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New soles for pope? Rome's Borgo's the go-to place

When a future pope needed new soles, he strolled to a shoe repair shop practically around the corner from the Vatican. When he was pope and nearing retirement, he had the same shoemaker craft a pair of comfy, calfskin slippers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When a future pope needed new soles, he strolled to a shoe repair shop practically around the corner from the Vatican. When he was pope and nearing retirement, he had the same shoemaker craft a pair of comfy, calfskin slippers.

Borgo, the sleepy, medieval neighborhood with a timeless feel right outside the Vatican's borders, has been at the service of pontiffs for centuries. From resoling to risotto, from light bulbs to linguine, Borgo is the go-to place for up-and-coming cardinals and sometimes even for popes.

Pilgrims may hurry through Borgo's narrow cobblestone streets to catch papal blessings in jam-packed St. Peter's Square. But gastronomically picky, red-hatted prelates and black-robed monsignors often stop to dine in the neighborhood's eateries, debating the qualities of the next pontiff while tucking into tagliatelle and sausage in pistachio pesto or marsala-soaked braised pork.

Stroll Borgo's slow-paced streets between meal times, and you might spot prelates on errands like the ones Joseph Ratzinger ran, when as a German cardinal he lived in an apartment just outside Vatican walls. Proudly displayed inside the shoemaker's shop and in a lighting and electrical repair store are photographs of the businesses' owners with their faithful client Ratzinger, more famous as the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Borgo means "village" in Italian, and, indeed, the neighborhood has a quaint, insular quality, perhaps because some of its streets are closed to traffic.

"It's a small town in a big city. Everyone knows you, and everything's on a human scale" in Borgo, said Patrizia Podetti, whose restaurant Velando was hopping with cardinals in the run-up to the conclave that elected Pope Francis and in the days immediately afterward. (During the conclave they were sequestered in the Vatican's hotel, eating what has been described euphemistically as simple pilgrims' fare.)

Several cardinals and other high-ranked Vatican churchmen live in apartments at the Vatican's edges. Ratzinger lived in a modern, austere-looking building at No. 1 Piazza della Citta Leonina, whose nondescript entrance faces a portal just outside the colonnade of St. Peter's Square. Tenants are listed anonymously on the building's intercom system, but just about anyone in Borgo will say Ratzinger lived there.

Turn the corner from Ratzinger's place and you come to a T-shaped intersection with a traffic light at the end of Borgo's main street, Borgo Pio. When the light turns green at the gate, dark-colored sedans roll in and out with Vatican City license plates, chauffeuring cardinals here and there.

It was here, just outside St. Anna's Gate, a Vatican side entrance, that Pope Francis shook off his security handlers, took a few steps outside the Holy See's confines and waded up to an admiring crowd on the first Sunday of his papacy.

Borgo tourists, stay alert: Who knows if Francis, quickly dubbed the "unpredictable pope" by Italian media, will succumb to Borgo's simple charms and cross the street next time?

In late afternoon, after a long day's work at the Vatican, Ratzinger, sometimes with satchel in hand, would stroll Borgo's few blocks, largely empty of tourists by then. Exquisitely polite and mostly shy, the cardinal would cordially exchange greetings with neighborhood shopkeepers and artisans.

Other prelates who live in Vatican City, where they work, also use Borgo as a backyard of sorts, perhaps lunching with ambassadors to the Holy See, or consulting with colleagues over a shot of grappa at the end of a meal. Velando, located at Borgo Vittorio 26, is a favorite dining spot for the churchmen, with sleek wooden furnishings, subdued lighting and vaulted, whitewashed ceiling giving an air of a church sacristy. Ratzinger often dined there before becoming pope; his favorite dish was rosemary-seasoned risotto, Podetti said.

Cardinal James Harvey, a U.S. prelate who until last year served as prefect of the papal household, is also a Velando regular. And recently seen at the restaurant was Boston's cardinal, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who flew into Rome ahead of the voting, which saw him pegged as a possible favorite to become pope. He stood out in his plain brown Franciscan tunic amid all the red cassocks, Podetti said. After the conclave ended, Velando diners included the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, Justin Rigali.

Around the corner from Velando is a boutique for clerical garb. In the window shortly after the conclave was a mannequin in a red-trimmed cassock and red zucchetto, the cardinals' skull cap. Since it's not every day that bishops become cardinals and a red wardrobe is needed, the shop also makes lawyers' robes. The bustling and increasingly chic Prati neighborhood just beyond Borgo is filled with law offices.

Near St. Anna's Gate is Borgo's most famous tailor for clerical garb. Using a 1960s-vintage, pea-green sewing machine, owner Raniero Mancinelli has been sewing cardinal red robes and papal hats for decades — including last-minute orders to spiff up cardinal and bishop garb for Francis' installation.

But most of Borgo's shops sell ordinary items for laity and clergy alike. On Borgo Pio (or pious village in Italian), next to a takeout pizza place, a simple housewares store sells items like laundry detergent. Such mom-and-pop shops were once common in Rome; many have closed their doors, unable to compete with now ubiquitous supermarkets. The housewares place currently sports a "for sale" sign; down the block is a shuttered butcher shop. But many Romans special order Argentine beef, famed for its tenderness and flavor, so who knows? Perhaps the forlorn butcher will reopen now that an Argentine runs the Vatican.

Benedict, before he became pope, sought help at the electrical shop at Borgo Pio 53. When he asked electrician Angelo Mosca to fix a light fixture at his apartment, he offered to hold the ladder.

"'I'm afraid you'll fall,'" Mosca recalled the future pope saying. "Your eminence, I hope not," Mosca said he replied. Still, Ratzinger, with a reputation for courtesy, held fast to the ladder.

While tourists in Borgo might not need a light bulb, pounding the cobblestones takes a toll on shoes, and Il Calzolaio shoe repair and shoemaker shop might come in handy. It did for Ratzinger, who occasionally waited on a chair in the shop while repairs were done. Calzolaio's master craftsman, Antonio Arellano, a soft-spoken Peruvian immigrant, not only resoled Ratzinger's shoes, but he made two pair of red goat-skin slip-ons for him after he became pope.

A photograph in the store on Via del Falco 30, which intersects Borgo Pio, shows Arellano presenting a pair to the pope at a general audience at the Vatican.

"He has almost perfect feet. He walks so straight, with perfect support," Arellano said. He even recalled the former pope's shoe size: 42 European (8.5 in the U.S.).

Arellano also displays a replica of the brown, open-back calfskin slippers he made for Benedict in 2011, upon an order from the Vatican, he said. He shyly shows off an Easter card he received from the pontiff that year, with a handwritten note of thanks from Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Benedict's longtime personal secretary.

When Gaenswein and Ratzinger craved food with roots closer to their native Germany, they headed to Cantina Tirolese, a restaurant at Via Vitelleschi 23 serving dishes from Italy's Alpine South Tyrol region and Austria. Diners can ask for Table No. 6, "a big round table with cardinal red cushions" downstairs that Ratzinger liked to reserve, said restaurant owner Manuela Macher, whose mother is Austrian and father is Roman.

Ratzinger was "an assiduous patron. Every winter, he would come in three, four times, even by himself," she recalled. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger would arrive about 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., dinnertime in Germany, Macher said, laughing, since Romans rarely venture out to dine before 8:30 p.m. Sometimes he came straight from the Vatican, carrying his satchel of paperwork.

The future pope never ate much, the owner said. But he was nostalgic for comfort food from his native Bavaria that wasn't on Cantina Tirolese's menu, so the staff re-created it, just for him. "It was beef broth with crepes cut into thin strips," said Macher.

Not counting lunch or dinner, Borgo and its few blocks, lined with simple, often wood-trimmed buildings, many of them several centuries old, can be explored leisurely in a couple of hours. Some street names recall wares once made there, like Via degli Ombrellari (umbrella-makers street), although these days, Asian immigrants pop out at every corner on rainy days to sell folding versions.

One of Borgo's most interesting features runs above street level but is rarely accessible. Called Il Passetto di Borgo, it is a fortified, medieval-era corridor that served as a covered walkway linking the Vatican to Castel Sant'Angelo, a fortress just beyond Borgo's border. Pope Clement VII used it to scurry to safety during the sack of Rome in 1527.

Opened occasionally for tourists, as it was a few summers ago, the Passetto offers strollers a peek into Roman houses built practically smack up against the bricked arches beneath it. In the last weeks of Benedict's papacy, the Vatican and Italy's culture ministry signed an accord for restoration work that would allow public access again.

Borgo seems to end abruptly because two streets were removed during Benito Mussolini's rule and replaced by the broad Via della Conciliazione, stretching between a bridge over the Tiber and St. Peter's Square.

The main street, Borgo Pio, ends suddenly too, at a modern, brick-faced building that now houses a Catholic university but once was a local porn theater. In Rome, the sacred and the profane are rarely far apart.