Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Pope's Escape: Castel Sant'Angelo's Secret Passageway

Castel Sant'Angelo from the Passetto - we had to wear the day-glo vests so they didn't lose track of us.
Until November 20 of this year, you can take a tour of Castel Sant'Angelo's secret passageways and rooms.  You can even play Robert Langdon or Vittoria Vetra from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. I was intrigued; so I signed up, forking over Euro 5 in addition to the Castel's general entrance fee of Euro 10 for Castello Segreto (Secret Castle).

The guided tour indeed takes you along the above ground passageway that follows the walls of the city up to the territorial line of the Vatican.  I expected more, but it was still exciting to follow along this passageway that Pope Alexander VI used in 1494 to escape the invading CharlesVII.  Some versions have Charles' army shooting at the Pope's white robes as he ran for his life.  And the antagonist in Angels and Demons uses the Passetto to transport the 4 Cardinals he abducts from the Vatican.  They're all escaping from the Vatican to the fortified castle, once the tomb of Emperor Hadrian.  Brown's Langdon and Vetra use the passageway the other direction - as a shortcut to the Vatican.  The Passetto di Borgo, in other words, has a long and storied history; but it is open only every few years.
  The Passetto from the Castle - imagine the Pope running along this walkway
with shots being fired at him.

As our tour guide explained, one can only travel part of the Passetto because at one point one hits the territory of the Vatican, a totally independent jurisdiction, no longer a part of the State of Italy or the city of Rome. Still, cool!

The "secret tour" also includes the Castel's prisons, oil storage room (and those Italians take their oil seriously), and other rooms usually closed to visitors, the nicest of which is Pope Clement VII's bathroom (1523-24), decorated with frescoes by the School of Raphael, and the first running hot and cold water bathroom in the world, we were told.
Clement VII's bathroom.

Now for the disappointment and a suggestion. The English-language guide I had was not up to the task.  Her English was sub-standard.  She had memorized lines about the Popes, Mussolini, and the Vatican, but she couldn't vary from her script, and if you didn't come with a working knowledge of the basics (such as the Popes' self-exile in the Vatican after 1870 and the Conciliation Agreement with Mussolini), you wouldn't be able to understand her.  She did not understand basic questions some of the visitors posed in English, and thus couldn't answer them.  Still, if you read up a bit ahead of time, and you like this kind of history and access to usually closed-off rooms and passageways, then go for it.

Castel Sant'Angelo has 4 of these tours each day through November 20, 2 in Italian (11 am and 5 pm) and 2 in English (10 am and 4 pm), maximum 15 persons each.  I didn't need them the weekday I went, but generally I recommend you buy tickets ahead of time.  The Web site is not very user-friendly but it is (mostly) in English.  Just keep clicking and you'll get to the ticket site with the capability of buying tickets for the secret tour as well.  There's an extra Euro 1 charge for buying online.

Instruments of torture in the prison rooms.

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