[Editor’s Note: This is part one of John Allen’s two-part series on the former papal vacation site of Les Combes d’Introd in the Val d’Aosta region of northern Italy, on the border with France and Switzerland in the Alps. Part two will appear tomorrow.]
LES COMBES D’INTROD, Italy – From the beginning, Pope Francis decided he wasn’t going to spend his summers at the ornate papal residence in Castel Gandolfo in the hills outside Rome. After three consecutive years of disuse, it was announced in October 2016 that Castel Gandolfo would be turned into a museum, thereby making the pope’s absence definitive.
In that instance, a former papal residence was converted for another use by executive fiat, with the Vatican simply presenting a decision to the world. Suppose, however, what was announced wasn’t an answer but a question: “We’ve got a place where the pope used to live that we’re not using anymore, so what do you think we should do with it?”
That’s exactly what’s happening right now, in the tiny hamlet of Les Combes d’Introd in the far northern Italian region of Val d’Aosta, nestled at the foot of the Alps.
Beginning exactly thirty years ago in 1989, St. Pope John Paul II spent ten summer vacations here in a small chalet owned by the Salesian order and located on a larger Salesian compound. The first four were passed in a quaint pre-existing residence, which is now private property, but the last six were in another villa custom-built with an elevator for an aging pontiff who could no longer climb the stairs to reach his bedroom or his balcony to gaze out on Monte Bianco (“White Mountain”), at 15,800 feet the tallest peak in Italy and central Europe.
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI likewise spent three summer vacations in the same chalet in 2005, 2006 and 2009. Both John Paul and Benedict would pass July in Les Combes d’Introd, then August and most of September in Castel Gandolfo. (Castel Gandolfo was more of a working vacation, but Les Combes was genuine down time.)
Because popes don’t travel alone, the Salesians also built a larger, 22,000-square foot structure for the papal party that would come to Les Combes, including his security team and other Vatican officials as well as journalists. In all, the structure can accommodate up to 120 people at a time. For the rest of the year, it became a sort of conference center and guest house known as the Casa Alpina Salesiana.
How special was the natural splendor of the area to John Paul, who, in his younger days, would hike for hours along its trails and peaks? After John Paul’s funeral Mass in April 2005, the only people present for the rite of burial beyond the immediate papal household was the delegation from Val d’Aosta. (A small museum in the village preserves the white jackets and hiking shoes and sticks the pope used.)
Walking around the area during the summer, it’s not hard to understand the appeal. As Benedict XVI said in 2006, it’s “a place where the creator gives us fresh air, beauty and restfulness and the joy of being alive.”
The first thing that strikes a visitor is the quiet.
To reach Les Combes d’Introd you have to take a series of winding mountain roads, and the Salesian property is further set off from the tiny village by about two-thirds of a mile. Along the path to reach the site, basically the only things one hears are the sound of one’s own breath and pine needles crunching underneath.
In his final 2004 Angelus address here, John Paul II called it an “oasis of quiet” and riffed on the spiritual importance of temporarily shutting off the world’s noise, saying that “only in silence can a person hear the voice of God in the intimacy of their conscience. It’s what truly sets us free.”
There’s also a preternatural calm that induces a spirit of relaxation.
There are only two year-round residents anymore in the village, owners of the lone bar. The other 20 or so families that own houses here only use them part-time, having moved out long ago when the agricultural economy shifted. There’s no city frenzy here, no sense of rush or deadlines, and tension just seems to melt away.
Visitors come to the area almost exclusively to play – mostly to ski in the winter, and to hike and picnic in the summer. (I can report that Gus the Pug, the three-month old puppy who’s the understudy as Crux’s official corporate mascot, had a blast romping through the large open field near the papal chalet where John Paul and Benedict once delivered their Angelus addresses.)
There’s also the summer cool here, which is remarkable for any visitor from Rome. It’s about 20 degrees cooler than the Eternal City, and because of the mountain air, there’s almost no humidity at all.
Of course, there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the setting, including soaring pine trees, small streams, meandering hiking trails that lead to unexpected discoveries, and, above all, the stunning Alpine mountains that beckon in every direction on the horizon.
“Every time I have the possibility to go to the mountains and to contemplate these landscapes, I thank God for the majestic beauty of creation,” John Paul said during a 1999 Angelus address in Les Combes. He called the mountains not merely a spectacle of nature, but a virtual “school of life.”
It’s easy to imagine that the environmental thrust of both John Paul II – who called for a “new ecological awareness” as early as January 1990, just six months after his first vacation in Les Combes – and Benedict XVI, who was dubbed the “Green Pope” for both his words and deeds, including installing solar panels atop the Vatican’s audience hall and reforesting a section of woods in Hungary large enough to offset the Vatican’s annual carbon footprint – took shape to a significant degree right here.
Finally, the chalet in Les Combes is also a monument to the humanity of popes, a recognition in wood and stone that these are people as well as potentates.
This is not the opulence of the Vatican, or, for that matter, even Castel Gandolfo. This is small, modest, intimate, the kind of place you can imagine your dad or grandpa spending his summer break. Here, one’s inclined to ponder how the personal dimension of a pope’s life shapes his prayer, his thought, his hopes and dreams, and even his style, because you’re confronted with the man rather than the office.
Yet just like Castel Gandolfo, Les Combes d’Introd has fallen on hard times in the Pope Francis era.
Francis doesn’t come here either in the summer, despite the fact that his family hails from the Italian region of Piedmont, neighboring Val d’Aosta, and which is also mountain country. The chalet has been preserved as it was when John Paul and Benedict stayed in it, but so far it’s gone unused.
As a result, and given the remote location, the Salesians are finding it tough to keep the conference center and guest house afloat. They’ve toyed with finding a buyer for the property, but backlash against selling off a piece of papal patrimony and Church history quashed the notion.
Under the heading of necessity being the mother of invention, the Salesians have thus hit on a novel idea. On August 13, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, L’Avvenire, announced that the Salesians have launched not a sale but a contest: They’ve hired a local consulting firm to solicit ideas about a creative new use for the property, starting with architects, foundations, associations and start-ups, but also including the general public.
Any proposal would have to pass legal muster, since there are restrictions related to zoning and environmental impact, but at this point the plan is to start with a good idea and then figure out how to make it possible.
In keeping with the Salesian vocation for youth, they’ve said they’d like ideas from young people especially, but presumably they’re open to a stroke of genius no matter what age bracket it comes from.
In part two, I’ll imagine some outside-the-box possibilities for this “oasis” … and I’ll give you the address where you can submit your own ideas.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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