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Pope uses day off to visit favorite mountain haunts

June 6, 1997

ZAKOPANE, Poland (AP) _ Fourteen years ago, during the communist crackdown on Solidarity, Pope John Paul II went to his beloved Tatra Mountains and told the highlanders he would come back ``in more peaceful times.″

He fulfilled the promise Thursday.

Taking a day off in the middle of an 11-day pilgrimage to his homeland, the pope flew over the snow-capped mountains, shook hands with stunned tourist at a picturesque lake, and checked his skis and backpack at the convent where he used to stay.

``We didn’t expect anything,″ said Maria Zapolska, a nun in the convent at Jaszczurowka, where he stopped that evening. ``It was absolutely wonderful. The security guys came just 15 minutes earlier and told us he might be coming.″

The 77-year-old pontiff was born nearby in Wadowice, and spent much time hiking and skiing in the Tatras even after he became bishop in Krakow, 60 miles to the north.

In a surprise outing an hour before sunset, John Paul drove in a black Mercedes to Morskie Oko, one of Poland’s most beautiful mountain lakes, about 20 miles south of the resort town of Zakopane, where he is staying.

``I’m absolutely amazed. It’s incredible,″ said Maria Lapinska, the manager of an inn for hikers on the shores of the deep-blue lake.

Lapinska said the pontiff came into her office and signed the register, adding a ``God Bless.″ He then went out by the water 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.

On his way back to Zakopane, the pope stopped to greet and pray with the nuns at the convent in Jaszczurowka, where he would stay when he visited the mountains as bishop.

Zapolska 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.

About 250,000 people are expected at the Mass the pope will say today at an altar built at the bottom of a big ski jump.

On Thursday, the pope said Mass for about 70 people at 7:30 a.m., then sat reading on a balcony before going on a helicopter tour, said Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek.

John Paul flew over a mountain chapel in Wiktorowki, where dozens of monks and highlanders had gathered.

The Rev. Leonard Wegrzyniak, a Dominican monk at the chapel, 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.″

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