Peeking at the Pope
Vatican City Travel Blog› entry 5 of 8 › view all entries
So today I added another country to my list of visited countries. Vatican City is a sovereign state and regarded as the smallest country in the world. But apart from a statistic it is also a place which I personally had mixed feelings about visiting.
I have no problems with faith and spirituality, but I am a little biased when it comes to organised religion, in particularly Roman Catholicism. The papacy doesn't exactly have a clean slate when it comes to preaching things that are in the best interest of the common man. Seeing first hand the how people living below the poverty line are encouraged to donate what little cash they have to gold adorned churches in Mexico have made me seriously question the sincerity of the Roman Catholic church. Not to mention the current pope's insane remarks about the aids epidemic in Africa or the papacy's influence on Italian politics (or, for that matter, the whole reasoning for even having a papacy, as that chapter seems to be missing from my bible).
On the other hand, I do have a thing for architecture and old buildings, and there is no denying that St Peter's square and basilica are absolutely stunning. My Roma Pass was not valid in the Vatican, so I had to join the Disneyland-like queue to get through the security checks to enter St Peter's.
What I hated about many churches I have seen in South America was the glitter and gold everywhere, and I was delighted to find that the inside of St Peter's basilica is in fact very delicately adorned. This is probably the most beautiful church I have ever visited
What I also really appreciated was that despite this being one of the most visited touristic sites in the world the basilica is still first and foremost a place of worship, and there are several areas set aside for worship where tour groups or camera toting tourists aren't allowed.
While the main interior of the basilica is freely accessible to anyone, the upper and lower floors of the basilica do require that old favourite Roman pastime: queuing. There were two queues to the side of the basilica and I didn't really have a clue what I was queuing up for when I joined the shortest of the two. It turned out this was to access the Vatican Grottoes, where many a pope lies buried. No photography is allowed inside out of respect of the deceased, and you are kindly though firmly requested to move along and not to linger for too long.
In 2005 the hugely popular Pope John Paul II passed away, and while I had expected the most recent addition to the Vatican Grottoes would attract most visitors, nothing could have prepared me for this spectacle.
The second queue outside was for one of the few paid attractions in the Vatican, the Basilica Dome. The first bit of the climb can be done by elevator (at a small extra fee) but for the last 400 or so steps you need to brave claustrophobia and vertigo on top of the required fitness to climb to the top.
The first bit is around the inner dome, where you can look down to the basilica floor 50 metres below. A huge fence prevents people from falling or jumping down and I could not help but think of the irony of someone falling to his death here in the holiest of holy places.
The second part is the hard part, where the narrow steps are inside the walls of the dome, so not only do you have to squeeze through the narrow staircase (with hundreds of people at the time) but as you are approaching the top of the dome the walls of the staircase are becoming more and more lopsided, and you can't stand up straight anymore.
But it is definitely worth it. Once at the top of the dome you have a terrific view over St Peter's square and the rest of the city.
My next destination was that other must-see in the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel. According to my map this was conveniently located next to St Peter's basilica, but as it turned out the Sistine Chapel can only be entered through the Vatican Museum, the entrance of which is completely at the other side of the Vatican.
I walked around the city wall and across a sign saying that the Vatican Museum closes at 4 pm on Saturdays. Woops, it was half past three now, how was I going to make it in time? I cursed myself for not checking this out beforehand, but my ignorance turned out to be a master-stroke. I arrived at the entrance of the Vatican museum at a quarter to 4, only 15 minutes before they would close, but it turns out admittance to the museum is until 4, the actual museum is open until 7!
So because I arrived so late, there was no queue anymore, and I could walk right in!
Once inside it was busy enough of course, but at least I was inside. The fact that you have to enter the Sistine Chapel through the Vatican Museum is a very clever move. You have to walk the entire length of the museum to get through the chapel (and back again) thus making it mandatory to visit a large chunk of the museum.
Apparently the museum is big enough to spend a full week exploring all the expositions, but as my main interest was with Michelangelo's masterpiece I opted for the most direct route to the chapel, taking in as much as I could along the way.
In short, the Vatican Museum is hugely overwhelming, there is just so much to take in. By the time I reached the Sistine Chapel an hour later I was exhausted and overwhelmed by all that I had seen in the preceding rooms. I would almost say the Sistine Chapel was a bit of a let-down. This was also due to the fact that there were a few thousand people inside, making it nigh on impossible to appreciate the terrific frescoes, while the many guards belting out orders that people had to be silent and were not allowed to take photographs didn't really contribute much to the atmosphere either.
I say almost, because even though I had seen many pictures of Michelangelo's frescoes before it was quite something to see the masterpiece with my own eyes. What I'd never realised from looking at two-dimensional replicas of the frescoes was that there are many clever optical tricks making use arching ceiling that give the paintings a three-dimensional feel.
With an aching neck and dizzy from looking up for the best part of 30 minutes I started the long walk back to the exit of the Vatican Museums. As the whole museum is one-way traffic, the return journey was on a different floor, passing more and more rooms full of art and treasure. Way too much to take in in one go.
The exit of the Vatican Museums is via huge spiral staircase, which somehow reminded me of the seven circles of hell.
I received a text message from Jon, the guitar player of Gazpacho, to meet up. Jon and his wife Lisa had stayed behind in Rome to spend another day together, and they would be taking an overnight train to Munich tonight, in order to catch up with the band again for tomorrow's gig.
I grabbed a taxi to the Colosseum, which for some reason seems to be the meeting place of choice for Norwegians, and once again I spent the last hour of daylight drinking beers on a side walk terrace overlooking the majestic Colosseum.
When Jon and Lisa headed for the train station to catch their train to Munich, I returned to Alessandro's apartment to freshen up and a change of clothes.
Once again Ale had thought of a great place to go tonight, this time a bit closer to home in the San Lorenzo district, which is the student area of Rome.
We were once again joined by a group of Alessandro's friends (some of whom I'd met last night) and the restaurant of choice was a pizzeria. Italian cliché # 427: Italians love pizza. As obvious as this may sound, it is amazing to see just how fond they are of their national dish. The Dutch national dish is Boerenkool stamppot, but you would be hard pressed to find a Dutchman who eats it more than ten times a year. Most Italians eat pizza at least once a week!
Ale had chosen a very low key pizzeria which was not only cheap, but it also served the Roman variety of pizza, which has a thinner crust than regular pizzas.
Alessandro still maintained I should see all seven hills of Rome, so after dinner we headed to Aventine hill, which boasts one of the greatest unknown sights in Rome, the keyhole of the gate of the gardens of I Cavilieri di Malta. When you look through this tiny keyhole you see a perfectly framed picture of St Peter's in the distance. I really regretted not having a camera with me.