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What does the pope do on his day off?

Australia Pope
Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by Cardinal George Pell and an unidentified bishop, takes a stroll at the Kenthurst Study Center in Sydney on Monday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

One shot pigeons, another played bocce ball with the Swiss Guards, and John Paul II skied and hiked.

But give Pope Benedict XVI a grand piano and he will feel his vacation is complete.

What popes do on their days off has usually been the subject of speculation. But officials have given some hints about Benedict, who has taken off three days to rest and recover from jet lag as he prepares to meet with hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims for the church's World Youth Day.

The 81-year-old pontiff is ensconced at a secluded study center run by the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei in bush country outside Sydney.

His spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict plans no public activities until the welcoming ceremony Thursday morning. But he said a Vatican television crew would be on call to record anything noteworthy "like if they bring him a kangaroo."

20-hour journey to Australia
On Monday, the day after flying more than 20 hours from the Vatican in the longest journey of his three-year papacy, the 81-year-old Benedict took several walks, touched up his speeches for later in the week, and was treated to an afternoon concert by seven members of the Sydney Symphony Training Orchestra. They played Schumann, Schubert and Mozart — a particular favorite, Lombardi said.

He met with Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell to discuss the upcoming events over brunch.

"His health is very good. The pope is resting," said Lombardi.

On the grounds of the retreat is a swimming pool, tennis court and a miniature chapel built right against the bush — with windows looking out onto Australian native eucalyptus trees.

Awaiting Thursday's commencement of a busy four-day schedule, Benedict, an accomplished pianist, will be more than content to practice on the piano, read or make last-minute touches to his speeches.

"The lodgings in Kenthurst are simple but comfortable," Pell told reporters before visiting the pontiff there Monday. "He does have access to a tennis court — but we don't anticipate that he will be using that."

"I am sure that he will be in fine form for his official welcome on Thursday," Pell said.

Enjoys a good walk
Benedict is a brisk walker and aides say his health is good, but he clearly enjoys a more sedentary life than his predecessor John Paul. Even during vacations in the Italians Alps, he is rarely seen outside his compound.

Leo XIII, an avid hunter before becoming pope in 1878, was known to shoot pigeons from the windows of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Benedict XV, pope from 1914-22, played bocce with the Swiss Guards in a Vatican courtyard.

Other pontiffs simply took walks inside the Vatican, sometimes alarming unsuspecting gardeners and other workers.

Until hip and knee ailments slowed him down in the 1990s and symptoms of Parkinson's disease set in, John Paul hiked in the Italian Alps, in Canada's Jasper Park during a tour of that country in 1984 and in the Rocky Mountains outside Denver during World Youth Day there in 1993.

John Paul had never made a secret of his love for the mountains, the backwoods and the ski slopes, sometimes slipping out of the Vatican to avoid scandalizing prelates who believed those activities were un-pope like.

Although he answered five questions submitted in advance in a 15-minute meeting with reporters aboard his plane from Rome, Benedict is generally being kept far from the press. He didn't mingle with the traveling press as John Paul did on long flights.

But 12 youngsters will join Benedict for lunch on Friday at St. Mary's Cathedral House in Sydney. The Vatican said they can ask questions.