All Aboard The Papal Train

Bypassing the long line of tourists that snakes along the Vatican walls is gleefully gratifying. A stab of guilt creeps in at the thought, a shred of my Catholic school days poking at me. But when the guard waves us past the entry and we enter the ticket office area, my guilt gives way to relief. No hours of standing outside!

This is the first step of our “exclusive” day inside the papal realm. When Pope Francis said the Vatican should be more open, he meant it, throwing wide the doors not just to the private papal gardens in Castel Gandolfo, but also the Vatican’s own railway. When I learned about this little-known opportunity I quickly booked online for a day of unprecedented access to previously padlocked Vatican gems. My parents were visiting and my father is an unabashed train fanatic. I knew this would be more fascinating to him than any monument in the Eternal City.

The papal railway, officially known as the Ferrovia Vaticana, has less than one mile of track, one siding, and one small station. It is the world’s shortest national railway line, used mostly by the city-state to transport goods into the Vatican, though a few popes have used it for pilgrimages and ceremonial events. Pope Francis, dubbed “the people’s pope,” has decided that the people should indeed enjoy the treasures of the Vatican, including its train tracks.

The day is pretty regimented with a strict time schedule. Guests are given a train sticker to wear, some maps and an audio guide wand, and then are sent off into the vast Vatican Museums, loaded with some of the world’s most incredible art treasures, including the Sistine Chapel. There are only 90 minutes to visit the museums, though, so you won’t be able to see it all. After that you have be at the appointed meeting place in the Vatican Garden, or miss out on the rest of the day. Plan on just a few of the art-adorned salons, and come back for a more extensive museum day another time.

The schedule continues with a walking tour of the Vatican grounds, shepherded by a guide around the gardens and to some of the monuments within the walls of the Holy See, a peaceful place most visitors miss. Then it is on to the cute neoclassic-style train station to board the “papal express” to Castel Gandolfo, known for centuries as the papal hideaway, the summer residence of pontiffs in the rolling hills south of the city.

We boarded the snazzy new rail cars provided by the Italian rail system and slowly entered a tunnel in the Vatican hillside. We passed outside onto a bridge, which I’d walked below several times without realizing the Vatican rail line passed over it. I was unaware there even was a Vatican rail line until recently. The train slipped beyond the stone walls that protect the Holy See and then after a short trip –less than a half-mile-we arrived at Rome’s San Pietro station, passed it by and headed out of the city and into the rolling landscape. The tunnel gate behind us was then closed.

An hour later we arrived in Albano Laziale, where we boarded an electric tourist trolley and were taken around the private papal gardens, a 135-acre park surrounding the Villa Barberini with botanical and architectural treasures and the ruins of Emperor Diocletian’s villa. There are sculptures, fountains, unique flora, special Papal symbols, manicured grounds, and the Vatican’s working farm. Who knew? The pope has animals, cultivated fields, orchards and a veggie patch.

All this was the exclusive domain for pontiffs alone, never opened to the public until 2015. There is also the option of touring the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo for an extra €5 ($5.40) We decided to wander around the town, have some lunch, and enjoy the overlook of Lake Albano instead. Then we boarded the train back Rome’s St. Peter’s Station, a little giddy, feeling like we had spent a day in the Pope’s secret realm.

The Papal Train and Private Papal Gardens Tour is available weekly, every Saturday. Cost is €40 (about $43). Book online to hop aboard this unusual and interesting railway!


Travertine and Talking Walls

Resting where the region of Le Marche brushes up to Abruzzo, the city of Ascoli Piceno is full of surprises. Its more elegant than you’d expect, and part of its splendor comes from the fact that the entire city is built of creamy-colored travertine. The gorgeous Piazza del Popolo is paved in it, looking like gleaming marble.  The stone makes the city look prosperous and grand.

Ascoli Piceno Piazza del Popolo

And it was; it had a heyday of prosperity from the wool merchants and other trade guilds, today’s streets are still lined with the palazzi they built with their wealth.  One of the ways they liked to flaunt it in the Middle Ages was by building a tower, and Ascoli was awash with them. It boasted more than 200 of the tall status symbols, under Frederick II order half of them to be destroyed. He thought they were getting a bit too ostentatious.

Medieval towers Ascoli Piceno Italy
Travertine Towers in Ascoli Piceno

So then the trend became a door inscription. Nobody seems to know why but inscribing a favorite verse in the travertine lintel of the entry door became a fad, so as you wander around town keep your eyes open for these talking walls that bestow words of wisdom, catch phrases or religious maxims to anyone willing to read them. Many are in Latin or in the old dialect. And while they were inscribed in the 1400s, they’re still doling out wisdom or a smile all these centuries later.

inscriptions ascoli piceno
A “talking wall” (“not without fatigue”)
medieval inscriptions ascoli piceno
A 15th century inscription in Ascoli








Ascoli Piceno is an underrated place, with beautiful sights, a wealth of good restaurants, a beautiful historic center to explore – all only a half-hour from the Adriatic Sea. It is located on the ancient Roman road, the Via Salaria.

A Palio With Pomp and Adrenaline

Every year Ascoli Piceno transforms back into the important and bustling Middle Ages city it once was.  La Quintana, Ascoli’s high-energy medieval jousting match, rivals the excitement of Siena’s Palio but without the crushing crowds.  The beautiful centro storico fills with colorful banners and resplendent costumes as the city pays homage to its storied past.  Carried on since the early 1300s, the thrilling, historical events take place over a month-long period, starting with the flag-throwers competition.  Read more

An Enchanted Garden

The Garden of Ninfa

Tower at Garden of Ninfa

Located southeast of Rome near the hill towns of Sermoneta and Norma, this delightful garden is a romantic oasis in the valley. The gardens were planted in the ruins of a once-noble estate around the remains of a medieval watch tower.

It seems like a spontaneous act of nature reclaiming the land and creating beauty among the ruins. The eight-acre site has meandering paths, bubbling brooks with stone bridges overhung with wisteria, and water canals with little cascades that course from natural springs. There are more than 1000 plant species, including more than 300 varieties of antique roses. It is an enchanting spot, and is frequently called “the most romantic garden in Italy”.

Magical garden of Ninfa

Ninfa Garden has quirky hours, open only a few times per month from spring through autumn, with limited spaces available for each timed entry. We were fortunate to snag tickets and get on a tour of this almost mythical place, with diffused sunlight and almost unreal surroundings adding to the allure. We followed through each zone, some with unique microclimates, and soaked in the beauty of the place. The final stop was truly magical as a pair of swans glided into the photos, almost as if on cue for a movie part.

Check the website to see if your trip coincides with one of their rare openings. It is truly worth the effort to enjoy this enchanted garden.

Ninfa reflection

Giardino di Ninfa
Via della Fortezza