Pope Francis Isn’t Using His Summer House, so the Vatican Is Letting the Public in

Get a rare look at the pope’s luxurious vacation home

Castel Gandolfo
The Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo sits atop a hillside overlooking Lake Alban. Deblu68 via Wikimedia Commons

The pope may be the head of the Catholic Church, but sometimes even St. Peter’s successors need a vacation. For centuries, popes of all stripes have retreated to the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo on the shores of a lake on the outskirts of Rome. However, in the years since Pope Francis took on the role, he has eschewed the luxurious residence in favor of staying in his usual apartments in Vatican City.

Luckily for history buffs, this has opened up the rare opportunity for a chance to peek inside his summer home.

The Vatican first bought the then-small fortress in 1596 and 30 years later, Pope Urban VIII built a new wing on the residence, when it officially became the papal summer residence, Elisabetta Povoledo writes for The New York Times. Castel Gandolfo is located along the shores of Lake Alban, and about half of the 30 popes since Urban have used it to take a break every now and then as the summer heat settles over Rome. But while world leaders have occasionally visited various popes at the sprawling estate, until recent years it has been mostly shut off to the public, Philip Pullella reports for Reuters.

“Whoever enters the great front door of the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo enters into a world of pure beauty,”  Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, tells Paddy Agnew for the Irish Times. “When you step out onto the terrace, you see not only the blue lake below you, but also the hills on the other side, covered by woodlands that remains intact and untouched...Walking through the rooms of the apostolic apartment, you can hear the murmur of history.”

Most popes have graciously accepted the luxurious living space that come as part and parcel of heading up the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has largely ignored the role's perks. In keeping with his Jesuit roots, Francis has opted for a much more simple and frugal lifestyle than many of his predecessors, choosing to live in humble chambers in the Vatican instead of the traditional papal palace and refusing to take vacations‚ especially to such an opulent lake house, Nicole Winfield reports for the Associated Press.

Over the last few years, as Francis’ choice to not take time off at Castel Gandolfo became more and more apparent, Vatican officials have begun opening up bits and pieces to the public. This summer, not only will visitors be able to tour the ground of the papal palace, but for the first time in history anyone can step foot in the pope’s private chambers, Winfield reports.

On one hand, this is a good alternative for the Vatican, as turning Castel Gandolfo into a museum puts the estate to good use without having to sell it. But for the locals, many of whom traditionally make much of their living when the pope—and his throngs of followers—came into town for the holiday, Pope Francis’ decision to stay away from the estate isn’t quite as commendable, Pullella reports.

"We fear it will be a tombstone for us if future popes follow his example," Castel Gandolfo mayor Milvia Monachesi tells Pullella. "The fact that the palace is now a museum will make a reversal in the future difficult.”

Whether or not future popes decide to resume residencies at Castel Gandolfo is impossible to say. But for now, the estate's vacancy offers the rare opportunity to peek inside the living quarters that housed some of the most powerful leaders in world history.