CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (AP) — As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in Italy, thousands of people are heading to see the extensive gardens and apartments at the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills near Rome.
Built on a hilltop above Lake Albano, Castel Gandolfo was for centuries the retreat for popes seeking to escape Rome’s sweltering summer heat. Pope Benedict once strolled past well-groomed hedges, lemon trees and rose bushes. John Paul II prayed by a statue of the Madonna overlooking a pond with lily pads and goldfish.
Yet unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis has avoided the palace, preferring to stay at the Vatican throughout the summer.
In 2014, Francis decided that the 55 hectares (135 acres) of gardens should be opened to the public. In 2016, the palace itself followed suit, with visitors allowed into the former papal bedroom, private chapel and personal study. A surprisingly simple brass-frame bed is one of the few furnishings in the bedroom. An exhibit shows portraits and paraphernalia of former popes, from thrones to gilded stools.
The palace was built above the villa of the Roman Emperor Domitian and remains of the ancient theater and the Roman walls can be seen in the gardens between flowering pink azaleas.
The Vatican employs roughly 150 people to take care of the gardens and palace, a help to the local economy. Visitors have also provided a boost to local businesses in the small town of Castel Gandolfo, which used to rely on the hundreds of thousands of faithful arriving for papal audiences in the summer.
After a long pandemic closure, the gardens and palace reopened to limited numbers of visitors in May with mask requirements. Vatican Museum officials say they lost 86% of their income in 2020 and are hoping that Castel Gandolfo ticket sales will help recuperate those losses.
Castel Gandolfo had 269,000 visitors in 2019 and since reopening a few weeks ago, the gardens and museum have been attracting up to 1,500 people a day.
Castel Gandolfo is also the location of the first-ever meeting between two popes: When he resigned in 2013, Pope Benedict XVI went to Castel Gandolfo where he waited to see who would be elected to replace him. Once elected, Pope Francis immediately went there to pay his respects to Benedict.