Rome: capital of an empire, papal seat and Italy's main metropolis. This portal to the past has both history and legend etched in every splendid ruin, cavalcade of stone angels, Bernini fountain and quadriga of sculpted horses. La grande bellezza is worthy of every bit of its innate sense of importance – the pomp and circumstance evident in every portico, via and piazza. Not many places can tell a tale, such as the caput mundi (capital of the world) – the city that Romulus and Remus founded on the spot chosen by the Trojan prince, Aeneas.
We turn to exalted writers to adequately describe how it feels to visit the city of seven hills as a traveller. They express a shared sentiment amongst all tourists: that a visit to this city changes lives. 'For the first time, I live,' Henry James told his brother. 'The delights of Rome,' Mary Shelley wrote, 'have had such an effect on me that my past life before I saw it appears a blank.'
Upon seeing the view from the dome of St Peter's, Mark Twain called Rome: 'varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe.' Indeed, it's a feast for the senses. Its sights and sounds are entrancing, but of course, Rome affects the felt senses too. Its culinary traditions enhance any Roman holiday, with gelaterias, pizzerias, bars for an evening aperitivo and Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants all vying for attention.
A trip to Rome can feed the soul too. In the city, on a hill west of the Tiber and secluded by high walls (mainly), lies the Holy See: an independent, sovereign state and headquarters of the Catholic Church. Arguably the true Eternal City? Dominated by St Peter's Basilica and its encompassing colonnade, the Vatican sits on a 44-hectare site known to the city's ancient inhabitants as Mons Vaticanus. Awash with some of the western world's greatest treasures, travellers flock to Vatican City to tour the Museums and Galleries, Pontifical Villas and the gardens.
Of course, through special arrangements, a visit to Rome and the Holy See can reveal another aspect, uncover seldom-told secrets and delve deeper. Recently (pre-pandemic), an intimate group of Abercrombie & Kent's clients, who hailed from the Republic of Ireland, spent three days doing just that. For them, it was a spiritual journey, which culminated with the opportunity to be in the presence of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis.
We arranged for the group to be based at the Holy Deer San Lorenzo City Lodge, on the Piazza Navone, where Pope Innocent X is reported to have romped with his well-known mistress. Restored to perfection by hoteliers Stefano and Giorgia Barbini and a team of local artisans, the Lodge is a divine base from which to explore.
On their first day in Rome, the scene was set with a private guided tour during which they traversed the same underground passageways that gladiators once stalked at the Colosseum. They walked through the very epicentre of antiquity in the Roman Forum where the shouts of 'Caesar has been murdered' once rang forth, and St Paul once walked en route to his audience with Nero. They ascended the Palatine Hill, where it is said Romulus killed Remus, and history haunts every evocative ruin and towering pine tree. Their day ended over classic Italian fare at the Michelin-starred AROMA restaurant at Palazzo Manfredi, overlooking the Colosseum.
The second day was spent in Vatican City, whereby privileged access, Abercrombie & Kent arranged many extraordinary occurrences: including a tour of extensive gardens used by the Pontiff for meditative contemplation. Later the Swiss Guard opened the Vatican especially to the group, where they were led through the city's labyrinthine corridors to the Sistine Chapel to see the frescoed work of the 'divine Michelangelo'.
'In the entire world of art, there can be no example of a more brilliant rendering of the supernatural' – so said Jacob Burckhardt in the 17th century and those gazing upon the famed scene in the 21st century were inclined to agree with the cultural historian. In the company of only Swiss Guards and a specialist guide, they also enjoyed exploring The Vatican Museums, including the Gallery of the Candelabra; The Gallery the Tapestries, where they marvelled at Raphael's Resurrection of the Christ; and The Gallery of Geographical Maps, which displays the topographical work of Ignazio Danti.
Additionally, they toured Raphael's Rooms in the Pontifical Palace, which Raphael and his school worked on between 1509 and 1511. The most famed mural in the Stanze di Raffaello is The School of Athens, which has long been seen as 'Raphael's masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance. The evening was rounded off by a private visit to The Cabinet of Masks – usually unavailable even on special-access tours – where the group were awed to see mosaics from Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.
On the morning of the following day, our group worshipped in St Peter's Basilica as guests of the Pope. They sat in a particular area adjacent to the pulpit from which the Pontiff celebrated Mass. Following on from this special moment, they reflected on their time at the Vatican and Rome, with a tour of the Niccoline Chapel and renowned double-helix Bramante staircase. The former was built by Pope Nicholas V as his private chapel, and it's famed for its Fra Angelico martyr-murals.
On their final day, we took our guests a short distance from Rome to Castel Gandolfo, located on Lake Albano's shores, to visit the Apostolic Palace. Built as the summer residence of Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century, the Pontifical Palace is surrounded by the breath-taking and extensive Barberini Gardens. These gardens – designed in a geometric pattern and edged by towering cypresses, crowns of umbrella pines and the blue-green of age-old cedars – sits on what was once emperor Domitian's villa. Closed to the public for 400 years, the palace and gardens were recently opened because Pope Francis chooses not to utilise the country retreat for rest and recreation purposes. This previously never-visited jewel has been called a 'world of pure beauty, and it proved a fitting way to finish a special tour of Rome and the Vatican's divinely inspired spaces.