President McAleese has begun a five-day visit to Belgium and Italy ahead of a meeting with Pope Benedict.

This visit focusses on some of Ireland's strongest links with continental Europe - business, education and religion.

The first leg of the trip saw President McAleese arrive in Brussels where she made a courtesy call on the Belgian King.

From there the President travelled to Louvain to launch the ceremonies marking the 400th anniversary of the famous Irish College.

The college was founded in 1607 as a haven for students escaping penal times at home.

In Brussels and then in Milan, President McAleese will attend a series of business events before travelling on to Rome for a meeting with the Italian president and a visit to Rome's Irish College.

The trip concludes on Friday in the Vatican where the President will meet Pope Benedict and the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone.

The President will also address the European Bishops' Conference in Rome before travelling home next Friday.