Deep in the heart of one of Europe's oldest cities is a place that would soothe even the most troubled soul -- a sanctuary that, while not exactly a secret, is hidden from the view of millions of tourists who pass within a few feet of it.
Many of them actually gaze down upon it but, relative to those who throng the better known site of St Peter's Dome, barely a handful actually enter to savor its treasures -- for these are the Vatican Gardens, and there are treasures at every twist and turn of the paths and walkways.
Popes have taken refuge in them since the 9th century.
Ninety fountains are dotted about the lawns and woods, small tricklers barely audible above the occasional sound of traffic and the city outside the walls; starkly grand creations that are distinctly secular; exquisitely-wrought sculptures by Bernini; grottoes tucked in ancient corners of the woods where one expects sylphs and nymphs to cavort.
But, mythical spirits like sylphs and nymphs have no place here -- not least because the proprietor would look askance at such pagan symbols, or even thoughts.
Even the seemingly simplest things here are steeped in history.
The water for the fountains and sprinklers of the Vatican Gardens comes by way of a system installed in the 16th century, making use of an aqueduct to Rome laid by the Emperor Trajan in the first century A.D. from Lake Bracciano, 25 miles away.
The area occupied by the gardens was in use as far back as the ninth century B.C. The Etruscans who ruled the area then built a village called Vaticum -- meaning prophecy -- from which came the Latin word Vaticanus -- today's Vatican.
The gardens were mainly created in the ninth century when Pope Leo IV built a circle of walls around the central hill to protect the reputed tomb of St. Peter, founder of the church, from marauding Saracens.
Tended by 28 gardeners, this is an ongoing work, not just day-to-day maintenance.
The exotic and varied collections of plants and structures reflect the global reach of the church and the eclectic interests of the men who have ruled it.
Every Pope since the gardens were founded has left his mark on them.
A replica of the grotto of Lourdes was installed by Pope Leo XIII.
The present pope's tenure has seen additions that reflect his travels. An olive tree sent from Israel commemorates the opening of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the Vatican. Another sent to one of his predecessors from the Garden of Gethsemane had to have a plaque noting its provenance removed, because tourists kept stealing the leaves. Statues like the one of the Black Madonna of Cestahova mirror John Paul II's fascination with the Virgin Mary.
And not all of the additions have been what might be expected in a garden. A helipad occupies one corner -- a convenience for the most traveled pope in history.
One little gem of Renaissance architecture was ordered built by Pius IV in the 16th century as a place to rest and meditate. It also reputedly served as a hunting lodge.
Today, the gardens are a sanctuary, as evidenced by their bird life. The parrots who build nests there are believed to be the descendants of two tame birds who apparently escaped and found their way to the gardens. Naturally, they became good Catholics -- and now there are estimated to be at least 36.
While the gardens are technically the backyard of the Pope, he rarely gets a chance to enjoy them -- good news for the few tourists who do find their way to them because, if the owner was around, they'd have to look down on this place of timeless beauty, rather than being able to let it seep into their soul.