AP Photo LDC109, LDC108, GB103, GB102, GB101
By DANIELA PETROFF
Associated Press Writer
LORENZAGO DI CADORE, Italy (AP) – When Pope Benedict XVI announced he was coming on vacation, this sleepy town in the Italian Alps awoke with a jolt.
Streets were repaved, buildings were whitewashed and once rusty balconies were decorated with cheerful flowers and yellow-and-white Vatican flags.
At his departure Friday, a huge sign along the route to the improvised heliport read, “Holy Father please come back.” At the end of the almost three-week stay, the fear here is that things will go back to normal in this town of fewer than 600 residents, known more for its eyeglass industry than its tourism.
“Having the pope shook us into action,” said Bruna Da Rin, who works in the local ice cream parlor.
According to Mayor Mario Tremonti, the town tripled its summer population from the same period last year – a clear sign that Benedict brings business to the village in the northeastern Dolomite mountains.
“After he leaves, we are back where we started from,” said Silvano Ponti Scala, mayor of a neighboring town in the Cadore valley.
The comments reflected the feeling of many in the area, who want to update its mountain tourism to resemble that in nearby Austria or the adjacent Italian South Tirol.
Lorenzago’s history with popes goes back 20 years, when the late Pope John Paul II, an avid hiker in his native Poland, became the first pontiff to vacation in the mountains, accepting the offer of a local bishop to use the church-owned chalet tucked in the pine forest above the town.
John Paul went to Lorenzago five more times – the last visit dates back to 1998 – alternating with holidays in the Alps of the Valle D’Aosta, close to the French border.
Benedict spent his first two summers as pope at that retreat before he announced that for this summer, he wanted to try Lorenzago.
The villa, which had fallen into disuse with weeds growing everywhere, was refurbished and a 10-foot-high fence was erected around it for privacy as well as protection.
The town’s two general stores – the closest supermarket is 10 miles away – now sell T-shirts with Benedict’s image along with other papal gadgets, from key chains to posters and even a commemorative stamp recalling the visit.
According to the Veneto region, which includes Lorenzago, $246,000 was spent on fixing up the villa and the surrounding area, while another $225,000 went to sprucing up the town and redoing incoming roads.
During his stay, the 80-year-old pontiff, unlike his predecessor, preferred the seclusion of the villa to long outings, usually taking a car ride in the late afternoon to a church or shrine in the area, often combined with a short walk in the woods while praying the rosary.
For these outings, he wore hiking shoes under his traditional white cassock and a white quilted jacket for cooler evenings.
At a meeting with 400 priests Monday, in the neighboring town of Aronzo, the Bavarian-born Benedict explained how he felt about the mountains.
“I’m not very sporty, but I liked to go to the mountains when I was young,” he said. “Now I only take very easy walks, but I still find it very beautiful.”
While some tourists grumbled at the pope’s quest for privacy, the locals took it in stride.
“We’re just happy he’s here,” said Laura Gerardini, who owns the town’s main cafe.
On rare occasions, Benedict stopped to greet small groups of tourists and locals who gathered daily in the main square in the hope of getting a glimpse of the pope driving by on his way back from an outing.
The lucky ones got to shake his hand when he rolled down the shaded window of the SUV he was using in the mountains. Children brought him flowers and mothers passed their babies through the window for a papal kiss.
The pope had three public appearances scheduled during his stay, two Sunday Angelus prayers and Monday’s meeting with the priests. Upon arrival July 9, Benedict told reporters he planned to spend most of his holiday working on the second volume of his book on the life of Jesus, and possibly a second encyclical, the most authoritative document a pope can issue.
According to his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Benedict also brought a lot of reading with him and sheets of music, mainly Mozart, to play on the piano the local church had brought to the villa specially for him.
Many here hope Benedict comes back next year.
“When the pope moves, business moves. He helps in difficult situations,” said Maria Antonia Ciotti, one of 22 mayors from the area whom the pope met at the villa Thursday to thank them from their hospitality.
Their hopes are likely to be fulfilled.
“God willing, we will be back,” Benedict told reporters before taking off for Rome, where he will continue his summer at the papal residence in nearby Castel Gandolfo. “It has been wonderful here.”