Pope Benedict XVI appears from the centr
Paolo Cocco  /  AFP - Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI appears on the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo on Thursday, in his first visit to the retreat.
updated 5/5/2005 4:45:31 PM ET 2005-05-05T20:45:31

Pope Benedict XVI made his first excursion outside Rome since becoming pontiff, inspecting the papal vacation palace in this lakeside hill town and telling townspeople Thursday he will spend the summer months here.

Bells chimed at the arrival of the Italian air force helicopter that ferried Benedict to this ancient town, 16 miles southeast of Rome, to take formal possession of the Vatican’s vacation retreat during a three-hour visit.

Crowds cheered when Benedict appeared on the palace’s tiny balcony overlooking the street to bless them, and schoolchildren jumped up and down with glee when he told them: “God willing, I will pass the summer months” at the palace.

Benedict thanked the people for their cordial welcome.

“We’ll see each other again as soon as possible,” he said, his white hair tousled by a stiff, late afternoon breeze.

The pontiff did not set a date.

Benedict, elected pope April 19, began his inspection of the sprawling grounds with compliments to palace staff.

Crowds of well-wishers
“We can see how well you work and how beautiful the gardens are,” Benedict said.

His words, amplified by a loudspeaker, could be heard by hundreds of people crowded outside the palace in the town’s main street.

His predecessor, John Paul II, often spent a week or two in July hiking or meditating in a chalet in the Italian Alps before spending the rest of the summer, well into September, at Castel Gandolfo.

The palace is nestled in the Alban Hills, where cool evening breezes offer welcome relief from the relentless heat of a Roman summer.

The estate includes a swimming pool, installed so that John Paul could keep in shape by doing laps. John Paul once joked that it was cheaper to build a pool than pay for a conclave in case of his death. He died April 2 at age 84 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

Local residents were pleased by their first look at Benedict on their turf.

“He’s off to a good start,” said Giacomino Andrea, 79, a fifth-generation resident who has been cheering popes here since Pius XII, pontiff from 1939 to 1958.

A place to reflect, relax
“We’re always happy when the pope comes,” said Claudia Ilari, who owns a souvenir shop on a corner of the town square in front of the palace. “Let’s hope this pope comes as often as John Paul II.”

An early evening stroll in the palace gardens was on Benedict’s schedule before he flew back to Rome.

Popes have used their sojourns at the summer palace to write important documents, catch up on reading, relax and entertain.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, visited John Paul at the palace in July 2001, and the pontiff played tour guide, escorting the couple onto a palace balcony overlooking the lake and chatting about his world views.

John Paul also welcomed friends from Poland at the retreat, whose grounds include a 60-acre farm with dairy cows.

Busy start
The new pope, former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, moved into the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City on Saturday after the residence was cleaned and spruced up.

Benedict has kept a busy schedule this week.

He received the Italian president at the Vatican on Tuesday in the first formal audience he has granted to a head of state.

On Friday, he receives South African President Thabo Mbeki.

On Sunday, he will be in two basilicas in Rome: St. John Lateran, his seat as the bishop of Rome, and St. Mary Major, where he will pray before an icon of the Virgin Mary.

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