Vatican Gardens filled with holy history
Twelve years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Rome with my wife, celebrating our 25th anniversary. We had never traveled internationally before, so the mysteries of a different country and language were both thrilling and daunting.
I knew there were gardens at the Vatican and wanted desperately to see them. As I peered behind fences, asked guards and other officials where they were, I was finally sent to a little office where I discovered tours of the garden are scheduled far in advance, with only a few happening every day. There are never crowds in this garden.
What I didn’t know is that if I would have had my ducks in a row, not only could I have seen the gardens, but a ticket included a visit to the Vatican Museums which bypassed the long lines encircling the ancient walls.
Last year while planning a trip to take gardeners to Italy, I made sure to book the Vatican Garden tour for everyone who was coming along.
We followed our guide, Ludovica, down a long walkway as she explained the wall to our right actually separated the country of Italy from this small, independent city state covering just more than 100 acres. The gardens, which cover a little over 7 acres, date back to the late 1200s, getting a makeover in the 1600s.
As we entered the first courtyard, dodging a workman’s tiny van, we were greeted by beautifully manicured topiary and a white marble statue, Fontana Della Zitella, where we filled our water bottles.
Our guide showed us a little trick too: when the flow of water is plugged with your thumb, a strong stream of water becomes an ad lib drinking fountain. Another workman whistled happily as he cleaned his tiny blue maintenance vehicle.
There’s always water running in these gardens, with fountains around every corner. As we walked up a steep incline, flats of fading daffodils, removed from the flower displays at the Vatican, were laying everywhere.
Salvaging the blooms
As the sun streamed through the trees, three nuns in pure white habits were illuminated while picking through some of the remaining flowers, collecting them for indoor displays. One carried a bunch of pink hyacinths by its bundle of roots.
Sage and rosemary grow as shrubs here and are in full bloom in the shadow of tall statues that watch over the gardens. The intoxicating fragrance of both herbs when rubbed between one’s fingers means a little more while overlooking the courtyard of the Vatican Museum.
There are always mystery plants growing in Italy as it rarely sees freezing temperatures, and gardeners are eager to figure out what they are. A very different large flowering purplish vinca trails down over rock walls. Beautiful, colorful benches are set in a courtyard that gives way to a long alley flanked with pots filled with a curated tree collection including olives, papyrus and many others. It leads to the Grotta di Lourdes, a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France.
Papal coat of arms
Up next is the amazing formal topiary garden. Seen from above, it shows off the classically pruned shrubs bordering curved gravel paths in the shape of the papal coat of arms. On this day a couple is getting a private tour of the area, something rarely seen. This part of the garden is probably the best known and most photographed.
Even in a spectacular garden like this one, there are common plants that light up areas, like bright pink geraniums, containers filled with dusty miller and pansies. The difference in this climate is that the dusty miller plants are preparing to put on a show of their luminescent yellow flowers. Sometimes (but rarely) they will winter over in our climates. In Italy they are blooming strong everywhere.
One of the highlights of the Vatican Garden tour is a unique view of St. Peter’s Basilica, framed by umbrella pines and other trees along the way. Only those lucky enough to explore the garden can see the dome from this angle, and it’s spectacular.
The Fountain of the Eagle is one of the biggest fountains in the garden and dates back to the 1500s. It commemorates arrival of water to the Vatican. The cave-like stone fountain fills the air with the sound of running water.
We then navigate a meandering stone pathway to the bottom of the garden to an area decorated with stunning mosaics. The water surrounding the statues and artwork is filled with turtles sunning themselves. As we stand in awe, one slips into the water and swims toward us. Known as the Nympheum of the Casina Pio IV, it’s a monument to nymphs, the mythological spirits that lived in the rivers and woods. The turtles offer a fitting tribute to the monument.
Over a decade later from my first attempt, it was thrilling to traverse a landscape explored by gardeners for centuries and one that will be visited for hundreds of years to come.