My last full day in Rome was dedicated to the Vatican City. I pre-booked a tour of the gardens to start off the day and I’m so glad that I did. The gardens are actually over half of the entire state at 57 acres/23 hectares (the state itself is only 110 acres/44 hectares — that’s 1/8 the size of Central Park!) so if you go and just see the museums and the Basilica like most, you’re actually not even seeing half of what’s there. The catch is that they only allow visits to the garden in tours (which of course are limited and sell out quickly) because there are actually important people living on the grounds including Pope Benedict XVI.
Like I said, I’m so happy that I got to tour the gardens. They were really beautiful with separate Italian, French and English sections as well as a lot of important buildings and monuments. We got to see the old walls, the radio tower, a replica of Grotta di Lourdes (the Lourdes Grotto from France) containing the real alter, and St. Johns Tower which is actually a watch tower converted into an apartment where Bill Clinton stayed. So much history in so little space and all the while it’s so tranquil and removed from the bustle of Rome right outside.
After the gardens, the guide took us to tour the Necropolis. Recent excavations for a new parking garage in 2003 uncovered a massive burial ground which is very unique because it contains multiple layers and different styles of burials. Most importantly, it contains mostly burials of the poor and slaves. Usually archeologists only find burials of nobility but here you can see how everyday people lived, died and were remembered. Very cool.
Once the tour was over, we were left to see the museum for ourselves which is no small feat considering it’s is the largest in the world running over 9 miles/14.5 km and with roughly 70,000 works, of which only 20,000 are on display (makes sense right? smallest country = largest museum). They say that it would take 4 years to see everything if you looked at each painting for 1 minute! Unfortunately, my guide got her directions mixed up when recommending what to look at.
The left side of the museum is mostly painting and sculptures whereas the right side has coins and carriages and other physical things from previous Popes. I wanted to see the latter but the guide said that those were to the left not the right and once you enter, the massive amount of people makes it nearly impossible to turn around to get out.
In fact, I really didn’t like the museum. There were so many people that we were basically herded through like cattle. It was impossible to see anything other than the ceilings and I couldn’t have stopped to admire anything if I wanted to. I don’t know if it was just a bad time or if it’s always like that, but to me, they really need to do a better job with limiting the number of people let in at a time.
At the end of the left route is the Sistine Chapel with The Last Supper. This was perhaps the biggest letdown of the whole museum (and maybe whole trip). They expect complete silence in the chapel which is quite honestly impossible with hundreds of people crammed in there attempting not to step on each other and trying to keep track of friends and family.
The entire time I was there, which was all of about 30 seconds, because we were told to keep moving and not allowed to stop to look at anything, they were screaming “silence! silenzio! no photos!” over a PA system. Talk about ruining the atmosphere. After all of that I don’t even remember what the chapel or painting looked like.
From the chapel, you are supposed to exit the museum however my tour guide let us in on a secret that if you go through the other door it will lead straight to the basilica. It’s meant to only be for tours but no one is enforcing it and so I walked right it. It turned out to be a huge time saver because once in the basilica I could see the massive line I had skipped (also, booking the tour for the garden allowed me to skip the 2-3 hour wait for the museum in the first place).
St. Peter’s Basilica was a much better experience. Being the largest church in the world and able to hold 60,000 people for mass, the couple hundred tourists let in at a time had plenty of time and space to admire the splendor. The most shocking thing to find out once inside is that what appear to the eye as paintings are actually mosaics done with such care and precision that they look like paintings!
Outside, I saw the Swiss Guard in their colorful uniforms. I was amazed to hear that they still maintain such a strong tradition with their recruits who are all soldiers from Switzerland’s Armed Forces that are single, male, Catholic, between 19-30 years old, at least 5’8.5″/174 cm tall, and of course, who are awarded the honor after applying.
St. Peter’s square is absolutely massive and the architecture really conveys a strong message. In front of the basilica are two “arms” of colonnades (learned a new word writing this post) which are rows of columns connected by a roof. The arms are mean to be welcoming for those who are reaching the end of their pilgrimage to the basilica. The church itself is mean to be the body and the dome behind it (who’s steps you can climb but I didn’t) represents the head.
In the center is an Egyptian oblique that works as a sundial and two fountains. All of this sounds very normal but I can assure you it’s not. It’s (again) on of the biggest squares in the world and every inch of it is adorned with precious art.
I walked the short street lined with shops leading away from the basilica and back into Rome and thus concluded my day spent in the smallest country on Earth. I know that I don’t have to make this recommendation but if you are in Rome then you really must set aside a day to see the Vatican City. If you do not prebook tours or entrances then it will definitely take a whole day to see due to the lines and I would honestly not recommend anyone to try to get through it faster.