‘You’ll be gobsmacked,” was the prediction as we drove up the winding roads through thickly wooded hills. My hopes raised, I was understandably a little goggle-eyed in anticipation as we arrived at the modest looking entrance to a driveway.
And sure enough, as we trundled down the uneven, narrow path, the trees gave way to what was truly smackin-the-chops scenery, one that Henry James more eloquently described as “the most astounding view in the whole of Italy”.
I was on a visit to Palazzola, a little-known English retreat house in the Castelli Romani area near Rome. Situated in a commanding location close to the rim of the extinct volcanic crater that is now Lake Albano, this “little palace” just outside the Italian capital has been a refuge for students of the Venerable English College since 1920.
But as well as being a place for seminarians to escape the Eternal (and infernally noisy) City to study and reflect, for the past 30 years, Palazzola – which used to be a monastery dating back to the 10th century – has also been open to groups and individuals looking for a spiritual retreat. Countless pilgrims have visited here, using it as a base to visit to Rome, or for a few quiet moments before moving on to St Peter’s and the Colosseum.
And it doesn’t take a spiritual guru to understand why. Palazzola’s jewel in the crown is its viewing garden, a peaceful stone terrace and lawn, sheltered by acacia, bay and cypress, that gives way to a stunning panorama of the lake. Immediately adjacent is the town of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of popes with its twin telescopic domes belonging to the Vatican’s astronomers.
“It’s a unique experience here,” says Palazzola’s director, Michael Severance. “If you’ve never been here before, you will be amazed.” Severance, a genial marketing expert from Phoenix, Arizona, has been brought in by the English College to attract more visitors to the villa, though some have already realised its potential.“We have a large Irish wedding planned in a few weeks,” he explains.“The Church ceremony and the reception on the lawn will all take place here, and it’s perfect for that.” Severance is Palazzola’s first lay director since the villa’s previous managers – the Sisters of Mercy – left last year. But as a layman, he is still keen to ensure that brief morning and evening prayers and the celebration of Mass in the adjoining church continue.
Indeed, the spiritual dimension of this place is of central importance for Severance who, as he shows me around the Palazzola’s ancient corridors and rooms, emphasises that, with its spiritual history, it could hardly be otherwise. Built on the site of the Via Sacra and immediately next to the tomb of Scipio, monks and friars from the Cistercian, Carthusian and Franciscan Orders have all lived and worshipped here. Hermits, too, sought the serenity of the grounds, inhabiting large nearby caves.
Yet Palazzola is open to all people, regardless of denomination or faith, looking for a time of quiet spiritual reflection. During my visit, I met a non-baptised BBC producer on her second visit after she had fallen in love with the beauty of the place while in Rome to cover the conclave. Also enjoying a retreat were an Anglican couple who were clearly delighted with their find. “We love the warm welcome we’ve got and the Eucharistic fellowship,” said the husband, a vicar from Teignmouth in Devon. “We’ve been here for two weeks... and we’re staying for three,” added his wife, her eyes twinkling.
In fact, the villa has for some years been closely associated with ecumenism. In 1986, a large AnglicanCatholic conference was held here (attended by John Paul II) and another one will take place in November. It has also been visited regularly by British Ambassadors to the Holy See who have traditionally been Anglican and strong supporters of the villa.
Most visitors, however, are Catholics and, during my visit, a group of Benedictine monks from America and Sisters of Mercy nuns from England enjoyed the villa as a base to visit Rome and its surroundings. They were later joined by the directors of Vatican Radio attending a morning conference and having lunch (always cooked in true Roman style by an Italian family – the pork is reputed to be the best in Italy).
However, Severance, who is married to an Italian and has two young children, is keen to broaden the villa’s appeal and, in particular, to attract families.He aims to host a course on family management, and sees the villa’s large swimming pool, tennis courts and acres of ground for children to explore as ideal for families. “The home is nowadays sometimes perceived as a workplace,” he argues. “Even kids are sometimes perceived as work, and you cannot relax enough to enjoy them. Here there is a spiritual dimension which will also give families the chance to have some real free time to be together.” Indeed, for Severance the villa’s potential need not end there. He would like to host trade shows for pilgrim operators, clerical vestment companies, and religious artists. At the same time, he is wary of turning Palazzola into a “Holiday Inn on the Lake”.
“The real concern is not to over-commercialise it in the sense of making T-shirts or bottling the scent of old libraries,” he explains. Rather, he says, the intention is simply to capitalise on the “huge market” for retreats, pilgrim groups and inter-religious conferences.
To do so, he argues, is an urgent necessity. “The Church has reached the point where it cannot depend on itself anymore and needs operations like this to exist,” he asserts. “We can’t be a drain on the Church, either, or we’d just have to close it up and turn it into a hotel.” That would be a tragedy, especially for administrator Guiseppe Piacentini. His father Alfredo and his grandfather Luigi devoted their lives to running Palazzola, and its survival owes itself to them. Grandfather Luigi was there from the very beginning, and in 1920 carried an important bag to the villa from Castel Gandolfo on the back of his donkey with strict instructions from the college rector, Mgr Arthur Hinsley, to make sure nobody touched it. The bag, Luigi later discovered to his surprise, contained hundreds of thousands of lira to purchase the property.
Both Luigi and Alfredo maintained the property in the war years, during which time the Germans requisitioned Palazzola and used it as a field hospital to nurse the wounded from Monte Cassino, Anzio and other areas of conflict. The villa was partially bombed, and then later occupied by American forces.
But even today, the upkeep remains a challenge and large amounts of capital are still needed to maintain such an old building in constant need of renovation (the road leading to the villa collapsed just before Easter, and the tennis courts need resurfacing after a harsh winter). “It’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge,” wryly remarks vice-rector Fr Andrew Headon, who works closely on administration with the college rector, Fr Nicholas Hudson. However, he maintains that Palazzola is still more profitable than it was 25 years ago when it used to be empty most of the year and had no warm water.
The hope now is to increase earnings over the winter months. “I’ve had groups here for New Year and the atmosphere has been fantastic,” adds Fr Headon who, before being ordained, was an accountant for Coopers and Lybrand in London.
“My Mum played the piano and everybody did a party piece,” he says.
However, he is aware that such festivities might be incompatible with anyone partaking in a silent retreat. “You’ve got to be discerning about who will be here at the same time,” he says cautiously, but adds that the current organisational structure “is working”.
Fr Headon is looking to attract anyone who is considering a retreat and, conscious of the success of the BBC series The Monastery, suggests that viewers may also like to “experience the stillness” of Palazzola. “It might take some of the pressure off the Abbot of Worth,” he jokes.
Furthermore, as the villa has a different chaplain every three weeks, he suggests priests looking for some time away from their parishes might like to consider a short stay at the villa, although he stresses that it “now has takers for the rest of the year”.
For some retreatants, Palazzola’s downsides will be that it is no longer an active monastery or convent, and therefore without the spiritual life that a living cloister would provide. Further, despite having large common rooms and a library, internal space may seem a little restricting and the walled garden can feel slightly claustrophobic.
However, retreatants are not expected to live like monks: the villa is more a place to unwind, reflect and pray rather than a centre for intense religiosity and penance. And its calm atmosphere and numerous picturesque walks tend to outweigh any insufficiencies in space. Palazzola is not easily accessible without a car but it is close to Ciampino airport and, thankfully, escapes the noise. I was saddened when it was time to leave and return to the din of the city. But at the same time, one could not help but be grateful for the time spent here – a place where ancient, hallowed ground and nature’s outstanding beauty work beautifully to transform the human spirit.