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Welcome to Subiaco...Italy
Welcome to Subiaco...Italy

Subiaco is 80km east of Rome in a valley and dominated by the oldest Benedictine monastries in the world. In fact, it was Benedictine monks from Subiaco who settled in Western Australia in 1851 and called their monastry after their home town.

Subiaco is a short drive on a Sunday when the need exists to get out of Rome for some fresh air, mountain hiking and meditation. A good restaurant meal or picnic spot awaits. In the northern autumn, the splashes of gold and red hues sweeping through the trees on the mountainsides are very beautiful.

The drive is an easy climb to a height of 500m above sea level, about an hour and a quarter along the A24 Autostrade toll road. The road from the Autostrade into the town is an unusually wide two-lane Italian regional road which, on the three occasions I have driven up there, I have found easy to navigate. The first time was to see how safe it was and to familiarise, the second and third times were happily with elements of my family when they were visiting.

My first recommended stop is near the entry arch to the town, the old Roman-arched St Francis Bridge with bar and barista nearby and plenty of parking down the road to the right past the bus station. The fast-flowing stream alongside a new walkway to the bridge bubbles and bounces along before diving through the superb single-arch bridge.

The best second stop is the big Monastery of St Benedict, 3km through the town (follow the signs) and up the hill, overhanging some caves where St Benedict lived as a hermit for three years and was fed bread lowered to him in a basket in AD500. It is a rabbit warren of chapels and stairs and caves with superb frescoes in good condition but it closes at 12.30pm. There are two carparks, including one right up the top through the narrow arch. As the candles flicker and muffled chants come from somewhere inside you can feel an inner peace. It all helps getting ready for the busy week ahead, be it in Rome or at a conference at Belgrade or even a dash to Dachau and Auschwitz for related Inter-Faith Conferences and so forth.

The third recommended stop is the St Scholastica Abbey with three cloistered courtyards to die for, a modern chapel and other parts due to World War II bombing damage.

It also has a library where the first books were printed in Italy in 1465, including 275 copies of the speeches of Cicero.

Two German monks travelled south from Mainz in 1463 and started a printing press, printing four books. Today, there are many pilgrims from Germany to Subiaco.

Sadly, ransacking soldiers of various kinds, including those of Napoleon and the anti-clerical Garibaldi, did much damage to the original collections. Still, a large library exists today plus a more modern printing press.

Finally, there is the Church of St Francis with some good paintings and a huge dome, one of several historic churches.

On top of the town, literally, there is the Borgia Palace of stark and bold proportions. It is undergoing a revamp but worth getting up to. Again, some parking is available up top.

Lucretia Borgia, the femme fatale of the notorious Borgia family; Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned and, more recently, Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida were all residents of Subiaco. Today, many residents and students commute to Rome daily.

Alas, restaurants in Subiaco are few. One where former Italian deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini and Gina Lollobrigida have lunched is open on Mondays and is 50m downhill from the Church of St Francis on the same side. There are no coffee shops at the two big monastries but another restaurant is near St Scholastica Abbey.

Subiaco is a relaxing place to visit, as some of the 40 Australian bishops found during their visit for the Ad Limina last year.

There was a brief break so they travelled by bus to Subiaco, where then Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth led them in Mass. The Ad Limina visit occurs every five years and is a time when prelates meet the Pope to report and make a pilgrimage to the tombs of St Peter and St Paul.

Subiaco and Castel Gandolfo (the town where the Pope's Summer Palace is just south of Rome) are the two mountain destinations near the Italian capital I will miss most.

In Rome it will be Domus Australia chapel (a 32-room pilgrim centre open to all Australian visitors to Rome and officially opened by the Pope on October 21 last year) and the Caravita Church where Mozart once played that I will miss most, along with the baroque centrepiece of St Peter's Square.

I have now returned to my family farm Grossotto in north-east Victoria, to farm and write books, including one on John Monash.