Railway to heaven: Pope’s summer palace opens with train from Vatican

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Because he is not using it, Francis has decided to open up the doors of his summer abode to the general public. For the occasion, a new rail link has been put into service, on which – if your pockets are deep enough – you can ride on vintage steam trains.

Breaking with tradition, Pope Francis has not spent the summer months away from the heat of Rome in the Vatican retreat of Castel Gandolfo, a picturesque hilltop town 25 kilometers south-east of the Italian capital.

Starting Saturday, the 17th century Apostolic Palace, which was a favourite of predecessors Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI and now stands mostly unused, will be regularly opened to the public for the first time in its history.

“The pope has given up his summer residence to let the people in,” said Antonio Paolucci, head of the Vatican Museums. “I can imagine how thrilled and amazed visitors will feel, but also thankful for this unexpected gift from the pope.”

Ordinary people have been let into the premises before, but under extraordinary circumstances during World War II. Amid fierce fighting between Nazi and Allied troops, Pope Pius XII converted Castel Gandolfo into a civilian shelter.

“During 1944, we hosted more than 12,000 people on these grounds” Osvaldo Gianoli, manager of the palace and its gardens, told dpa. “I can even tell you that 32 children were born in the private chambers of the Holy Father.”

Attractions now open to the public include a courtyard with John Paul II’s BMW limousine, a first floor gallery with papal slippers and vestments and portraits of all popes since the 16th century, and a terrace offering scenic views of volcanic Lake Albano.

In another first, Castel Gandolfo will be made accessible by train, with an unprecedented weekly passenger service starting from the tiny station at the back of St Peter’s Cathedral, normally used for freight traffic and, very sporadically, by the pope himself.

Press and dignitaries were treated to an inaugural ride Friday on a vintage train pulled by a 1915 steam engine and carriages from the 1920s and 1930s, including a luxury car normally reserved for the Italian president.

“We’ll have normal trains running as of tomorrow, but the old train can be chartered into service,” said Luigi Cantamessa, head of the Heritage Foundation of the Italian Railways.

The special booking costs at least 8,000 euros (9,100 dollars), he warned: “If you consider that the train can take 300 passengers, the cost per head is not that steep.”

The papal palace will be open weekly Monday to Saturday, but trains run only on Saturday, with tickets costing up to 40 euros for a full package including entrance to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and the gardens of the summer residence.

Beyond the palace, papal holdings in Castel Gandolfo comprise two villas whose grounds include the ruins of an Ancient Roman villa built by Emperor Domitian and an organic farm supplying the Vatican with dairy, vegetables, meat and honey.

Those grounds have been open to the public since March 2014, kicking off Francis’ open-door policy. There are limits, however, as most of the Castel Gandolfo palace remains off limits, including the apartments where Benedict XVI most recently stayed in July.

The 88-year-old retired pontiff will most likely return next summer, raising the question of whether palace visitors might risk bumping into him.

“It’s unlikely,” Gianoli said. “We have enough room to separate him from the crowds.”

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