontifical gardens.
The 135-acre property includes three palaces, the ruins of
the summer villa of the first-century Roman Emperor Domitian,
manicured formal gardens, olive orchards and greenhouses. The
mini-train drives past a tiny helipad, which is how modern
popes avoided causing traffic chaos with their visits, and a
working farm that raises cows, hens, rabbits, ducks and
honeybees. All products are given to the papal household and
some are sold in the Vatican City's grocery store.
An $18 ticket includes just train transport and entrance to a
museum space created in the apostolic palace. It's the first
time the apostolic palace, which houses the still-private
papal apartments and the observatory dome of the pope's
Jesuit astronomers, has officially opened to the public.
Six large rooms display papal portraits, historical clothing
and liturgical vestments. People can get an up-close look at
a "sedia gestatoria," or portable papal chair, popes'
embroidered cloth slippers and a gold and silver desk set
used by Pope Pius VIII. Visitors also can venture onto a huge
balcony to admire Lake Albano - an ancient volcanic lake.
Both itineraries have tourists leave the papal property right
at lunchtime for three to four hours of "free time" in town
before a late afternoon train back to Rome.
Big crowds used to come every Sunday in the summer to pray
the Angelus with the pope. But the small town's merchants had
taken a financial hit when Pope Francis broke with custom by
no longer taking a vacation and spending a few months at the
The town of nearly 9,000 residents had been used to hosting
popes since the 17th century and the last year a pontiff did
not spend at least one summer month in the town was during
World War II.
In fact, it was during the war that Pope Pius XII first threw
open the doors to let in what had been a record number of
Hundreds of people sought shelter within the villa's walls
for a few days in 1943 during a heavy Allied bombing
campaign. And when the area became an active war zone in
January 1944, the pope hosted an estimated 12,000 people in
the neutral territory of the papal villas. The papal palace
became a refuge for the town's residents and a field hospital
with at least 40 babies born in the papal apartment.
Today, while there are no plans for an on-site obstetrics
ward, Pope Francis continues that same spirit of offering the
world refuge, this time away from the bustle and battle of
most tourist destinations.