THE Italian hilltop town of Castel Gandolfo, summer host to popes for centuries, took on a new mission today as it became the temporary home of the first "pope emeritus".
Pope Benedict will spend the first few months of his retirement in the papal summer residence, a complex of villas boasting lush gardens, a farm and stunning views over Lake Albano in the volcanic crater below the town.
Locals set up banners and balloons in the square outside the Papal Palace on Thursday to welcome the pontiff, whose papacy was due to end this evening with Swiss Guards outside the main gate handing over security to Vatican police. Some saw it as an honour for the town, others as an opportunity.
"It's a big surprise that he is resigning, but we will offer him solidarity," said Pietro Diletti, the parish priest of San Tommaso da Villanova where the pope traditionally says mass on August 15, the Christian feast day marking the Assumption of Mary.
"We are very happy he is coming, we know how much he likes it here, and he will be able to relax," Diletti said. "We consider him a citizen of Castel Gandolfo."
Nineteen-year-old Gianmarco Pelli, who works in a recently opened pasta factory in the town, had a slightly different view.
"When I heard he was coming here, I knew we were going to be the centre of the world for a while," he said. "The place is completely transformed in summer, it becomes a spectacle. I hope it will be like that in the next few months."
ARRIVAL BY HELICOPTER
Benedict was due to arrive by helicopter in the late afternoon and make one last public appearance to town residents before entering the final phase of his life "hidden from the world", as he put it recently.
He will spend roughly two months at Castel Gandolfo, whose 55 hectare (136 acre) grounds are larger than the Vatican City, before moving to his permanent new home in a renovated monastery behind St. Peter's Basilica.
While cardinals meet in the Vatican to choose his successor, he will be able to relax in the hilltop papal palace, visit two other villas on the grounds or inspect the working farm, which produces fruit and vegetables, oil, eggs and milk.
Local butcher Franco Berretta, 69, said residents had been unsure about the quiet and reserved Benedict when he first came, but had warmed to him after his frequent stays.
"At first everyone said he is German and cold, but when he came here, he embraced us all. We are happy he is starting his retirement here," he said.
While he plans to live in monk-like isolation as a retired pope, some of Castel Gandolfo's more than 8,000 residents were hoping they might still catch a glimpse of him now and then.
"I would like it if he came out, especially considering he won't be the pope any more," said 58-year-old giftshop owner Lucia Viterbini.
"It is beautiful here, and you live well. He can carry on his passions and his studies in peace and tranquility."
Other locals were preparing for an influx of tourists of the kind they see during the summer season when popes traditionally come to stay. At 425 metres (1,394 feet) above sea level, the town offers cool relief from the stifling heat of Rome.
The Vatican first took possession of the main villa in 1596, and popes have used it as a summer residence since 1626.
For centuries, the life of the town has been intertwined with the pontiffs who have stayed there. A special bond formed during World War Two, when thousands of inhabitants sought shelter in the villas during the Allied invasion.
"Women in labour were cared for in the apartment of the pope," said Saverio Petrillo, director of the Pontifical Villas, adding that many of the newborn children were named Pio after Pius XII, the pope at the time.
Residents said Benedict, 85, had formed a particularly strong connection with the town, about 24 km (15 miles) southeast of Rome.
"He came here a lot more than the previous pope, he liked to escape the noise and bustle of Rome," said 67-year-old pensioner Nicolai Giustino, who was strolling through the town observing a swarm of reporters gathering in the central square.
Not far away, a plaque on the town hall close to the papal palace bears words that Benedict uttered in 2011 about a town where "I find everything: a mountain, a lake, I even see the sea".