VATICAN CITY — Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI returns from his short trip to Spain to attend the fifth World Meeting of Families, he will set off by helicopter for the mountains of northwest Italy where he will enjoy a three-week vacation.

As he did last year, the Holy Father will spend most of July in the secluded chalet that Pope John Paul II enjoyed so much, located in the village of Les Combes overlooking the Aosta Valley. The area is rich in natural beauty, surrounded by some of Europe’s most dramatic peaks, including the continent’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, and Dente del Gigante (literally translated as “Giant’s Tooth”).

As someone who spent much of his childhood growing up in the mountainous region of Bavaria and who for many years vacationed with his brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger in the Dolomite mountain range of German-speaking northeast Italy, Benedict is known to particularly treasure this retreat. During his previous visit to Les Combes, he reportedly found the inspiration to write the bulk of his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

He was also notably spontaneous in his discourses, holding a frank discussion with priests and deacons of the local diocese and condemning the London bombings of last July as the work of “a group of fanatics” rather than Islamists. One afternoon, he made a surprise visit to a small museum in the village dedicated to John Paul.

In fact, the Pope’s days in the mountains are fully occupied: He sees vacation not just as a time for relaxation but also as an opportunity to devote himself to other tasks and hobbies. It should be an opportunity, he said in Les Combes last year, to spend “more time dedicated to prayer, reading and meditation on the deep meaning of life.”

It is also valuable, the Holy Father said, to spend time with nature, which is a “book” within reach of everyone, helping people to rediscover themselves as “small but at the same time unique” creatures.

“Let us ask the Virgin Mary to teach us the secret of the silence that becomes praise, of recollection that disposes to meditation,” he said. “We will thus be able to receive more easily in our hearts the light of Truth and practice it in freedom and love.”

A typical vacation day for Benedict is to rise early, celebrate Mass, and then spend four hours reading or writing. Lunch at 1 p.m. is followed by a short rest and a stroll outside, led by John Paul’s mountain guide, Alberto Cerise.

Then in the evenings, before supper, he is likely to play his favorite pieces of Mozart and Bach on an upright piano brought to the chalet especially for him by local mayor Osvaldo Naudin.

Although he continues to say the Angelus prayer on Sundays — often to a packed mountain square — he desires the minimum of disturbance, preferring the alpine solitude. Apart from Bishop Giuseppe Anfossi of Aosta, Cardinal Severino Poletto of Turin, and his old friend Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, he received no other visitors last year.

He is accompanied on vacation by his private secretary, Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, his butler, two nuns, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, and a small number of Swiss Guards.

The local authorities are thrilled to have the Holy Father back again. On hearing the news in April, the president of the region, Luciano Caveri, called it a “great Easter present.” The people of Aosta Valley, he added, “feel particularly honored to have in their mountains such an important guest.”

It is no coincidence that John Paul II chose Aosta as a region in which to spend his vacations. The area has a wealth of Christian history dating back to the 8th century, and many churches, hermitages and shrines exist to this day. Two 11th-century saints, St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, also have close connections to the region: St. Anselm was born in Aosta, while St. Bernard built many hospices for pilgrims who would walk the Via Francigena pilgrimage.

Way of Pilgrims

Via Francigena, the historic pilgrim route that runs from Canterbury across France, Switzerland and Italy to Rome weaves through the middle of the region, entering it from the St. Bernard Pass and leaving it — and the Alps — to the south towards the province of Turin.

Monks from the Cistercian Order, founded by St. Bernard after the Rule of St. Benedict, built many monasteries and hospices along the route in the Middle Ages.

“We’ve just discovered that there is a Cistercian monastery buried underground about every 300 kilometers along the Via Francigena,” said Father Cesare Atuire, director of L’Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (the Vatican department responsible for pilgrimages).

Father Atuire said he is hoping that the Pope’s continued visits to the region will revitalize the pilgrim route at a time when the popularity of pilgrimages has risen sharply. “The Pope’s choice of location and the Via Francigena are not associated — the Holy Father is going there for rest rather than a pilgrimage,” he said, “but it might be helpful in drawing attention to the way.”

Benedict is also rumored to be planning another vacation, possibly towards the end of the summer. The Vatican is reportedly preparing a rural villa in the village of Rocca di Mezzo in the picturesque Abruzzo region near Rome, an area favored for vacations by Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Italy’s previous president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.