The retirement of the former Pope and his new lodgings in the Vatican Gardens had more meaning to me than it might have had a few years ago. In the summer of 2011, I was lucky enough to have been given a tour of the Vatican Gardens, and it is certainly a lovely place in which to retire.
Dating back to Medieval times, the gardens encompass 57 acres of Vatican City. They were enclosed by walls in 1279, and some of those walls still stand today, although the majority have been replaced in the intervening 800 years. You can see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from almost everywhere in the garden, except, perhaps, from the wood, a quiet, peaceful retreat peppered with statues and fountains and places to sit, some fairly modern, others very old. The walls tend to keep out the majority of four legged marauders; wildlife seemed to be represented mainly by green parrots, which were noisily chattering overhead most of the time I was there. Their huge nests hung in the trees; “parrot condos”, as parrots apparently have family nests, rather than one nest for each couple.
Apart from the wood, there were formal gardens made up of patterns of boxwood, small private gardens, grand allées and 100 year old olive trees in terra cotta pots. Not far from the largest “olive tree in a pot” that I had ever seen, was the Pope’s helicopter pad, which still managed to look like it is an inevitable part of the garden, despite its modernity. Further along the road, there were loggias, fountains, grottoes, and although there were not as many flowers as one might expect, the bourganvillia, wisteria, and trumpet vines (some 50 feet tall!) more than made up for it. The air was heavily perfumed with bay and boxwood. One could imagine the Pope walking in the gardens, getting some peace from the mob in St. Peter’s Square, and though I am not Catholic, I was in no way immune to the power of that place.
Although it was a blisteringly hot day, Vatican dress code still requires covered shoulders and knees, so the many fountains provided a welcome relief. Some of the older ones were encrusted with calcium deposits and sported beards of moss, the result of which was visually cooling, and the occasional spray from an over exuberant jet was not unwelcome.
I imagine that there must be times at which the Pope feels something of a prisoner given his celebrity, but what a jail..