Pope Francis on Tuesday made a surprise visit to Amatrice, one of the towns hardest hit by an earthquake that struck central Italy in August, killing nearly 300 people.

The Vatican kept the trip secret until he arrived.

The pope first visited a makeshift school and was then due to see people who have been forced to live in tents, with most of the buildings in Amatrice either leveled or considered too badly damaged to live in.

He was later expected to go to the so-called "red zone", which covers the center of Amatrice and is closed off to the public because it is still highly dangerous.

The visit is taking place on the feast of the pope's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

One the plane returning from Azerbaijan on Sunday, Francis said he had been given a choice of three day when he could visit but would not reveal which one he had chosen.

He said at the time he wanted the visit to be "privately, alone, as a priest, as a bishop, as pope, but alone, privately. I want to be close to the people."

The earthquake, which struck on Aug. 24, flattened several towns and villages in the Lazio and Marche regions northeast of Rome and caused at least 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion), according to government estimates.