If you visit Rome, and you walk around Castel St. Angelo and visit St. Peter’s Square via the area known as ‘borgo’, you might notice a long wall and apart from assuming it is thousands of years old, you may not realise what it is you are actually looking at.
The ‘Passetto di Borgo’ is a secret elevated passageway 800m long which connects the Vatican with Caste St. Angelo. It was built as an escape route for Popes in danger. It was erected in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III, but parts of the wall were built by Totila during the Gothic war.
Pope Alexander VI crossed it in 1494, when Charles VIII invaded the city and the Pope’s life was in peril. Clement VII escaped to safety through this passage during the Sack of Rome in 1527, when troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, massacred almost the entire Swiss Guard on the steps of St.Peter’s Basilica.
Il Passetto di Borgo was closed to the public until 2000. Every year since then, it is open for a couple of months during the summer to small groups for guided tours. Our tour included il Passetto and the prisons inside Castel St. Angelo. Ever since Alberto had explained to me about the Passetto, I had long wanted to walk inside this secret passageway and enjoy some new views of my neighbourhood. I took Annabella and Joseph for a tour in the late afternoon. It began at 5pm, and we didn’t leave until after 7pm.
We left Castel St. Angelo heading towards the Vatican, first outisde, along the walkway that lies along the top of the wall. A narrow staircase took us inside and below, into the secret passageway. This part is very narrow and it’s easier to walk in single file than two abreast. There are small slits on either side of the wall allowing the outside light in, and offering wonderful sneaky views of the Tiber River, Via della Conciliazione and the other surrounding streets.We then continued along the top of the wall until we were almost at the border of the imposing white columns that surround St. Peter’s Square. A locked gate greeted us to stop us proceeding into the Vatican City. The Swiss Guards look after the key should the Pope ever need to once again, make a hasty escape!
The second part of the tour took us under Castel St. Angelo, and into the prisons. I think that Joseph enjoyed this part the most. I wasn’t prepared for the little doorways, low ceilings, and lack of fresh circulating air.
It was a little claustrophobic and listening to some of the various tortures that were carried out there made my skin crawl a little. It was easy to imagine how dank and damp in would be in the middle of winter for example, although one can never really comprehend what it must have been like to be a prisoner there. One cell, which I went into (hitting my head on the way) had no windows. Once the door was closed, the space was pitch black and silent.
Our tour guide Mario was great. He certainly knew his Roman history and his enthusiasm and gift of story telling made the tour even the more enjoyable. The cost of the tour was €15.00 for me and just €5.00 for Annabella & Joseph. If you do find yourself in Rome during July & August, I strongly recommend this tour. You certainly feel part of the elite few when you know that it’s closed to the public for most of the year.