While we were in Rome we visited the world’s smallest Sovereign State and the centre of the Roman Catholic Church, aka the Vatican City. It’s such a unique place and it’s weird to think how much history, tradition and artwork is packed into this tiny place, much more than many other larger countries. We covered the sights of the Vatican City over two different days mixing it up with walking around Rome and eating plenty of delicious gelato at every opportunity.
After spending a morning roaming around cobblestone alleys and having lunch we crossed the River Tiber via Saint Angelo Bridge which is the only pedestrian bridge heading towards the Vatican City. We walked past Castel Sant’Angelo which looked interesting and we were almost tempted to do a quick detour but resisted and headed west from here to join Via Della Concillazone. This broad street leads to St Peter’s Square and is surrounded on both sides by shops selling books and religious goods. On this road you’ll also find the official Vatican City post office which is mainly used by the Clergy as well as tourists to send postcards with official city stamps. As well as issuing its own postal stamps and passports, the Vatican also has its own banking system and radio station. And with only about 1,000 inhabitants (mainly the Pope, the Cardinals and the Clergy) it also has the highest literacy rate of 100%. I just love all these crazy little facts about this crazy city within another city!
About 500 meters or so later we had arrived at St Peter’s Square which is dominated by the majestic St Peter’s Basilica. We headed towards the entrance and just before going through the metal security detectors we saw the awesome Swiss guards outside the Vatican Palace. They wear the most colourful uniforms, look similar to Shakespearean Jesters and are tasked with protecting the Pope himself. The Vatican Palace is the official residence of the Pope and also houses the Vatican Museum where you find the Sistine Chapel. The square is pretty massive and was designed to allow for thousands of people to gather to receive the Pope’s blessing which he delivers from either the central façade or that famous window.
As we walked into St Peter’s the first thing that hit me was the scale. It’s massive and yet still so ornate and beautiful. The dome is spectacular and was designed by Michelangelo. The rays of light that come through the small windows in the dome create the most beautiful scene and it looks nothing less than divine. While we were staring up at it I heard an American lady whisper to her friend “doesn’t it seem like, you know, like HE’s coming down”. We later saw a man that had an uncanny resemblance to Jesus and I wondered what this same American lady would have thought if she had also seen him. While we were there we unexpectedly attended a mass. I had never been to one before and although most of it was in Latin it was really interesting to observe and at the end there was a small sermon in English. As I looked around I saw people with tears in their eyes and I could feel the devotion they held as they let themselves be moved by this place. Once the service finished we looked around a little more and every time I saw a door or glimpsed what looked like secret chambers to me and I couldn’t help but think of all the conspiracies and power struggles that are also associated with the Vatican, which only made me want to know more about that aspect of this glorious place too. As we’d already seen so much in one day we thought we’d leave the Vatican museum for another day.
So the second time we visited the Vatican we took the metro instead of walking. The museum houses a vast and priceless collection of art accumulated and enriched by the various Popes over the centuries and you need a lot of time to see and understand everything. The museum is organised in a way that you have to follow a one-way route with the highlight at the end being the Sistine Chapel, a bit like wandering through Ikea! After every staircase and each time I turned a corner I thought this is it the next one is going to be the Sistine Chapel but instead there was even more art. We really liked the gallery of Tapestries and Maps and the Raphael rooms had spectacular Frescos. In between the various rooms I stopped and looked out at the perfectly manicured Vatican gardens – they really are beautiful and the colour of that grass was just so lush. Getting the audio guide was a good idea as it guided us through the museum with ease and provided us with interesting detail without which I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience half as much. After a couple of hours we finally arrived at the most revered piece of art of all time, the Sistine Chapel. I mean it’s amazing for sure but the mass of people, the overly dim lighting and the guards shushing at us every minute kind of robs the enjoyment of it. So once our necks had had their fair share of straining up we headed out. To exit the museum you have to take the spiral staircase which is probably the second most photographed element of the museum and is very cool. Even though I don’t know much about art or art history I really enjoyed the Vatican museum and the one thing that was clear was how integral art has been for the Catholic Church and it really is amazing how much history has been recorded and depicted in the various art forms. The whole place is definitely something to see if you are ever in Rome.