Love for Rome grows with each visit

Kerry Myers
Pope Francis has long shunned fancy digs in favour of humble rooms

Love is lovelier the second time around, Frank Sinatra told us. It's much the same with Rome.

But with the Eternal City, that love grows greater the third, fourth and fifth time. Plus, there's always more to see and do.

Rome Pilgrimages, organised by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, has tailored an "Encore" program for repeat visitors to Rome, giving them access to what many people have not had the chance to experience before.

I enjoyed a couple of personal trips to Rome in the early 1970s, then was privileged on two occasions - the 2010 canonisation of Mary Mackillop, and the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis - to travel to Rome as editor of The Catholic Weekly.

After these experiences I thought I'd seen Rome.

Still, I jumped at the opportunity to join an Encore Pilgrimage - especially when I saw an itinerary that would take me to places I'd just never had the time or opportunity to visit.

Our schedule included visits to the former papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo and gardens, the Vatican Museums and gardens of St Peter in Chains, the churches of St Ignatius and the Gesu, a night walking tour of the Colosseum (including a rare underground visit), a tour of the Villa Borghese Vill and Gardens, the Castel Sant'Angelo museum, archaeological excavations beneath St John Lateran and of course, the awesome St Peter's Basilica.

We also took in the Mamertime Prison of Saints Peter and Paul and a night walking tour of the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Piazza Navona.

Other highlights can include the Scavi tour with the Tomb of St Peter, the Vatican Carriage Museum and the Pantheon.

The other great attraction of a Rome Pilgrimage is Domus Australia itself, a unique guesthouse right in the heart of Rome.

It is truly a home away from home, and follows a long-established church tradition of accommodating pilgrims - both Catholic and non-Catholic.

The pilgrim centre was established by the Archdiocese of Sydney, and opened by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, who at the time called it a "little corner of Australia".

It has been converted into a modern, comfortable boutique hotel within walking distance of some of the city's favourite tourist spots and its Termini railway station.

One of my favourite aspects of the Encore experience was the rare insight into how a pope lives, works, relaxes and even sleeps during a tour of the Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo, 25 kilometres southeast of Rome.

The picturesque town, perched on the Alban hillside overlooking the blue waters of Lake Albano, has been under the control of the Papal State since the 16th century and since the mid-17th century, has remained the summer palace of successive popes.

The first pope to use the palace was Alexander VII in 1655 and the last, Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis has visited but never stayed at the palace, preferring his simple accommodation in the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican "hotel" that accommodates visiting clergy and lay people.

In October 2016 it was opened as a public museum and has proved - as part of the Vatican State - one of the most popular tourist sites. And for good reason; it's not every day a visitor can stroll through the audience rooms, libraries, art galleries, offices and even the bedroom of the pope.

Back in the city, a short stroll from Domus Australia will bring you to what appears on first sight to be the rather unimposing Roman church of the Madonna della Vittoria or in English, Our Lady of Victory.

Like many churches in Rome, one step across its threshold leaves the visitor gasping in wonder at the beauty of the interior.

But the real scene stealer is in the Cornaro Chapel and its masterpiece, the Ecstasy of St Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Depicting Teresa of Avila in a mystical experience about which she later wrote, it is executed in white marble and regarded as one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque.

Encore pilgrims get to see a lot more of Bernini's work in Rome, including his contribution to St Peter's Basilica itself.

The Naples-born (1598) sculptor and architect was the chief architect of St Peter's piazza and its colonnades.

The Villa Borghese Gallery has more than 20 rooms over two floors and contains paintings by "greats" such as Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian, and also boasts some stunning sculptures by Bernini and others.

Rome is made up of many archaeological layers that can be peeled back like an onion to reveal its rich history.

This is evident in many ancient sites, including Castel Sant'Angelo, adjacent to St Peter's.

But the Papal Archbasilica of St John in Lateran tells the story of Christianity in Rome like no other edifice.

St John Lateran is the oldest church in the West, being completed by Rome's first Christian emperor Constantine in 324.

Pilgrims today can marvel at the architecture and artworks of what is the cathedral of Rome - the seat of pope and what was, until the early 14th century, the papal residence.

While there is much to admire in the building above ground, it is below that tells the story of the site long before it became dedicated to the worship of God.

The site was once occupied by the estate of the Laterani family, a member of which was accused of conspiring against Emperor Nero (AD37-68).

Underneath the building Encore pilgrims can easily climb down to the remains of houses that date to the first century and above those, the barracks for the "Equites Singulares", the cavalry unit selected as the emperor's bodyguards.

On specially arranged tours, pilgrims can step below the surface to see the paintings, mosaics and marbles that decorated both previous structures. Their "burial" has preserved them magnificently.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Rome is a 23-hour flight (via Hong Kong) from Sydney and Brisbane and about 24 hours from Melbourne. Cathay flies regularly from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne Visit: https://www.cathaypacific.com

STAYING THERE: Domus Australia was planned with the comfort of Australians in mind, with large beds, showers, heating and air-conditioning, fridges, the internet and tea and coffee making facilities in its 33 rooms. A 300-metre stroll takes you to the Piazza della Repubblica and a Rome metro station. Bus routes are available within 150 metres. For more, visit http://www.domusaustralia.org/

PLAYING THERE: If you travel with Rome Pilgrimages, all tours and some meals are included but visitors are free to dine out locally and in central Rome itself at the city's myriad restaurants, cafes and bars. Find out more at https://www.romepilgrimages.com

The writer travelled at his own expense.