Paradise of the Popes

Both Pope Ben-e-dict XVI and Pope John Paul II before him have vacationed in Les Combes, a small alpine region in Valle d'Aosta, northwest Italy. Yet few know exactly why.

To be sure, the location provides a welcome retreat from the noise and pollution of Rome, and the beautiful alpine scenery is in keeping with the love of both popes for the mountains. But look beyond the sights and into history, and you'll soon discover another, less obvious attraction: The region has been a fulcrum of European history and, more specifically, the continent's Christian heritage.

Via Francigena, the historic pilgrims’ way that leads from Canterbury to Rome, cuts right through the middle of the region, entering it from the St. Bernard Pass and leaving it — and the Alps — to the south and towards the province of Turin. The area is littered with ancient churches, hermitages, shrines and sanctuaries, thanks mainly to two 11th-century saints born nearby. The house of St. Anselm, who later became archbishop of Canterbury, remains in the high street of Aosta to this day, while St. Bernard's legacy is preserved in hospices that welcomed pilgrims passing through the once semi-autonomous state.

The Via Francigena trail, unchanged since ancient times and followed by, among thousands of others, emperor Henry IV, Pope Innocent II and Frederick Barbarossa, weaves its way through the splendid mountain scenery. It takes its direction from nature and a Roman consular road and passes through Aosta, a picturesque and rather chic alpine town that is also the capital of the region and nearest urban center to the Pope's retreat.

Aosta itself is rich in Christian heritage, its most significant treasure being Sant'Orso, an 11th-century church in which pilgrims have worshipped for centuries. Inside are frescoes depicting the life of Christ and stories of the Apostles dating back to the early Middle Ages, as well as a small, captivating medieval cloister and elegant bell tower.

So it is that the valley of Aosta, and Aosta itself, provide a fitting location for a spiritual retreat.

Mountain View

Aosta is also a popular region in which to go hiking in the summer or enjoy excellent skiing in the winter. Then, too, there is plenty to please history lovers and archaeologists.

The foundation of the Augusta Praetoria marked the start of the Roman colonization of the region and, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the valley passed into the hands of the Burgundian kings and the Carolingians. From the 11th until 20th century, the Savoy family, who later were to rule over a united Italy, dominated the affairs of the region. Many castles from these eras remain.

Les Combes, where the Pope's chalet is situated, is a picturesque hamlet 4,500 feet above sea level, about a 20-minute drive from Aosta. From there, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Aosta valley, including fine vantage points for admiring snow-capped Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak.

Easily accessible by car in the warmer months, this can act as a base for numerous mountain hikes. One particularly pleasant trail connects the hamlet to the lower town of Introd, which boasts an impressive gorge. It also has one well-placed restaurant, La Veilla, which specializes in local dishes — tasty steaks, fondues and, of course, polenta.

For pilgrims, an interesting outing is to the village's small museum, built in 1996, in honor of John Paul II. Mostly consisting of photographs, the charming, chalet-like museum also has on display some of John Paul's personal effects, including his staff, ski jacket and walking shoes. The museum costs just 2 Euros and is open every day but Monday. Adjacent to it is a small church where both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have prayed.

John Paul first visited this area in 1986 when the local people were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the conquest of Mont Blanc.

The locals immediately took to him and, likewise, Pope Benedict, who won the Aostans over with his use of the regional dialect and his appeal for a satisfactory resolution to a regional employment dispute.

But in their easygoing, understated manner, the local folk here tend to downplay the significance of hosting such an important person.

“It's good for promoting the area, but it doesn't actually have any noticeable impact on tourism,” says Sebastian Urso, an adviser at the local tourist office. Most hoteliers and shop owners agree, but do not seem unduly concerned. The area is, after all, one of the most prosperous in Italy.

“Having the Pope here a good thing,” says Mauro Fogliazza, an employee of a local electrician's union. “It's not yet good for tourism, but I hope it will be, and that Pope Benedict carries on in the same mold as John Paul.”

Bordering southern France, the region has a distinctly Gallic flavor. Its people possess an easy-going manner and, although Italian is the lingua franca, French is often spoken. Even when it's not, the occasional “oui,” “ici” or “voila” will find its way into the patois. There is also a spirited folk tradition and quite a lively music scene with varied classical, jazz and rock music concerts performed regularly.

Aosta, which has a pleasant ambience and enchanting Romanesque architecture, has a good number of taverns, including The Old Distillery, a Scottish pub serving lager, stout and, of course, some good malts.

Bartender Tom Durham from Fife, Scotland, says most of the tourists are French and Italian in the summer months.

“Lots of other nationalities come in the winter for the skiing,” he says. “The people here are very welcoming. Their attitude is: This is our life, the world is going on out there, and we just get on with it.”

There is, therefore, an enticing combination of European culture, history, natural beauty and easygoing daily life that makes Aosta and its environs an especially pleasant vacation destination. And you don't even have to be a successor of St. Peter to make a prayer journey of it.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

Planning Your Visit

Daily Mass is celebrated at Sant'Orso, a charming church that has been attracting pilgrims for nearly 1,000 years, at 6:30 p.m. Sunday Mass is celebrated at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Getting There

The nearest airports to the Aosta Valley are at Geneva and Turin. The latter offers a shuttle bus in the morning direct to Aosta, but there are also many trains with a journey time of about two hours. To reach Les Combes, a car is necessary or you can take a bus to Introd and hike two hours to the site. Rental cars are available at the railway station, as are taxis costing about $100 for a round trip.