Doctors were on call and helicopters were on standby as Pope John Paul II returned to his beloved Italian Alps for a 13-day vacation.

More than 500 people cheered when he stepped out of a white Italian air force helicopter Wednesday evening, perhaps their only chance to see the pope during his stay."He doesn't stop in town anymore," explained Lorenzago's mayor, Nizzardo Tremonti. "So we came out to see him."

The Vatican has scaled down the pope's once-active schedule because of his infirmities and advancing years.

In 1987 John Paul, a mountaineer in his native Poland, first came to Lorenzago, a town of 640 people a two-hour drive north from Venice. Local bishops offered him a villa, up an isolated road 3,070 feet above sea level.

He has returned every other year, alternating with a village in Italy's western Alps near France.

In the early years, hikers were shocked to cross paths with a man in mountain boots, checkered shirt and a blue jacket whom they recognized to be the pope.

But since breaking his right leg in 1994, John Paul's hiking activities have been steadily scaled back.