Vatican by Train
Did you know you can now travel from the Vatican into Italy by train? Since 1932 when the first locomotive entered the Vatican, very few people have had the opportunity to pass the Vatican border in such a manner. This incredible experience is provided at a very reasonable cost by the Vatican Museums. Every Saturday morning the Vatican gate rolls open and a modern and comfortable electric Italian train pulls in to collect tourists on the ‘Vatican Full Day (Plus) by Train’ tour (€53). The gate is only open for half an hour every week!
The day begins early at 8am with skip-the-line entry into the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. An audio guide is included and you can take things at your own pace. I’ve been through the Vatican Museums many, many times and since it was a beautiful spring day I decided to linger over cappuccino and a croissant in the Pinecone Courtyard before meandering through the great halls to reach the Sistine Chapel. Though we enjoyed preferred early entry privilege, by the time we reached Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the chapel was already heaving with tourists. At least the guards were still cheery at that hour and not yet chanting, “Silenzio, no foto!”
We were instructed to meet in the Giardino Quadrato of the Museums at 9:50am and by 10:00am we were walking at a leisurely pace through the Vatican Gardens (with 100 other people). An audio guide is included with your ticket. In the hour-long tour you see the most famous features of the 20 hectares of gardens (about half the size of Vatican City), such as the replica of the Grotto of Lourdes, Casina Pio IV and the Fountain of the Eagle.
The gardens tour passes the magnificent landscape of magnolias and oleanders surrounding the Fountain of the Conch Shell and concludes at the Vatican Train Station. The Vatican’s train line is the shortest in the world at approximately 250 meters long (shown below when it snowed in February 2018)!
Then it’s all aboard for the train trip to Castel Gandolfo for a visit of the Papal Summer Palace and Gardens. A shuttle bus is also included when the train arrives in Castel Gandolfo to escort you to the Pontifical Villas. I’ve made this uphill pilgrimage on foot before and the shuttle bus is a thoughtful, well-organized gesture by the Museums. The ‘Vatican Full Day by train’ tour (€42) includes a visit in a small open bus of the Papal Barberini Gardens of Castel Gandolfo. Whereas the ‘Vatican Full Day Plus by train’ tour (€53) offers this with the marvelous addition of a self audio-guided tour of the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the place where historically the Popes would come and stay during the summer. Pope Francis decided in 2014 to open it up as a museum, saying that he would no longer take summer holidays in Castel Gandolfo. For only €11 more, it’s definitely worth it to see how the Popes lived, including walking through Pope Benedict XVI’s sleeping quarters. It’s moving to see the room set up exactly the way it was for Popes Benedict and Francis’ historic meeting and prayer-time in March 2013, the first time a meeting between two popes took place in over 600 years!
At 1:30pm the tour breaks for two hours of free time. We had an incredible pasta lunch accompanied by a chilled Tuscan rosé at Arte e Vino Castel Gandolfo, located in the main street. I opted for an off-menu plate of paccheri pasta with pecorino (sheep’s cheese), fava (broad beans) and asparagus. And my friend couldn’t finish her mountain of fresh linguini with black truffle and bacon. We enjoyed our spare time to walk off some pasta by wandering the small lakeside town and do some window-shopping (since the shops close for a lunchtime siesta).
We met back up with the rest of the tour at 3:30pm to see the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas (Villa Barberini) by ‘eco-friendly transport’ (ie. an open bus) with an audio guide. An hour spent amongst the 55 hectares of lush greenery does anyone good. It’s easy to see why the Popes - from Urban VIII in the 1600’s to Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 - enjoyed many a summer here. Our open bus continued through the gates of the villa to the train station where we were escorted onto the train bound for Roma San Pietro station (6:20pm arrival). Highly recommend!