With a deafening whistle and a plume of smoke, an antique train departed from the Vatican rail station Friday to inaugurate a weekly train service to the papal summer estate in Castel Gandolfo now that Pope Francis has decided to open it to the public.
Starting Saturday, the public can visit both papal estates — the Vatican Museums in Rome and the gardens and a new papal portrait gallery in the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo — thanks to the weekly service launched by the Vatican and Italy’s railway, Ferrovia dello Stato.
The portrait gallery features oil paintings of popes dating back to the 16th century and their vestments, thrones, and even the enormous slippers of Pope Clement XII. It also boasts models wearing the fancy costumes of the onetime papal court — officially abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1968 and now exiled for good to Castel Gandolfo by the simplicity-loving Francis.
The rail service will feature modern trains and tour packages, which must be booked online in advance through the Vatican Museums and run from 16 euros to 40 euros ($18-$45).
For the inaugural press run Friday, Ferrovia pulled out its century-old, coal-burning locomotive to pull historic passenger cars.
One was the car in which St. John XXIII traveled to Loreto and Assisi on Oct. 4, 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. John’s trip, immortalized in photos of the smiling “good pope” waving from the train window, was historic, marking the first time a pope had left the Vatican since 1857, when Pope Pius X declared himself a “prisoner” of the Vatican after the loss of the papal states. Subsequent popes continued Pius’ self-imposed isolation, until John began what became the globe-trotting papacy.
Luigi Cantamessa, head of the Ferrovia foundation that owns the historic train, said the new run is the first regular train service between the Vatican’s tiny station and Castel Gandolfo. In the past, trains have carried popes around Italy on one-off trips, or special events such as bringing sick children to the Vatican to visit the pope.
The Vatican Museums, home to the Sistine Chapel and other papal treasures, runs the Castel Gandolfo estate, which at 55 hectares (136 acres) is bigger than the Vatican City State (44 hectares).
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, a workaholic and homebody who hates being alone, has decided not to use Castel Gandolfo, preferring to spend his summers at the same Vatican hotel where he lives.
Last year, he decided to open Castel Gandolfo’s gardens to the public, in part to help offset the economic downturn the town has experienced now that popes are no longer holding weekly Sunday prayers there in summer.