Spaniards welcome pope with cheers, confetti, babies

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Masses of pilgrims, many weary from all-night waits, hailed Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in Spain on Saturday with chants of "Viva el Papa", showers of white-and-yellow confetti, and babies ready to be kissed.

The 83-year-old pontiff stepped onto Spanish soil in Santiago de Compostela from a fog-enshrouded Alitalia plane from Rome, where he was formally greeted by Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia, dressed in grey.

Draped in an all-white cassock, scarlet cloak and stole, the pope mounted the transparent "popemobile" for an 11-kilometre (seven-mile) drive to the majestic 12th-century cathedral whose twin towers soar 75 metres (250 feet) into the sky.

Parents among the airport employees handed over three new-born babies, draped in pink or blue blankets, who were passed through the window of the popemobile for a kiss from the leader of the world's more than one billion Roman Catholics.

Tens of thousands lined the route, waving white handkerchiefs and yellow balloons representing the Vatican, some of which flew into the road in front of the German-born pope's convoy.

Many carried huge banners or the yellow and white flag of the Vatican saying "Welcome Benedict XVI", or wore yellow neckerchiefs or scarves bearing the pope's picture.

Some in the crowd still harked back to his predecessor, who twice visited this city, home of the remains of Saint James since the ninth century and a draw for pilgrims for more than 1,000 years.

"I was much more moved by seeing John Paul II," said Maria Jose Escobar, 37, who was in the crowd along the pope's route from the airport. "We liked John Paul more, he was much more loveable."

Thousands more cheered as the pope arrived at the sprawling 12th century Romanesque cathedral to pray at the tomb of the Apostle, whose reputed remains were found by a hermit in 813.

A giant carpet of flowers lay at the cathedral entrance, a tradition of the Galician town of Poneteares.

Inside, the pope prayed silently and alone in the brilliantly decorated crypt holding the tomb of Saint James before embracing a painted statue of the first century saint clutching a staff, which has drawn pilgrims since the Middle Ages.

As he spoke later in the sprawling cathedral, he was repeatedly interrupted by applause and thunderous chants of "Viva el Papa! (long live the pope)" by the congregation.

The remains of Saint James, later to be known as the Slayer of the Moors, were discovered by a hermit in 813 and became a symbol to rally Christian Spain, then pinned down by the Muslim Moors to the northern strip of the peninsula.

"I'm not at all tired, I'm emotional," said Jose Antonio, a 30-year-old Spanish monk who had stood at the top of the queue for the Plaza Obradoiro since at 6:30pm (1730 GMT) Friday to be first in line to enter the square when it was opened by police at 8:00 am.

Kang An-na, 29 from South Korea, said she had walked 800 kilometres (500 miles) on the Camino with six compatriots, all Catholics.

"We just heard that the pope was here when we arrived but I'm very excited," she said as she waited with a friend in the chilly morning mist.

© 2010 AFP

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