Mad scramble

Poles -- at least 2 million of them -- are on their way to Rome to attend the funeral of their native son.

Published April 6, 2005 2:15PM (EDT)

A mass exodus of Poles from cities, towns and villages all over the country began Tuesday, with up to 2 million determined to get to Rome to witness the funeral of the only Polish pope.

Their arrival in Rome over the next 48 hours will place the city, its police, and transport and accommodation systems under even more strain in hosting the largest event in its long history. As many as 2 million Italians are also expected, as are representatives from many other nationalities.

Achille Serra, the prefect of Rome, said last Tuesday: "The funeral of the pope is the greatest event ever to have taken place in Rome -- multiplied by 10. The biggest difficulty comes from not knowing who will be arriving, when and where."

Tuesday night an estimated 600,000 people were queuing up to 12 hours to see the body of Pope John Paul II, lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica for a second day. On the first day more than 500,000 people are thought to have filed past the body, hustled at a brisk pace by officious stewards allowing no time to pause or say more than the briefest prayer.

With 200 world leaders expected to gather for Friday's funeral, Italy instituted stringent security precautions. The skies over the city will be closed beginning Wednesday for all but military and official traffic, and NATO AWACS planes will provide security radar cover over a 250-mile radius to deter a terrorist attack.

But the Polish pilgrimage is the most extraordinary. Tour companies have laid on buses from all corners of the country. Four special trains have been put on from Warsaw to Rome and an additional two from Krakow, where John Paul spent most of his life. Pilgrims have been queuing at Warsaw's central station all week hoping to land a coveted seat on the trains leaving Wednesday. LOT, the national airline, is struggling to cope with the demand, and Poles are said to be buying tickets for any destinations heading south that may get them closer to Rome.

Polish media reported Tuesday that up to 5 million people -- nearly a seventh of the country's 38 million inhabitants -- might try to attend the funeral. The Polish Foreign Ministry said it thought 2 million Poles could attend.

Newspapers published copious how-to guides in an attempt to forestall some of the chaos and disappointment that look inevitable in the mad scramble: where to park in the city; where to find a bed; how to get to St. Peter's; and advice on the fastest routes and best maps of the 1,119-mile trip from Warsaw to Rome, passing through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.

The train trip, costing around 100 pounds -- a week's wages for many Poles -- takes up to 25 hours. The special trains will leave Wednesday and arrive in Rome late Thursday or early Friday morning. LOT has scheduled five planes to the city Wednesday, four more than usual. Regional low-cost airlines such as Wizz Air, Centralwings and Skyeurope in neighboring Slovakia are also laying on charters.

Under the circumstances, the proposal by Walter Veltroni, a former mayor of Rome, that the city's main railway terminus be named after the pope, may form an appropriate monument.

In Rome, cardinals already gathering for the funeral, and the conclave to choose the pope's successor that will follow it, announced more details about the arrangements Tuesday. Among them, to make sure that the puff of white smoke emanating from a chimney on the Sistine Chapel when the new pope is finally chosen is not mistaken, they have ordered that the Vatican's bells be rung to confirm the news. They have not yet decided when the 117 cardinals aged under 80 and so eligible to vote will enter the conclave, though it is expected to be the week after next. The meeting has to be called within 20 days of the pope's death.

In contrast to previous conclaves -- made as uncomfortable as possible for the elderly men taking part in order to concentrate their minds and produce a swift decision -- a hotel-like building giving them their own rooms and showers has been built in a corner of the Vatican gardens since the last election in 1978.

"This time it will be a looser lockup," said Archbishop Piero Marini, the Vatican's master of ceremonies. The cardinals will be prevented from using telephones, watching television, reading newspapers or contacting the outside world. The longest conclave in the 20th century took five days, and John Paul II was chosen in two.

By Ian Traynor

MORE FROM Ian Traynor

By Stephen Bates

MORE FROM Stephen Bates

Related Topics ------------------------------------------