Wednesday, April 06, 2005

An Unexpected Once In A Lifetime Encounter With Pope John Paul

We were actually headed toward checking out the McDonalds located just a few yards away from the Spanish Steps in Rome on a cold windy December 8th two years ago. We had read in none other than Rick Steve's guide that this McDonalds was worth a look. Earlier that day we inquired about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at our hotel, also noted in our guide books as a major holiday in Italy. Our hotel desk clerk was no help. Neither were the Rome newspapers any help. No events were listed for December 8.

Imagine our surprise as we walked into the Piazza di Spagna to find workers erecting temporary fences around the column and statue of the Virgin Mary. The column itself was surrounded by scaffolding. It was being cleaned. People, mainly older Italian women, were standing patiently behind the fences, watching the growing number of uniformed police gather around the statue.

By chance we had happened upon the chance to see Pope John Paul in person lay a wreath by the statue of the Virgin Mary.

We waited more than three hours on that cold gray Monday afternoon pressed against the fence cameras poised for a chance to see the Pope. He arrived. Spent some time blessing the elderly and the handicapped brought to the celebration in wheel chairs. The crowd was yelling "vive El Papa." Police were everywhere. What was once a crowd of a few hundred when we arrived had grown to thousands. The Pope spoke to the crowd, kneeling at a podium, praying for the gift of peace. You could see him shaking as a spoke. Two aides had to help him get to the podium. One aide was always at his side, whispering in his ear.

We were just a few feet from the great man during the ceremony. Now we were even closer as he climbed into his Popemobile. It stopped right in front of us as he prepared to leave the piazza. He blessed the crowd as drove away, just inches from were we standing. The crowd was clapping, screaming, hollering for the Pope. Some women were crying. Genuine affection.

We never made it to the McDonalds that day. The crowd was too much to manuever. But it is the unexpected pleasures of travel, in this case, a chance sighting of the Pope is what matters.

News of John Pauls death brought back memories of that cold gray December afternoon. Travel memories that will last a lifetime. That's why we are in the business.