Pope Benedict, looking rather tanned, made made an unexpected walking visit to Switzerland yesterday. I can only imagine the surprise of the people.

Vacationing in the Alps, Pope Benedict XVI made a brief visit to Switzerland, walking across the Italian border to visit the famed Saint Bernard kennel of an Augustinian monastery.

News of the pope’s July 18 excursion came from the pope himself.

Returning to Les Combes, where he has been staying since July 11, Pope Benedict told reporters he had gone first to a convent of Benedictine nuns at Saint-Oyen, Italy.

“We had a lovely meeting with the Benedictine sisters and we prayed together,” the pope said. “

Then we went to the Great St. Bernard Pass where we prayed vespers with the monks and with the people before having a nice encounter in the refectory.”

Meeting the pope shortly after 8 p.m., the reporters asked if he had a chance to visit the kennels where, for more than three centuries, the Augustinians raised Saint Bernard dogs and trained them to assist in mountain rescues.

Smiling, the pope said yes, adding that the dogs “were very good, very brave.”

The pope’s return to Italy, where his car was waiting, consisted of “a beautiful walk,” he said.

Members of the papal entourage told reporters that about 200 tourists were at the Augustinian monastery and were shocked when they saw the pope come out. He stopped to shake hands and to bless children.

The Augustinians had announced in 2004 that they could no longer afford to raise Saint Bernards and were planning to auction off the animals. After a public uproar, particularly because the dogs are an important symbol for local tourism, a Swiss association assumed financial responsibility for the kennel.

Pope Benedict has been spending his mornings inside the Salesian-owned chalet at Les Combes, leading some journalists to report that he is continuing work on a book about Jesus that he began before his election. Others said he was working on a new encyclical on Catholic social teaching, focused on work. Vatican officials would not comment.

Photo: ALESSIA GIULIANI/CPP

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