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Diary: What should the Vatican do now with Castel Gandolfo?

Lake Albano is seen from a window of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo (CNS)

With the summer heat in Rome almost unbearable, I’ve been following the saga of Pope Francis’s rejection of his various summer residences – from Castel Gandolfo to the humble Alpine chalet of Les Combes d’Introd – now that Francis has made it clear he doesn’t really do “vacation time”.

But what should the Vatican do with these architectural relics of papal history? Turn them into museums, or come up with some more novel ideas? Francis’s refusal to spend time at Castel Gandolfo, a vast 135-acre estate about an hour from Rome, was met by the Italian press with the sort of incredulity that the British media would display if Boris Johnson refused to use Chequers, or the Queen abandoned summer at Balmoral.

Francis’s absence from the former palace of the Roman Emperor Domitian, which had served four centuries of popes is a symbolic breaking away from the rituals of Vatican Past. When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recently dropped by the gardens of the papal summer retreat – now a museum – for a nostalgic visit, the differences between the two popes were put into basso relief.

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I was also a little nostalgic when I heard of the visit as I was once lucky enough to visit Castel Gandolfo and receive Communion from Pope John Paul II at a small private Mass. I was a teenager then and the pope had agreed to baptise the son of a Polish family friend. We all stood in a line afterwards to meet John Paul II. When he asked my father what he did, my father said: “I’m a lawyer but I want to enter politics.” The pope (who spoke good English) replied: “You must pursue your vocation!”

According to the Vaticanologist John Allen, John Paul enjoyed spending his real holidays in the peace and beauty of Les Combes, where, from 1989, he returned for a decade. For the last few years, he stayed in in a custom-built new chalet with a elevator for him to enjoy the views towards the tallest peaks in Italy.

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Which brings me back to what to do with the former papal mountain retreat. It should be turned into a shrine for pilgrim walkers on a new long distance walking trail called “The Pope’s Way” in the mountains of the Val d’Aosta. This is Italy’s smallest region, with hikes leading to the highest peaks in the Alps: Cervino (the Matterhorn), Monte Rosa, along with the suitably titled Gran Paradiso national park.

Long-distance pilgrim walks – as seen by the record numbers on the Camino de Santiago across the Pyrenees (more than 330,000 last year) and the St Cuthbert’s Way in Cumbria – are the new middle-class marathons.

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I’d certainly lead a Catholic Herald walking pilgrimage to Les Combes as part of our new exciting pilgrimage walks and tours programme which is starting with a walk into Rome along the historic Via Francigena, Italy’s Camino. The journey (beginning on October 7) will cover the last 100 kilometres (60 miles) of one of the world’s oldest pilgrim trails, passing through beautiful classical ruins and historic hills north of Rome. This is the same route that medieval pilgrims took from Canterbury to Rome.

The group will walk into the centre of Rome to celebrate the canonisation of John Henry Newman, the first English saint in nearly 50 years and one of the most important intellectual figures of the 19th century. Those on the pilgrimage walk can witness the canonisation in Rome on October 13.

The walk is being led by Sandy Loder of Peak Dynamics, a world-renowned performance coach. He teaches people how to change their lives through raising self-esteem and overcoming their fears. He also happens to be the great-nephew of Ian Fleming.

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After walking the punitive Highland Way with Sandy in July, I’ve now been gripped by the long-distance walking addiction. As somebody who is – or was – 18 stone (250 pounds), drinks and is very unfit, I don’t know how I managed 105 miles of a goat track wrapping around beautiful lochs and mountains that belong in a John Buchan novel. But I did, and it was incredibly good for my self-esteem as I began to think differently about what is possible.

The most valuable lesson was how I learnt to have faith in myself again, a theme that is central to my new memoir of my Shropshire family home which was in as much need of fixing up as its owner when I took it over in 2008.

Restoration Heart (Little, Brown) is a biography of a house and romantic soul and is out in early September. It belongs to the genre of “Brick Lit” and the idea is to try and do for the “ruin lust” dream of repairing a ruined English manor house in Shropshire, what Peter Mayle did for the middle-class escapist fantasy of restoring an old farm house in Provence in the 1980s.

@williamrpcash is chairman of the Catholic Herald. For more information about the Newman pilgrimage, email [email protected]