A crowd in tears at Benedict's farewell

Pope Benedict XVI's final goodbye was met with tears and applause in the tiny hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo near Rome Thursday, where thousands had gathered to hear his emotional last words before he retired.

"Thank you for your friendship," the 85-year old said as he stepped out onto a balcony of the papal residence here, smiling widely and holding out his arms to the crowd of flag-waving families, priests and pilgrims, who cheered wildly and chanted "Be-ne-detto!"

Church bells rang out to announce his arrival, as local residents crowded onto balconies and rooftops surrounding the square of this mediaeval town, which has a bond with the papacy going back centuries and where locals have grown to know and love Benedict.

After waiting for hours in the chill wind, chanting Hail Marys and huddling together for warmth, the crowd gazed eagerly up into the sky to catch a glimpse of the papal helicopter arriving from the Vatican, which Benedict left just minutes earlier for the last time as pope.

"It was all over so soon. What a joy to see him, but how sad to think it is for the last time," said Giuseppina, a 23-year-old local waitress, wiping away a tear.

Others could be seen tearing up as Benedict told the crowd he was soon to be just "a simple pilgrim" like them, before blessing them and retiring into the palace, and out of sight from the world.

"It means a huge amount to us that Benedict has chosen to say his final goodbyes here, it's a very emotional day," said Patrizia Gasperini, 40, a local shopkeeper.

"We've been privileged to see a different, more humane side to him over the years, and grown to love him," she said, adding that she had named her eight-year-old daughter Benedetta in honour of the pope.

"I haven't really accepted he's gone," she added.

"Thank you Benedict, we are all with you!" read huge inflatable silver letters strung next to the small parish church, where parish priest Pietro Diletti spoke of the pope he had befriended.

"I've met the pope many times, we've eaten together, we've joked together, and it's an immense gesture of friendship on his part that he has chosen us for his last goodbye," said Diletti.

Benedict celebrated a mass every year during his eight-year pontificate in Diletti's small parish church of San Tommaso di Villanova.

"Everything I thought I knew about him changed when I first met him. He would cry out, 'Oh, here is our dear parish priest!' and once I cheekily replied: 'Here is my dear parishioner, who doesn't always attend my services!'" Diletti said.

Later, while some local residents prayed in the small parish church, others gathered for a much quieter ceremony to mark the actual moment Benedict's pontificate ended.

At 1900 GMT precisely, Swiss guards in their red, blue and orange-striped uniforms stood to attention with halberds in hand outside the imposing wooden doors of the papal palace, and silence fell across the square.

The small crowd held its breath, searching for any sign of Benedict inside as the final moment came.

The guards then swung the doors closed and withdrew from service, indicating the end of Benedict's reign.

"Benedict's been such a big part of our lives, we want to make him an honorary citizen of Castel Gandolfo," said local mayor, Milva Monachesi.

"He has said he will be invisible to the world, but we're hoping one day -- when all the commotion has died away -- we can throw a party for him in the square, and he will sit down and eat with us."

Benedict will spend the first two months of his retirement here in the papal summer residence perched high on a rocky outcrop with views of a lake and the sea, before withdrawing to a monastery within the grounds of the Vatican.

"It's a place he's come to love, an oasis of calm," Monachesi said, pointing to Benedict's own phrase immortalised in a plaque on the town hall opposite the palace.

It reads: "Here I find everything: a mountain, a lake, I even see the sea... and good people."