ROME – It is widely understood that Pope Francis is not a big vacation guy, preferring to spend his summer in the Domus Sanctae Marthae where he lives. But as a heat wave breaks records across Europe, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI decided to visit the cooler papal estate of Castel Gandolfo on Thursday.

Four years have passed since the German pontiff left Vatican City. In 2015, Francis had invited him to the summer residence of the popes in Castel Gandolfo, a small town an hour from Rome that is perched atop a hill overlooking a lake.

Benedict’s return was first reported by the local papers, glad to have a pope once more grace the town that was once favored by the Vatican. He arrived at Castel Gandolfo aboard a black Mercedes Station Wagon around 5 pm and his first stop was at the pontifical residence.

There he met with the staff and took a stroll in the gardens for about 90 minutes before setting off for Rocca di Papa, another nearby small town that hosts the Marian Sanctuary of the Madonna di Tufo.

The sanctuary, known for its 15th century chapel and painting of the Virgin Mary, marks the spot where a local passerby claimed to have been saved from falling rubble by the intercession of the Madonna. Here the emeritus pope prayed and greeted the local parish priest.

“He was as always a smiling person, very present and curious, available and pleasant, even if he didn’t say much,” said a parishioner who happened to be present during the papal visit to the Italian news outlet Il Sismografo.

“It’s true, he never was a robust person, but it was striking to see his fairly thin, very fragile physique and his severe difficulty in walking,” the parishioner said.

While it was heartening for people to see Benedict, 92, outside the Vatican walls, the wheelchair that followed him around wherever he went served as a constant remainder of the emeritus pope’s advanced age.

Archbishop Georg Ganswein, longtime secretary to the retired pontiff, made sure that Benedict was always well hydrated during his evening escapade.

The pope’s last stop was in Frascati, yet another small town in the Castelli Romani area, where he was welcomed by the local bishop, Raffaello Martinelli, for a private meeting and light supper.

The Vatican’s press office confirmed the short papal visit on July 26, stating that the emeritus pope returned to the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae at the Vatican at 10:30pm and that he had been invited by the Bishop of Frascati.

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave

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