Vatican opens papal summer apartment to public

Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Vatican City – — Now this is an open house: The Vatican on Friday opened the private apartments at the papal summer retreat to the public, giving visitors a rare look at the bed where Popes Pius XII and Paul VI died and where John Paul II recovered from an assassination attempt in 1981.

Pope Francis has declined to use the palazzo in Castel Gandolfo, preferring to spend his summer downtime at home in the Vatican hotel suite where he lives. That has meant that the 55-hectare (135-acre) estate in the Alban hills south of Rome has increasingly been opened up to the public.

In 2014, the gardens opened to visitors, in part to help offset the economic downturn the lakefront town has experienced since Francis decided to stay put in Rome. Last year the Vatican inaugurated weekly train service so visitors can see the Vatican and the leafy hilltop refuge in one day.

Now, visitors can tour the never-before-seen private apartment of the palazzo itself, including the Consistory Room where Pius XII made Angelo Roncalli a cardinal in 1953. Roncalli later became Pope John XXIII.

But the simple pontifical bedroom with a view of the lake and the single bed might be more of a draw, not least because of the unusual purpose it served during World War II.

The Alban region saw bloody fighting after Allied forces landed in coastal Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944. Residents fled toward the pontifical villas seeking sanctuary, and Pius XII opened the doors to more than 12,000 people until Rome was liberated on June 4, 1944.

As the Vatican tells it, some of the displaced were pregnant. And an estimated 40 women gave birth on the pope’s bed itself; bearing offspring now affectionately called “the pope’s children.”

The Vatican Museums, home to the Sistine Chapel and other treasures, run the Castel Gandolfo estate, which features a working farm that supplies the Vatican with fresh dairy, eggs, honey and produce.

Popes past have always used it as a summer getaway, and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI famously closed out his papacy there on Feb. 28, 2013, when the big wood and bronze doors on the main palazzo slammed shut after he left the Vatican for the last time as pope.

Francis called on Benedict at Castel Gandolfo soon after his 2013 election. The two men in white chatted together and then prayed together in the now-open-to-the-public private chapel. There, Francis famously eschewed the kneeler set up for him at the front and instead took his place next to Benedict in the pews, praying side-by-side with the retired pontiff and saying “We are brothers.”