Vatican City – Castel Gondolfo

Unnamed point at Castel Gondolfo (1,398ft) – Highest point in the Vatican City


Eric at the highpoint

Eric and Matthew Gilbertson

August 4, 2014

Many people don’t realize that the Vatican City actually encompasses two areas of land – one in Rome, and the other just outside Rome in the suburb of Castel Gondolfo. This second, lesser-known area, called the Papal Palace of Castel Gondolfo, is the summer residence and vacation retreat for the pope, and actually contains the highest ground owned by the Vatican City. It is more than just one building, though. It is roughly ½ square miles of manicured gardens, papal buildings, courtyards, and even a helipad.

The highest point of ground in this area is on the northeast border, along the road Strada Provinciale 71b (Coordinates 41.735585, 12.661173). The entire complex is surrounded by a large concrete wall with metal fencing on top, but it is unclear if the actual technical border of the land owned by the Vatican extends just to the fence, or to the road edge, which has a 10ft shoulder separating it from the fence. Our Garmin GPS map shows the international border as the middle of the road. With this uncertainty we figured we could justifiably count the highpoint as the outside of the fence on this corner of the property, which is where we headed.

We had flown to Europe on one week’s notice August 1, the day after I handed in my PhD thesis and was itching to go on an adventure. On August 3rd we had climbed the highpoint of San Marino, my second time to the summit and Matthew’s first, and we had found a nice secret place to camp just outside L’Aquila, Italy at the entrance to a farmer’s field. Our tiny rental car wasn’t quite long enough to fully lay down it, but with the hatch back popped open we could hang our feet out the back and still fully spread out.

Walking around town

Walking around town

We drove in towards Rome in the morning on August 4th, skirting around the town center to the suburb of Castel Gondolfo. Information was hard to find on exactly where the highest point of land was at Castel Gondolfo. Many highpointers consider a hill inside the Vatican City gardens to be the highpoint and don’t bother going to Castel Gondolfo. In the few reports we’d seen for Castel Gondolfo, highpointers appeared to have taken their summit pictures outside the main entrance to the Papal residence. We decided to make certain we hit the highest ground, though.

The cemetery side of the highpoint

The cemetery side of the highpoint

In Castel Gondolfo we found public parking within a half mile of the papal residence, near the intersection of roads SS216 and SP71b, and started walking. It was actually not easy to find the papal residence. There are no signs for it, and it appears the Vatican is not eager to attract any tourists. We wandered around town a bit, enjoying views of Lago Albano to the east, before finding our bearings. Our GPS maps had the international border marked between Vatican City and Italy, and we completely circumnavigated the papal residence, following SP71b, then Via Anfiteatro Romano, then up SS216 back to our starting point. For reference, Google Maps labels the papal residence as “Villa Comunale.”

Peeking inside the fence

Peeking inside the fence

We encountered the highest land along SP71b, at the border between the papal residence fence and a sort of cemetery. We took pictures outside the fence, and inside the cemetery for good measure. There were a few places where we could sneak a glimpse inside the grounds of the residence, and it was a very carefully manicured garden with huge perfectly-trimmed trees, small orchards, open grassy areas, courtyards, and even a big helipad. I guess the pope can avoid waiting in Rome traffic by just helicoptering between residences.


At St Peter’s Basilica

For good measure, after we returned to our car we drove into the heart of Rome and walked into the main grounds of the Vatican City. We signed up for a special tour to go up St Peter’s Basilica, and from the top got excellent views of all the gardens and buildings in this area of Vatican City.

After leaving the Vatican City we started driving north to the next highpoint on this European road trip – Mt Blanc, the highpoint of France and Italy.


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