On his first trip to Rome with his parish priest during the late 1960s, Hans-Albert Courtial, then a young student from Limburg, Germany, had a life-changing encounter at a small audience in St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Paul VI. He almost missed the event because it was raining, his public bus skipped a run, and he arrived late. Luckily, a Swiss Guard closed an eye and slipped him in. As the Pope and his entourage entered the small chapel, Courtial spontaneously called out “Viva il Papa” with such fervor that Pope Paul VI personally blessed him. From that moment, Courtial realized that his vocation was to organize pilgrimages to Rome for Germans. In 1969, he founded Courtial Reisen, now an important international travel agency.
Today, some 45 years later, this German layman has the privilege of being allowed to move freely in the Vatican. He is a senator of the oldest university in exile, the Free University of Ukraine, located in Munich; a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic; an Ambassador of Rome to the world; and the founder/producer of the Holy See’s Foundation of Sacred Music and Art, which sponsors restoration work in St. Peter’s as well as an annual sacred music festival.
The next festival, the 13th, will be from October 22-26. Its highlight will be on October 23 in the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls. The Vienna Philharmonic and the Wiener Singverein will perform Schubert’s Lazarus with Maestro Ingo Metzmacher conducting.
Courtial is also the founder and manager of two small guesthouses which offer lodging closer to St. Peter’s Basilica than any other hotel: the Residenza Paolo VI and the Palazzo Cardinal Cesi.
All of Courtial’s enterprises except Palazzo Cardinal Cesi are housed in a single building which is also home to the Philippine Embassy to the Holy See on Via Paolo VI — the street which runs along the left branch of Bernini’s colonnade as you face St. Peter’s Basilica.
Since 1886, the building has belonged to the Augustinian Order, which Pope Innocent IV (1243-54) recognized on December 16, 1243. Martin Luther was an Augustinian friar from 1505 until his excommunication in 1520, and today the Order counts some 2,800 black-robed members worldwide.
The entrance at no. 29 opens onto a small courtyard with an elegant souvenir store of religious artifacts to its left. The door straight ahead opens onto a small entrance with an elevator to ride up to the travel agency, the Foundation, and, on the third floor, the 4-star Residenza Paolo VI (www.residenzapaolovi.com), which Courtial opened in the year 2000. Although it offers 35 non-smoking rooms, all with modern conveniences like plasma TVs, minibars, telephones, free wi-fi, private bathrooms with shower stalls, hairdryers, air conditioning/heating, and safes for valuables, each one has a crucifix, and, instead of a daily newspaper, guests are given Bible readings every morning, printed on hotel stationary and slipped under their doors. In the readings there are offerings from the Old and New Testaments, plus a reading from one of the four Gospels.
Twenty-five of the rooms are standard and small because they were once monks’ cells; two are deluxe doubles, two are junior suites, and six are deluxe superior rooms named for famous Italian Renaissance artists. The junior suites overlook Bernini’s Colonnade. “The majority of our guests,” Stefanie Lindemann, the German front office manager, told me, “are German and American tourists, but we are also the preferred choice of many clergy from the United States. Of course, our prices vary according to demand and the season. For example, a standard double room costs 145 euros in the off-season and 420 euros (c. $600) in high season.”
An American buffet breakfast is served every morning from 7:30 to 10:30 in the Bernini Room, which is also available for exclusive receptions, business lunches and private parties with up to 45 guests, either in-house or from outside the hotel.
A bar service with light snacks is also available from 4 PM to midnight in the Bernini Room or on the terrace just outside, which overlooks St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace.