26 March 2011

Vatican Gardens

About one third of Vatican City's territory is covered by gardens and parkland - all of it off limits to the public. Off limits, unless you sign up for a garden tour, which we did. You can buy tickets online here. A bonus: possessing a tour ticket allows one to skip the monstrously long line into the museums, where the tour begins.
This view is of most of the gardens, taken from the top of the basilica dome. The large building in the bottom left of the photo is the "governatorato vaticano," the headquarters of the country's pontifically appointed government. The small building just to the right of it is the head gardener's residence.
We were led by an enthusiastic, older woman who liked to laugh about things and let us look around mostly in peace. There isn't as much to see as one might think; the gardens, being closed to the public, serve as parking for Vatican workers and as a kind of catch-all place to display gifts from small countries. There was a sculpture from Armenia, another from Slovenia, a replica of the grotto at Lourdes (given by France and very tacky), various Madonnas gifted to John Paul II and a huge colony of monk parrots (appropriate name!) screeching in the trees, a present from some forgotten, South American dignitary.
Another knick-knack: a bell celebrating the 2000 papal jubilee. Our guide reminisced about the good old days when she had been allowed to ring it during the tour. Now, a bar is fixed through the clapper, which she seemed to interpret as a personal rebuke. Also in this picture: red-faced men resting. The grounds are "quite hilly," according to the pre-tour warning given by the ticket office, and some people were having a difficult time. I would call the grounds "pleasantly sloping." You needn't be scared.
There is a crew of thirty-seven gardeners employed there, and we saw people at work all over. The main work is done maintaining topiary and lawn, as there are few extensive flower beds. A state of low-grade anticipation seemed to have taken hold - it's spring, but the climate is warm enough that the change from winter isn't dramatic. There will be more blooms in the future, I'm sure, but it's a gradual transition.
Our guide seemed to think that the group had been anxiously awaiting this sight: the papal heliport. I'm not sure that we were as impressed by it as she was. The helicopter is stored elsewhere. Not much was going on.
Inside one hedge, where we weren't allowed to go, is a small vegetable garden, which has existed off and on since antiquity. This little, papal Ape 150 was loaded up with holy weeds plucked (possibly) from amongst the pope's lettuce.
The gardens are closed in the afternoon, when they are available to the pope for his daily walk. It is the only place, according to our guide, where the pope can walk freely in the outdoors. It was a pleasant place, really, and mostly empty when we were there. The only other people were part of a German tour - which we encountered a few times - the workers and the people who were walking with us. It was a relief after the crowds in the museum and the crush in the basilica. I'm sure that the pope is glad to have a simple, open place to wander in peace.
The gnarled dwarf of a tree on the left, between the palm and the photographer, is an olive tree - one of three planted here over 800 years ago.
I can certainly recommend taking a tour of these gardens. Not because they are spectacular, because they aren't. They are pleasant, rather, and have the feel of a private oddity. A few places are quite beautiful, and it's nice to get a sense of near-solitude.
Being shepherded back into the museum was jarring - so many people, such a rush of shouting and movement.

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