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Tag Archives: Castel Gandolfo

Things to do in Roma

11 Feb
I am frequently asked for ideas on what to do in Roma. After all, we have people house-and-cat-sitting all the time, often for 2 or 3 weeks. And living here, we certainly have to get beyond the usual suspects.
Embedded in the steps of the Great Hall of Galleria Colonna, this cannon ball dates back to the Risorgimento.

Embedded in the steps of the Great Hall of Galleria Colonna, this cannon ball dates back to the Risorgimento.

Everyone knows the Colosseum and Vatican, and probably the Galleria Borghese. While these should not be missed, there are many other lesser-known sights to consider. You might also enjoy reading my blog on the subject of off-the-beaten-track ideas.

Palazzi, museums, events, and exhibits

From April-October 2016, there are once again special events in the Forums, a guided walk through Caesar’s Forum at night, and a multi-media show in the Forum of Augustus. You can find info at Viaggio nei fori. There’s nothing like a lovely outing after dark on a warm summer night. Take a break during the heat and head out after an early dinner for these events. I would do both, if not necessarily on the same night. If you have trouble reserving online, do not hesitate to call. They speak English.
Domus Romane at Palazzo Valentini is not the usual Roman ruin. Everyone we send here says it is one of the best things they did in Roma. Beneath a government building in the center of Roma, just off Piazza Venezia, are the excavated ruins of a Roman palazzo. You walk across a Plexiglas floor to view them, enhanced with a multimedia presentation to illustrate what things looked like 2000 years ago. Only three English tours daily so be sure to reserve online in advance.
Hard-hat tour of Nero's

Hard-hat tour of Nero’s “Golden House,” the Domus Aurea.

Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden Palace. Who can resist? It is legendary, although the goldenness is long gone. The restoration project is ambitious given the size. Visit the website and click on “Opening Hours.” Be aware, it is cold underground and even in summer you’ll need a jacket!
We went to Villa Torlonia  a couple of years ago on a sunny February Sunday and enjoyed it very much. Recent guests told us that more has been done and one can even visit Mussolini’s bunker from WWII. You can reserve a tour here. The entrance fee to see all of the buildings is a little expensive, IMHO, but worth seeing for architecture buffs. La Casina della Civette is quite unique.  The Mussolini Bunker is priced separately from the main buildings.
Villa Torlonia

La Casina delle Civette at Villa Torlonia, a curious mix of styles.

Galleria Colonna  is only open on Saturday mornings with an English tour at noon. We went early and had a wander around, then took the tour. Lovely private collection in an amazing building. The Colonnas are an ancient Roman family and members still live in the palazzo in private apartments. We have not been to the Princess’ Apartments, but British friends said they were great, so we need to go back.
Palazzo Farnese, the French Embassy to Italy. This is an historic building with Michelangelo’s art and frescoes worth straining your neck to see. English tours only on Wednesday at 17:00 and you must reserve a few weeks in advance for security reasons.
Villa Medici

Niobe suffers from hubris and loses al of her children. Gardens of Villa Medici.

Villa Medici, the French Art Academy in Roma. No reservations required. Just show up at Noon, Tue-Sun. You will see what the gardens of a Renaissance Roman villa night have looked like.
The Palazzo delle Esposizioni has special art exhibits that are usually worthwhile. Recently we saw French Impressionists from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Very busy Sundays when Roman families seem to flock to museums. 
Palazzo Braschi Museo di Roma near Piazza Navona is an under-visited, very tranquil museum. Cool on a warm day and certainly a respite from the rain should that occur. Featuring art depicting Roma in days gone by.
The massive staircase at Palazzo Braschi was like an Escher painting.

The massive staircase at Palazzo Braschi is like an Escher painting.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj in the historic center is also under-appreciated. It is yet another private collection in the old family digs. The collection includes Bernini, Caravaggio, Tiziano, Raffaello, and several Flemish Old Masters. The audio guide is excellent.
The Quirinale, the President’s Palace. Only recently opened for regular tours, thanks to President Sergio Matterella. Previously it was the Papal Palace (pre-Vatican days) and also housed four kings of Italy. Like visiting the White House, but security is less stringent and it’s fancier.
Riding the moving ramp down at Eataly. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.

Riding the moving ramp down at Eataly. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.

Eataly has two locations, a small one in Piazza della Repubblica, and the Mother Ship near Stazione Ostiense. I believe the larger store is worth the trip. Easy to stop on your way home from Ostia Antica (see below) with many choices for lunch. Eataly features Italian-made food products and a few non-food items. It is a showcase for all good things in the Italian food culture. Getting there once you reach Stazione Ostiense is a bit interesting, as I mentioned in my blog last September. You must persevere!
Looking to leave the crowds behind? Villa Farnesina is hidden away in Trastevere. Commissioned during the Renaissance by Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker, it contains frescoes by Raphael and is lightly attended. 
Churches worth seeing: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, St. Ignazio, San Clemente (the famous layered church), San Giovanni in Laterano, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Prassede, San Luigi dei Francesi (the seat of the French Catholic Church in Rome) and others too numerous to mention. 
Bernini's elephant obelisk, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Bernini’s elephant obelisk, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Guided Tours

There are two places we highly recommend guided tours: The Vatican and The Colosseo/Foro Romano/Palatino.
Walks of Italy  does a special tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s, “The Pristine Sistine.” I highly recommend it. It is not inexpensive, but the groups are small (only 12 people), the guides are educational and entertaining, and you get to the Sistine Chapel before it is a hot mess of people.
For the sites of Ancient Rome, the Colosseo/Foro Romano/Palatino, a private guide is a great idea. For about €50-55 per hour, you get a personalized experience. Sonia Tavoletta (soniatav@alice.it) and Francesca Caruso (francescainroma@gmail.com) are excellent. They will customize anything you want. If you have four-or-more people in your party, this is less expensive on a per person basis than many organized tours. 

Day Trips

Ostia Antica. In the

Ostia Antica. In the “Piazzale delle Corporazioni” or Square of the Guilds. Mosaics depict services and products.

Ostia Antica is less than an hour away from Roma by local train out of Stazione Ostiense. What the volcano did at Pompeii, time and the river did to Ostia Antica. These are actually well-preserved for Roman ruins, and I find the Rick Steves’ audio guide (MP3 available at his website) and the guide in his book are excellent for self-touring.
Orvieto is a one-hour train ride from Roma Stazione Termini and a fascinating Umbrian hill town. There is a nifty funicular that glides up from the train station to the plateau. Great place to wander, see the Duomo, have lunch, shop a little. Again, I have to turn to Rick Steves and encourage you to consult his guide to make good use of your time. The underground tour is worthwhile!
Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Tivoli is about an hour by train from Stazione Tiburtina and an excellent trip any time of the year. We’ve gone in August for the evening light displays at Villa d’Este, which makes a wonderful one-night trip (see my prior post here). We’ve gone to Villa d’Este in September and April as well, and to Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriano) in May one year. Villa d’Este is easily done by train, but I would suggest having a car to try to go to Villa Adriano. Alternatively, take a bus tour from Roma. (Haven’t done this myself but there are options through many tour companies if you care to research it.) I think Villa Adriano would be best with a guide. It’s vast and a bit confusing.
Formal gardens, Lazio Albano, the Papal Gardens

Formal gardens, Albano Laziale, papal estate.

Castel Gandolfo and the Papal Palace. The Apostolic Palace is where the popes up until Papa Francesco went to relax and escape the heat of Roma. Papa F doesn’t relax and eschews the trappings of papal wealth. Bravo! Thus, one can visit the palace almost any old time. Castel Gandolfo is a lovely little town with good restaurants in addition to the fantastic Papal Palace. It would be hard to combine with my next suggestion because the gardens one visits in the Vatican by Train tour are actually in neighboring Albano Laziale, but if you enlist a taxi and make lunch a quick panino you just might manage to do both in a day. 
The Vatican by Train  is an all-day event. You start with about 90 minutes to tour the Vatican Museums. (It is not enough time for the entire museum so you must pick a facet, a corner, and see what you can. We chose the Pinacoteca, which we had to ourselves for most of an hour.) Then you have a walking tour of the Vatican Gardens, which leads you to the San Pietro train station where you catch your private train to Albano Laziale and a tour of the papal estate there. You ride a train through these gardens as well. An audio guide is provided.
There are many other possibilities: Sperlonga for the beach, Frascati just because (porchetta and local Frascati wine), Tarquinia for the Etruscan museum and tombs (stunning!)…. 

Miscellany

10 Things you can do for Free in Rome from Italy magazine.
Coop Culture is the official ticket site for many Italian sites. Check them before using a consolidator, who will add on fees.  If you are going to the Colosseo without a guided tour, get your skip-the-line tickets from Coop Culture.
The Roma Pass can be worthwhile if you do the Colosseo, et.al., one day and the Galleria Borghese the next, making those your first two entries with the pass. Otherwise, forget it.
Transportation tickets/passes. You can buy tickets for single trips for €1.50 at any edicola (newsstand) or tabaccheria (tobacconist). There are also passes for 24, 48 and 72 hours at €7.00, €12.50, and €18.00 respectively, which are usually available at the edicola or tabaccheria. A 7-day pass is €24.00. Details at ATAC.com. Note that few buses sell tickets on board. Buy before you board and validate or risk a huge fine. 
Transit Trip Planning is available here. If you are traveling with a smartphone, download ProBus, AutoBusRoma, or Moovit. You can research bus routes and get an estimate on when the next bus will arrive.
The books 24 Great Walks of Rome, Rome the Second Time, and 111 Things to Do in Rome are great for inspiration! I found all of them either at Amazon.com or Powells.com.
Movies in English are shown every week. Usually, they are posted on Friday for movies from Saturday through the following Wednesday. Check here for what’s on. Some of the theatres do not sell popcorn or anything else to eat or drink, so eat before you go.
Now you see why they say Roma una vita non basta! (Rome – a lifetime is not enough!)
If you have a favorite place I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment.
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The Pope doesn’t sleep here

27 Oct
At least the current pope, Papa Francesco, does not sleep in the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo. He has abnegated the luxury of a vacation residence and opened the doors to the public; At least to anyone willing to pay €10.00 for entrance.
The Apostolic Palace dominates the square in Castel Gandolfo.
The Apostolic Palace dominates the square in Castel Gandolfo.
In September we visited the Gardens of the Pontifical Villa, thinking we were in Castel Gandolfo. In actuality, the gardens are part of Villa Barberini in Albano Laziale and when we exited the garden tour we were a long walk from the little town of Castel Gandolfo. So we vowed to return while the weather was good.
Pope's view of Lago Albano.
Pope’s view of Lago Albano.
Early in the morning the flow of commuters from small towns storm Stazione Termini like an invading horde. The incoming trains are packed with briefcase-toting-suit-wearers and women tottering on impossibly high heels, and it seems everyone is puffing on a post-commute cigarette. We were blessed with an out-of-Roma trip, against the onrush of workers, accompanied by a very few Romans who actually get to leave the city for work.
A quick 40-minute ride through the countryside, passing Ciampino Airport and a handful of small towns, brought us to Castel Gandolfo. Then a 15-minute slog walk up the hill landed us in the town square where any number of little bars awaited our arrival. We found seats and a cappuccino in the 15-degree Celsius sunshine with a full view of the Apostolic Palace, aka, Papal Palace, aka Pontifical Villa or most commonly in Italian Palazzo Apostolico. Take your pick.
A Bernini angel...at least the audio guide claims it is his work.
A Bernini angel…at least the audio guide claims it is his work.
Writing set of Pope Pius VIII. Sorry about the glare. It is under glass for its protection.
Writing set of Pope Pius VIII. Sorry about the glare. It is under glass for its protection.
As instructed, 20 minutes before our tour time of 10:00, we approached the guard who welcomed us warmly and sent us up a flight of stairs to enter the museum. We were equipped with audio tour devices and sent on our way to self-guide, well before the clock chimed 10:00. We were the only people in the entire museum!
Now before you get to thinking that we ran giddily through the papal vacation home, jumping on the beds and checking inside the refrigerator, the public is not allowed in any area that would be considered an apartment. The museum consists largely of select papal portraits along with some special accoutrements, and the accompanying audio guide tells some of the fascinating history behind these powerful men.
The portrait of Papa Francesco is in a very different style from his predecessors.
The portrait of Papa Francesco is in a very different style from his predecessors.
We enjoyed the tour very much, even if we did not get to see the Papal bathroom. There’s one of those at Castel Sant’Angelo anyway.
Papal throne and entourage.
Papal throne and entourage.
In 6 1/2 hours we went from our home to Castel Gandolfo by bus and train, had coffee (always on the agenda), took the tour, and were back home in time for lunch. If one wanted to have lunch in CG — and why not with that view of the lake! — I would actually recommend the 11:00 tour followed by a leisurely lunch. Trains back to Roma are frequent. Would I spend an entire vacation day doing this on my first trip to Roma? Absolutely no. But when you have been here as long as we have, or visit annually like some of our friends, it’s fun to find new places to explore.
There are many restaurants that take advantage of the fine lake view.
There are many restaurants that take advantage of the fine lake view.
Info on tickets for the sites in Castel Gandolfo and Albano Laziale can be found here.

Castel Gandolfo: Vatican by train

13 Sep
One of the goals we have in staying in Italy for some time to come is to continue exploring our own backyard, i.e., Roma and environs. We’ve enjoyed some less-visited sights over the past three years, and continue to look for new ones. Afterall, una vita non basta!
St. Peteràa from the inside. A view from the garden, where the Pope takes his daily walk.

St. Peter’s from the inside. A view from the garden, where the Pope takes his daily walk.

Early last week a new tour was announced in the Italian press: Vatican by Train. That got Ric’s interest pretty fast. According to the press, the tour, called “Vatican by Train Full Day” would run only on Saturdays and the first run was September 12. We could be on-board for the maiden voyage!
Here’s what the Vatican website had to say
With the exceptional opening of the Barberini Gardens and of the Museum of the Apostolic Palace, the Pontifical Residence of Castel Gandolfo welcome the public at large.
Visitors who book the Vatican by Train will have access to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Gardens and to the botanical and architectural wonders of the Pontifical Residence, known by as the “second Vatican”.
Further exploration revealed an ambitious schedule and the likelihood of a 13 hour day away from home, but we have time…. The schedule for the day broke down like this (wording from the Vatican website)
8.00 am: Avoid the queue at the entrance. Tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel with an audio guide;
10.00 am: Walking tour of the Vatican Gardens with an audio guide;
11.00 am: Departure from Train Station of the Vatican City State to Albano Laziale and transfer to the Pontifical Villas by shuttle;
12.30 pm: Tour of the Pontifical Villas (Villa Barberini) by tourist train with an audio guide;
1.30 pm: End of the tour and exit from the Pontifical Villas.
Free time
4.45 pm: Transfer from the Pontifical Villas to the train station of Albano Laziale by shuttle;
5.18pm: Departure from the Train Station of Albano Laziale to the Roma San Pietro Station
Beautiful lawns fall away toward teh train station. Hard to imagine all of this is inside Vatican City.

Beautiful lawns fall away toward the train station. Hard to imagine all of this is inside Vatican City.

Leaving home about 06:30, we arrived at the museum entrance a few minutes before 8:00, fortified by cappucino e cornetto at a nearby bar. It was clear lunch would be a long way off and we had miles to go before we ate. We were admitted quickly, as promised with our voucher. Exchanging it for tickets and an audio guide took a few minutes, but by 8:25 we were outside the Pinacoteca, which we had decided would be our focus.
There is no way one can “do” the Vatican Museums in less-then-two hours. A few people we spoke to later in the tour tried a mad dash to the highlights such as the Sistine Chapel and Hall of Maps, but everyone eventually realized this was not a best-of-the-Vatican tour.
Fountain in the Vatican Gardens, reminiscent of Villa d'Este.

Fountain in the Vatican Gardens, reminiscent of Villa d’Este.

Our decision to focus on the Pinocateca was fortuitous: We were completely alone for at least 20 minutes. Just Ric and me, fabulous works of art, and a dozen guards hunched over their smartphones. (Whatever did museum guards do before they had smartphones?) Some tour groups arrived, stopped at major works then moved quickly on. We took our time, saw the entire gallery, then had a brief rest before the garden tour. If you ever want to be alone in the Vatican Museums, head for the Pinocateca at opening.
Under clear blue skies and warm-not-hot sun we were escorted through the Vatican Gardens by a group of uniformed guides and a number of “suits” and journalists. The museum officials were shepherding the inauguration carefully, ensuring it went smoothly. And it mostly did.
Bougainvilla still in bloom, the Vatican Gardens.

Bougainvilla still in bloom, the Vatican Gardens.

Our garden tour was also audio-guided, and we had a wee map with audio points described, but it was difficult to know where our group of about 100 people was and when we should punch up each number. Still it was beautiful, not at all what I expected, and while not encompassing the entire tour (which according to the website is 2 hours long) it was a good overview.
We ended at the Vatican train station, a seldom-used and closed-to-the-public relic of a prior era. Thanks to Papa Francesco, more of the Vatican properties are being opened to mere mortals and the chance to take the train out of this station was a strong motivator for us.
Not the steam train the media portrayed....

Not the steam train the media portrayed….

We expected a steam train. All the news media featured a vintage train, but on arrival we found a modern Trenitalia train of the type used on the FR lines. It was fine, comfortable and air-conditioned, but not the historic experience expected. I have to wonder if there was another train that day, but all of the articles I’ve found were written before the 12th and so I think the pictures are “file photos” and certainly not from the event we attended.
We had a nice ride to the station at Albano Laziale, where buses met us and ferried us through narrow streets and up the hill to the entrance to the gardens. There, we boarded a trenino to tour the estate, again with audio guide. Absolutely stunning is all I can say. I had no idea Domitian had a summer palace here, but then why wouldn’t he? The history is, as with almost any grand villa in Italy, long and complex. What remains is a place of beauty comparable to Versailles. Some is wooded, some planted in formal gardens, and there is a farm. Did you know the Pope has a farm? Chickens, white goats, cows, bees: everything one needs in a self-sustaining estate.
Click on any photo to enlarge it or for a slideshow.
Wrapping up about 14:40, we had three hours of free time. We set off to find a restaurant along the lake, where we had lunched a couple of years ago. But wait, where the hell was the lake? Pulling up Googlemaps we found we were in Albano Laziale, not Castel Gandolfo. Duh! Not close to the lake, we started wandering the town, which was mostly closed for la pausa. Not a lot of restaurant options we could see, but peeking down a little alley Ric spotted a trattoria. From where we stood it looked closed, although someone was inside sweeping up. “Siete aperti?” I asked. “Sí! Accommodatevi!” We took a cute table on the patio just as a group of Americans we knew trooped in. They, too, had been surprised by ending in Albano Laziale. They had a reservation for lunch 3 km away in Castle Gandolfo! Feeling slightly less stupid for misunderstanding, we relaxed and prepared to enjoy lunch. We were fortunate to have a little family from the U.K. join us at a neighboring table and engaging in conversation we discovered they had expected to end the tour at the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo. Surprise!  Perhaps all of the English-speakers misunderstood? Maybe the Vatican website was less-than-clear? Nonetheless, I can highly recommend Trattoria Rosmarino should you make the trip to Albano.
Cin cin! At Trattoria Rosmarino. Highly recommend!

Cin cin! At Trattoria Rosmarino. Highly recommend!

A long lunch ate up the free time (pun intended). There are a number of ruins and sites in Albano for the more industrious tourist, but we had been on-the-go since dawn with not much energy left, so a luxurious lunch was perfect. Back on the shuttle bus before 16:30, we arrived at San Pietro Station just in time to get a train to the tram to go back home, another adventure in public transportation for us.
Isaac, our dining partner at Rosmarino.

Isaac, our dining partner at Rosmarino.

We were very confused about the relationship between the estate we toured in Albano and the Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo. A little map-based research showed they are on the same property, but the gardens are accessed by the public through Albano, and the Apostolic Palace is at the other end, the north end, closer to the lake. One can visit the Apostolic Palace, any day but Sunday, and only in the morning, and apparently only through the month of October, presumably to be revived in the spring.
I suspect another day trip to the area is in our near future.
For more information on all of the tours, go to the Vatican’s Online Ticket Office. 
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