Pope Francis came face to face with an unusual group of visitors from his homeland on Wednesday – three shaggy, full-grown llamas.
The animals and their handlers made an appearance at the Argentinian pontiff’s weekly audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican after completing a 650-mile pilgrimage, on foot, from the far north of Italy.
Llamas live in the Andes of South America, including on the Argentinian side of the mountain range.
The three that made it to Rome belong to the Kaserhof alpaca and llama farm in Italy’s German-speaking South Tyrol province, close to the border with Austria.
They trekked to Rome with their owner, Walter Mair, and two of his friends, all three of them Catholics who had long dreamed of embarking on a pilgrimage to the Vatican.
The three men, with the llamas in tow, were able to shake the Pope’s hand during the general audience, and then gave him gifts – a papal skull cap, or “papalina” in Italian, and a pair of socks made from alpaca wool.
The llamas, named Buffon, Shaqiri and Tiento, attracted a great deal of interest on their journey, which was documented with photographs posted on Facebook.
They followed the Via Romea Germanica, a medieval pilgrimage route that starts in Germany and winds through Austria and Italy to Rome.
With a herd of 180 animals, the Kaserhof is the largest llama and alpaca farm in Italy.
“I had been thinking of a pilgrimage for about 15 years and then Pope Francis, an Argentine, was elected,” Mr Mair said. “At the end of last year I decided that I would finally do it, and two friends decided to come with me. We took time off work and planned the trip.”
They set out from South Tyrol in February, walking up to 20 miles a day.
“We were greeted with hospitality and a welcoming spirit,” Mr Mair said. “We were invited to stay at a number of monasteries on the route and also on private farms. The llamas need to graze and rest.”
The pilgrims and their llamas are due to return home this week – but by truck, rather than retracing their route on foot.
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