Pope takes helicopter ride, greets stunned tourists in Poland
ZAKOPANE, Poland (AP) _ Pope John Paul II flew over southern Poland’s snow-capped mountains and strolled along a picturesque lake Thursday, stopping to shake hands with stunned tourists and villagers.
``I’m absolutely amazed. It’s incredible,″ said Maria Lapinska, the manager of an inn for hikers on the shores of Morskie Oko, a deep-blue mountain lake described as the most beautiful in Poland.
The 77-year-old pontiff was born nearby in Wadowice, and spent much time hiking and skiing in the Tatra Mountains even after he became bishop in Krakow, 60 miles to the north.
His visit Thursday came on a day off in the middle of an 11-day pilgrimage to his homeland.
In a surprise outing an hour before sunset, John Paul drove in a black Mercedes to the lake about 20 miles south of the resort town of Zakopane, where he is staying.
Lapinska said the pontiff came into her office and signed the register, adding a ``God Bless.″ He then went out by the lake and chatted with about 40 people, shaking hands and blessing them.
Before leaving, he stood alone for a few minutes and stared across the lake at the rocky peaks on the other shore, Lapinska said.
A papal aide, the Rev. Remigiusz Polak, said the pope enjoyed the visit but they had to cut it short because it was getting cold.
On his way back to Zakopane, the pope stopped to greet and pray with the nuns at a convent in Jaszczurowka where he stayed when he visited the mountains as bishop.
``It was absolutely wonderful,″ said one of the nuns, Maria Zapolska. ``The security guys came just 15 minutes earlier and told us he might be coming.″
She said he went into the room where he used to stay and found it unchanged _ even his skis and backpack are still there.
John Paul arrived in Zakopane on Wednesday night in the middle of his seventh pilgrimage to Poland since becoming pope in 1978.
The pope will say Mass on Friday at an altar built at the bottom of a big ski jump. But he had no public appearances scheduled Thursday, and took advantage of the break to rest and revisit some favorite places.
Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek told a news conference the pope got up at 6 a.m., said Mass for about 70 people at 7:30 a.m., then sat reading on a balcony for an hour before going on his 1 1/2-hour helicopter tour.
He flew over a mountain chapel in Wiktorowki where dozens of monks and highlanders had gathered in hopes of seeing him, but Pieronek said it would have been too risky to land.
The Rev. Leonard Wegrzyniak, a Dominican monk at the chapel, about 10 miles from Zakopane, said the helicopter was too high up for them to see the pope, but no one seemed disappointed.
``We were waiting for him,″ he said. ``We knew he would show up.″
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said later that the pope had blessed the small crowd from the air as the helicopter hovered over the wooden chapel.
The pope also flew over areas like the Five Ponds Valley, where he used to ski, and the Chocholowska Valley, where he met secretly in 1983 with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.
The pope went on a two-hour hike after that meeting with Walesa, a path since named ``the papal route.″ The words he spoke that day _ ``Today, I could have a close look at the Tatras and could breath the air of my youth″ _ are inscribed on a wooden board in a chapel in the valley.
During that visit, not long after the communist regime had cracked down on the Solidarity democracy movement and declared martial law, the pope promised he would return to meet the highlanders ``in more peaceful times.″