Desmond O'Grady opens the door to
Castelgandolfo, the Pope's summer residence where he is staying this month
POPE JOHN Paul is at his
summer residence Castelgandolfo until September. Urban VIII began the tradition
of papal holidays at Castelgandolfo when the residence still used was completed for him there in 1626.
At that time, as witnessed by even more lavish 17th century villas for Roman nobility at nearby Frascati. 15 miles was considered a goodly distance to move from Rome. It meant a transfer from the malariainfested plain to the salubrious hills (Castelgandolfo is 1400 feet above sea level).
Nowadays, Rome's outer suburbs have edged southeast towards Castelgandolfo and the lights of the expanded city disturb the astronomical observatory which is located at the papal residence. From the residence, the sea and Rome can be seen when the heat haze lifts. Each Wednesday the Pope returns by helicopter for his audience in St Peter's Square.
At the villa he swims daily in the covered pool he had built and sometimes joins groups of young people in a sing-song in the gardens.
Many visitors do not realise where the gardens are. The papal residence itself cannot be missed. The white, three-storey stone building closes the end of the main square which is flanked by the parish church and enlivened by a fountain both designed by Bcrnini.
One side of the residence, surmounted by an observatory cupola, looks down on the dark volcanic lake, site of the 1960 Olympic rowing contests, which Romans consider sinister because of the deaths from drowning which have occured there. The English Colleges summer residence is visible on the opposite side of the lake.
To greet visitors, at midday each Sunday Pope John Paul appears on the centre balcony, then on an inner balcony for those gathered in the courtyard.
Most visitors presume the gardens are behind the residence. "That's where the papal bull is kept" some comment there is a Canadian bull on the papal farm.
But the gardens are more to the front of the residence, to one side and not readily visible. They run behind the religious souvenir shops which flank the square and continue the whole length of the village.
The Pope takes a covered elevated walk to reach them from the residence without crossing the road. They are the most beautiful gardens 1 have seen, partly because of their silence. They have various sectors, wild and formal and make use of the ruins of the villa of the Roman Emperor, Domitian (AD 81-96) which are on the site.
At the far end of the gardens are the swimming pool wellhidden, and the farm which produces for the Vatican. The observatory also has its main telescopes in the garden which is better shielded from Rome's lights than the residence where there is an older telescope (to visit the gardens, written permission is needed from the director of the villa).
During the summer, Castelgandolfo's small piazza takes crowds which would otherwise fill St Peter's Square. It means brisk business for its restaurants overlooking the lake and the souvenir shops which accept any currency for medals, scarfs, knicknacks, rosaries, Swiss guard dolls and so on.
However, Castelgandolfo, which has 5,000 inhabitants, has not prospered as much in recent years as nearby hill towns. It's tourist tides do not seem as profitable as wine-producing cooperatives, the atomic research centre at Frascati, strawberry growing at Lake Nem i, or the factories at Pomezia.
A decade ago the Vatican donateda school to Castelgandolfo but this is one of the few new buildings in a village which seems to lag behind its neighbours.
attitudes to Castelgandolfo have varied. Clement XIV (1769-1774) enjoyed riding a white steed at breakneck speed in the open Castelgandolfo cottntryside and once broke his shoulder in a fall. Pius IX (1846-78) said Lake Albano was less a place for holidays than for meditating on death.
Once he was being drawn through the woods in a carriage when he met a begging Franciscan returning to his monastery on a donkey. Pius told him that the founder of his order, St Francis, always used
Shank's Pony: "Sanctus Franciscus non equitabat". The friar responded that St Peter was never seen in a carriage either, Er Sanctus Pants non scarrozzahat.
With the Italian occupation of the Papal States in 1870, The Popes declared themselves "prisoners of the Vatican" and spent their summer holidays in its gardens. When he went to Castelgandolfo in 1934, Pius XI was the first Pope to do so in 64 years. He also retired there to express his disapproval of Hitler when the German leader came to Rome.
Both Pius XII and Paul VI died at Castelgandolfo perhaps Pius IX was prescient when he said it was suitable for meditation on death. However John Paul recovered strength there after Ali Agca's assassination attempt. It's not as bracing as his native mountains but healthier than sun-struck slimmer Rome.