Things To Do in Castel Gandolfo, Rome
Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sapphire blue waters of Lake Albano, Castel Gandolfo has given a long line of popes respite from the hordes and heat of Rome. In fact, this papal hilltop summer retreat enjoys all the same privileges as the Vatican, but is even bigger—the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo cover about 136 acres, 27 more than Vatican City. And as a proud member of I Borghi più Belli d’Italia, the charming little village of Castel Gandolfo is one of our top picks for a day trip within easy reach of Rome. It takes just 44 minutes to get there on a regional train from Termini station, or we will be glad to arrange a private car and driver so you can explore more of the captivating countryside of the Alban Hills.
What to See
Thanks to Pope Francis, the once-private papal vacation retreat opened its doors to the general public in Spring 2014 for garden visits and in October 2016 for the Apostolic Palace (but don’t expect to run in to the pope in the hallways; he’s only been here a handful of times and has never stayed overnight). The Vatican website offers a variety of tours that can be pre-booked, including a 60-minute ride through the extensive Barberini Gardens in an ecological vehicle, with commentary from an audio guide, or a 2-hour guided tour on foot led by an expert Vatican guide that covers both the Barberini Gardens and the rich collection of ancient artifacts from the sumptuous villa built by Roman emperor Domitian at the end of the 1st century AD.
In addition to the shady citrus groves and manicured landscaping of the formal gardens, the tours include a look at former pontiff Benedict XVI’s 50-acre organic farm. Benedict reportedly spent two to three months a year at Castel Gandolfo when he was pope, and it was to this idyllic spot that he was flown by helicopter upon his resignation in February 2012. Rustic it may be, but it is still a working farm with its own pumping station to provide lake water for irrigation, as well as growing and harvesting flowers and produce for sale. In line with Pope Francis’ emphasis on ecology, a unique use for the milk from Castle Gandolfo’s dairy is being undertaken by the Vatican Museums. This fascinating video shows how the Vatican’s Renaissance-era Belvedere Palace is being repainted with milk mixed with slaked lime and natural pigments that are hand-patted onto the walls, following a centuries-old technique.
It might be hard to tear yourself away from all this natural beauty but for seven euros more, your garden ticket will get you into the Apostolic Palace, above whose portal is affixed a plaque calling it “a small retreat for the soul and the body.” Not exactly small—the palace has hundreds of rooms—and 20 of them can be seen on the open tour of the Apostolic Palace with a multilingual audio guide, including the audience hall, the Consistory Room and the pope’s apartment with his bedroom, study and private chapel. The palace was designed by Swiss-Italian architect Carlo Maderno for Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century; Maderno was also responsible for the façade of St. Peter’s in Rome. And Maderno’s more famous contemporary, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, worked at both St. Peter’s and Castel Gandolfo as well: a fountain behind the Apostolic Palace, the entrance gate to the palace garden and the superb church of San Tommaso di Villanova are all by Bernini.
When to Go
Glimmering like a jewel set in the Alban Hills, the small volcanic crater lake whose Italian name is Lago Albano is the deepest in the Lazio region. The lake is fed by underground springs and its clean, clear waters have been attracting vacationers for almost 2,500 years (eels fished from the lake were a great delicacy in ancient Roman times). The village of Castel Gandolfo sits on the southern rim of the crater, while the lake’s western shore is equipped with a beach for swimming; boating, kayaking and fishing are popular, too. Vineyards and peach trees are a backdrop to its sparkling waters, making Lake Albano the ideal summer resort.
Castel Gandolfo’s picturesque Sagra delle Pesche (Peach Festival) is held on the next-to-last last weekend in July, with the 82nd edition taking place on July 21-22, 2018. An outdoor concert in central Piazza della Libertà kicks off the festivities on Saturday evening. Stands selling peaches are set up in the piazza the next morning, with the traditional ‘blessing of the peaches’ taking place at 11:00am, after which Mass is said in Bernini’s church. Then the piazza comes alive with a colorful procession of flag-throwers, musicians and lords and ladies in 16th-century dress. Another good time to visit is during the feast honoring St. Sebastian, the town’s patron saint. It takes place the first weekend in September—this year on September 1st and 2nd—and the festival concludes with fireworks over the lake.
Regarding the papal estate, spring is a wonderful time to visit. Gardeners move in to plant thousands of begonias, ageratum and pansies—all nurtured in greenhouses in parts of the property that are off-limits to tours—that turn the tiered flower beds into a riot of color for summer visitors. Beginning on April 8th, the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo are open seven mornings a week and that schedule continues during the months of May-June and September-October (the rest of the year they are closed on Sunday). Closing time on Saturdays, all year round, is 5:30pm but it’s a good idea to download the Openings/Closures Calendar 2018 from the Vatican website since the Catholic church observes many holidays and saint’s days throughout the year. And ‘extraterritoriality’ means that visitors are not in Italy anymore so the same dress code as in Vatican City applies: no sleeveless shirts and/or low cut garments, shorts or mini-skirts are allowed.
Where to Eat
Next door to the pope’s summer residence, in a panoramic position with a spectacular view of Lake Albano, is our choice of where to eat: Ristorante Pagnanelli 1882. The restaurant has been owned and operated by the Pagnanelli family for four generations, and the seasonal menu features products from the family farm (they even cure their own prosciutto). An al fresco meal on the flower-filled, lakeside terrace will make your day trip to Castel Gandolfo truly memorable. And after lunch, be sure to visit the wine cellars that are carved right into the volcanic rock; thousands of vintage bottles are displayed here, while the DOC white wines of the Castelli Romani are especially suited to the local cuisine.