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Rome 'coping' with influx of pilgrims

By Tammy Oaks for CNN


ROME, Italy (CNN) -- For anyone who has ever visited Rome and witnessed first-hand the normal state of chaos that is synonymous with the capital, the orderliness and calm that fell on Rome following the death of Pope John Paul II and leading up to his funeral could hardly be believed.

Millions of mourners poured into the city to pay their final respects to the pope -- an influx of pilgrims no other city has ever had to handle in such short notice.

In addition to the pilgrims, some 200 political leaders from around the world began arriving to attend the funeral.

But despite the sheer number of people that descended on the city so quickly, there have been no major problems. Rome is operating smoothly.

In fact, the Italians are so impressed with how smoothly things have gone, one newspaper, il Resto del Carlino, dubbed Guido Bertolaso, head of Civil Protection and organizer of the run-up to the pope's funeral, "the efficient face of Italy. The side of Italy that works well."

Although the city has been preparing for the impending death of the pope for some time, the outpouring of affection and number of mourners has exceeded anyone's expectations.

Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni told reporters on Thursday the city had outdone itself. He said it was the biggest test the capital had ever had to prepare for, and that Rome was coping with it.

Veltroni also praised Romans for helping officials deal with the unprecedented arrivals.

Logistically, the only residents that seem to be really affected by the pilgrims live in the Borgo area, close to St. Peter's Basilica, where mourners queued to pay their last respects.

Local media reported that those living in the area were trapped and needed to ask police for help just to leave their homes. But even there, the locals seem anything but irritated by so many well-wishers.

Local resident Stefano Leone said: "This is one of the biggest worldwide events in history, and I'm proud this is happening here in Rome, that all the world is looking to Rome.

"I want all those who come here to know we welcome them, just as the pope always did."

On Friday, Rome is in some ways more calm than usual as the city has come to a halt. All cars, except for emergency vehicles and a few other exceptions, are banned from entering and leaving the city. And public offices, museums and schools are all closed.

Private shops were allowed to decide for themselves whether to close. Salon owner Marcello Calignano said he and his partner decided to close half a day.

"I wanted to honor the pope, but not just because he was a pope. I wanted to honor him because the pope tried to bring people together," Calignano said.

Leandro Rossi, who works in a designer clothing shop near the Spanish Steps, said his boss, who is Jewish, also decided to close half a day to show her respect for the pope.

The Italians seem to have an understanding the pope belongs to the world and everyone who wishes to pay their respects should be allowed to do so.

They are not only welcoming the pilgrims, but they are also accepting responsibility for providing a safe and calm environment for them.

The Civil Protection has been giving them free water during the day and free blankets at night. And on Wednesday, Bertolaso urged Italians: "Help us Romans: Open your houses to the pilgrims."

The police department has been doing its bit to protect the pilgrims by clamping down on price fixing by restaurants, gift shops and hotels.

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