Black ribbons, candles: Benedict's German home region in mourning

When Kurt and Anna-Maria Spennesberger heard the news about former pope Benedict XVI's death, they immediately got into their car and drove 200 kilometres to the former pontiff's southern German birth town Marktl.

They had to be at the small town bordering Austria for a special church service saying farewell to Benedict because "we knew Ratzinger personally," said Kurt, 71, using the ex-pope's birth name.

"We already had some personal conversations with him, meetings, and that was simply a very human, personal contact," he added.

Renate and Dane Cupic, 58 and 68, also travelled to Marktl from Austria, about 15 kilometres (10 miles) away, on hearing about Benedict's demise.

It was "very important" to be there to "say goodbye", said Dane.

The small town in the southern region of Bavaria, with a population of around 2,800, is synonymous with Benedict.

The house where the former pontiff was born in 1927 stands adjacent to the town hall, which itself is just a few steps away from St Oswald church where Benedict was baptised.

Candles have been placed at the foot of the Benedict column which stands by the town hall, while a black ribbon hangs down from the Vatican flags at his birth house and at the church.

Across Bavaria, flags at official buildings have also been ordered to fly at half-mast.

"We are mourning our Bavarian pope," said Markus Soeder, state premier of the region.

- 'Humorous' -

Hours after Benedict's demise, cars began streaming into Marktl slowly as Catholics in the region travelled in to mourn one of their own.

Benedict has always kept in touch with Bavaria -- where he taught at the university in the town of Regensburg between 1969 and 1977, and returned regularly to visit his brother, the leader of the cathedral choir.

Speaking in Pentling, the district in Regensburg where Benedict once lived, his former gardener Robert Hofbauer described the ex-pontiff as someone who was always "nice and friendly to everyone, the entire neighbourhood".

Across Bavaria, church services planned for the last day of the year were turned into remembrance ceremonies for Benedict, including in Regensburg where the cathedral was packed with around 300 people.

In Marktl, about 130 kilometres away, around 200 people attended the service at St Oswald church, where a portrait of Benedict draped with black cloth stood next to a Christmas tree. Another was placed on the other side of the altar.

During the service, Franz Haringer, who is theological director at Benedict's birth-house -- now a museum -- underlined the former pope's "humorous side" and hailed him as a teacher of the faith.

Many others present also had personal memories of the ex-pope, like Josef Oberhuber, 71, who recalled filming him during his visit in 2006.

Oberhuber, a Marktl local, underlined the significance of a pope hailing from the small town.

"It was naturally a great event -- such great joy," he recalled.

Another local, Karl Michael Nuck, 55, recalled Benedict blessing his daughter.

"He was not pope yet but a cardinal. He took quite a few minutes even though it had not been planned, that was a very nice thing."

tba-hmn/jj