ROME – A Polish college student hitchhiked for 54 hours, bouncing in the back of a lumber truck and a tractor-trailer rig hauling chocolates. A disabled German retiree rode through the night on a spine-twisting red-eye train.
Their journeys ended Tuesday at a makeshift tent city hastily erected on a wind-swept field on the outskirts of Rome. The ancient city has been coping with crowds for centuries, but now it's bracing for an unprecedented crush of up to 4 million pilgrims determined to pay tearful tribute to Pope John Paul II (search).
"I wanted to do something, to give something back to this person who did so much for others," said Aleksandra Stominska, 20, who hitchhiked her way to Rome from Krakow, Poland, where the Polish-born pontiff rose from priest to cardinal before becoming pope in 1978.
Her journey began Sunday morning and ended Tuesday afternoon, after hours of waiting on lonely stretches of highway with her thumb out.
She arrived desperate for a hot shower and a nap, and nursed a large bottle of mineral water while wandering a thicket of bright blue canvas tents — each jammed with eight cots fitted with flimsy mattresses — set up on a field on the campus of Rome's Tor Vergata University (search).
Similar camps were being thrown up on a fairground, in an unused railway building and inside a concert hall, along with hundreds of portable toilets and medical tents to be manned round-the-clock starting Wednesday. A stay at the camps is free, and authorities have not said how much they are spending to set them up.
"We are increasing the number of tents," said Fabio Palombi, coordinator for Italy's Civil Protection Department, which fears the stream of pilgrims soon will swell into a flood. Officials say they're considering opening Rome's Olympic Stadium as an impromptu campground.
Mayor Walter Veltroni (search) warned the city's 3 million citizens that the run-up to Friday's funeral could be unlike any influx they've ever seen, and it's certainly shaping up that way. Poland's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that about 2 million Poles alone are expected to converge on Rome.
By the tens of thousands, Catholics from around the globe are streaming into the capital, fighting for taxis and squeezing into buses resembling rush-hour Tokyo subways. Nuns were seen sitting on their luggage waiting for buses at Rome's main station, where knots of young pilgrims using their backpacks as pillows dozed at midday.
"I'm very, very tired, but I'm strong because of the pope," said Johanna Koch Mueller, 70, swinging her fists in the air like a boxer.
The retired public administrator from Munich, Germany, rode an overnight train to Rome. It was a painful journey: She suffers from severe curvature of the spine.
But missing the pope's funeral, she said, was unthinkable.
"It's my private pilgrimage," she said, clutching a sign in German that read, "Thank you, good shepherd."
Many of the early arrivals have been heading straight to the Vatican to view the pope's body, on public display in St. Peter's Basilica, where he will be laid to rest Friday in a grotto. On Tuesday, a long line of mourners — some enduring up to eight hours beneath a withering sun — snaked into the church for a second day.
Several elderly people fainted despite a phalanx of volunteers handing out bottled water to those holding rosaries and praying while waiting for a brief glimpse of the pope's remains.
"In line, people are chatting, laughing and relaxed," said 24-year-old Sara Milanese, one of a group of uniformed scouts who arrived on an overnight train after a seven-hour trip from northern Italy and waited three hours.
"Inside the basilica, there's a lot of reflection. Everyone is totally silent. I was crying," she said, as she sat on a sidewalk eating breakfast.
Rome authorities appealed to pilgrims this week to stagger their arrivals. Transit officials, meanwhile, said 166 extra trains would be running this week around Italy to shuttle pilgrims to Rome, especially those in larger cities such as Milan and Naples.
The city has experience in dealing with big crowds: In 2000, millennium celebrations drew an estimated 25 million to the Italian capital, including 1 million young people for World Youth Day. But those masses were spread over the year; the 4 million expected to mourn the pope will descend on Rome within a few days.
Romuald Stamkiewicz, a 20-year-old Pole who traveled from Krakow, said he was heartened by a German family of Good Samaritans he met along the way who gave him a meal and some pocket money.
He conceded he could have stayed home and followed the funeral on television.
"But it's not the same to just watch TV," he said. "It's just not the right atmosphere. Not after everything this pope has done for us."