Tiny town prepares for pope's last goodbye

The tiny hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo near Rome was abuzz with preparations for the last goodbye of Pope Benedict XVI, who will wave from a balcony of the papal residence here on Thursday before his papal powers expire and he begins retirement.

A procession of local residents bearing torches and chanting prayers will mark Benedict's last ever public appearance on the loggia overlooking the square in a mediaeval town which for centuries has hosted popes escaping the Roman summer.

"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, who works in a gift shop next to the imposing wooden doors of the papal palace that will close at 1900 GMT, indicating the end of Benedict's reign.

"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 her eight-year-old daughter, named Benedetta after Benedict, has written a goodbye letter to him along with her class.

"Thank you Benedict, we are all with you!" read huge inflatable silver letters strung next to the small parish church, where hordes of journalists were camped out and local officials were preparing tokens stamped with the pope's smiling face.

Benedict -- who will spend the first two months of retirement here -- did not inspire the intense emotion or draw the crowds who came to see his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, locals said.

"John Paul was such a warm person, he really roused the young. Benedict was more reserved, and fewer pilgrims came here to see him," said Simone Piloto.

But the 85-year old's shock decision to give up the papal seat after eight years changed the way the town saw him, and many said they thought he had refused to be sucked into scandals and a poisonous climate within a suffering Church.

"We've discovered that behind his cold facade lies an honest man. He spoke yesterday of the stormy waters of his papacy -- and I think he should speak out now about what he knows," said Veronica Radoi, 30, who runs a small trattoria.

The soon-to-be former pontiff will arrive by helicopter shortly after 1600 GMT.

The cobbled town overlooking Italy's Lake Albano is closely tied to life behind the walls of the vast palace: Swiss guards spend their down time in the bars and restaurants, gardeners and cleaners come and go, and gossip filters out.

Rumours of bickering and jostling for power within the Vatican -- which some observers have said may have been a final straw for Benedict -- worried the town's elderly inhabitants, who have known several popes over the years.

"I was born here, I've seen five popes come and go and did not expect to live to see a sixth," said 80-year-old Marisa as she sat on a chair outside her house in the sun, waiting for the afternoon ceremony to begin.

"Benedict is a good man but he had a difficult, ugly papacy. Whoever comes next will need to be really strong," she said, shaking her head and sighing.

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