To be a traveler, artist, writer, lover of history and culture or life in general and not set foot on, gazed upon nor walked the hallowed halls of Vatican City is a travesty and a damn crying shame. You don’t even have to be Catholic to appreciate the cultural sites within its walls. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and of course, the Vatican Museums?
So follow me and let’s step inside the walled city and take a totally different kind of trip…Okay, so we cheated with our Vatican tour. Instead of lining up for hours and hours, we joined a Small Private Group. Seriously, if you value your sanity and your time, join a tour. Picture this, last year alone there was almost 6 million visitors to the Vatican. I live in an island with a population of less than 4 million. Vatican City has a population of less than 900. Do the math.
We signed up for City Wonders Vatican Tour, specifically the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica Tour. It was a 70 Euro (per person), 3-hour moderate tour which meant there wasn’t much walking and talking. The group was relatively small, about 20 people max so it wasn’t chaotic. We met at the steps fronting the Vatican Museum entrance at 7:00AM. By this time, people were already lining up to get into the Museum by 8:00. As part of the tour, we had about a 30 minute headstart on the other visitors. Like a holy VIP pass of sorts. Kidding. Anyway, aside from the no-wait entrance to the Vatican Museums, we also got to skip the line at St. Peter’s Basilica. Our expert guide spoke pretty good English and we were all provided with audio headsets and headphones still sealed in the packaging for hygiene purposes. It was a pretty good deal and I highly recommend City Wonders. Book your tour here: City Wonders Vatican Museum Tours
Aside from being life-saving, being in a tour helps you to not fall into a coma. The Vatican Museums houses one of the world’s biggest art collections. It’s the 5th most visited art museum in the world. If you don’t have a carefully planned route, you’ll get overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the place.
During the tour, most of the areas were cordoned off because some of the artifacts were under restoration and closed to tourists. One of the first stops where I actually took a photo of was the Greek Cross Hall in the Pio Clementine Museum. The most notable piece in there was the Sarcophagus of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The sarcophagus was made of red porphyry, a very prized rock that was discovered in 18AD. This is only one of the few remaining red porphyry in the world, the rock has long been extinct since the early 1800’s, the quarries long gone. We also spotted along the corridors this strange statue of a fertility god. Pretty strange.
Our next stop was one of the the highlights inside Vatican City – the Sistine Chapel. Photos are not allowed at all. One tourist tried to sneak a photo from his smart phone. One of the Swiss Guard approached him and demanded that the he erase all photos. On top of that, the tourist had to show his phone’s whole photo album as proof that all pictures were deleted. Strict!
No one is even allowed to talk inside the Sistine Chapel. Once your voice goes above a breathy whisper, someone will scold you over the PA system. I forgot the exact words but it was something along the lines of “This is a sacred place, please be silent”. In my mind it sounded like “Shut yo mvtherfvther trap noisy heathens!!!”. Of course, I’m kidding. Since photos weren’t allowed, here are some scenes of the Sistine Chapel from the Internet. (Source: Google Images)
For those who don’t know, the Sistine Chapel could have been a regular old chapel (in fact smaller than I imagined) if not for the frescos and of course, the famous ceiling by Michelangelo. The ceiling is a masterpiece. Renaissance art at its very best. Warning: You will surely suffer a stiff neck from looking up at the ceiling paintings. Spot the famous Creation of Adam painting with God and Man touching fingers. Interesting fact: Michelangelo painted in a standing position and not lying on his back. It was extremely uncomfortable. If you think looking up is tiresome, imagine having to paint that masterpiece in the same position.
Another thing to note is the small patch of black in the upper right corner when facing the altar. That was the state of the ceiling before it was renovated. Since Michelangelo was also an architect, he created the scaffolding systems himself to reach the ceiling. Awesomeness overload.
After the Sistine Chapel, you pass by the Hall of Tapestries that date back to even before the middle ages. These are mostly dark and musty stuff. The coolest feature in this area is that the roofs are also painted on using a technique that makes it look 3D. Talk about attention to details.
Next up is the Gallery of Maps, a long hallway filled with topographical maps of Italy painted on the walls by friar Ignazio Danti. It’s currently the world’s largest collection of pictorial geographical study.
At the end of the Vatican Museum tour, you reach a courtyard that connects to St. Peter’s Basilica. Take a seat and drink from the fountain. Trust me, you need to rest because there’s more walking to be done. Once you’re done with the short breather then you’re ready to enter the biggest church in all of Christendom.
St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest sites of Christianity and Catholic Tradition. Originally founded by Constantine in 324, St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in the 16th century by Renaissance masters including Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini. Before you step inside the massive doors, snap a photo under the central balcony or the Loggia of the Blessings, where the Pope usually gives his announcements and blessings. The relief under the balcony, by Buonvicino, represents Christ giving the keys to St. Peter. If you turn to face away from the Basilica doors, you’ll have an amazing view of St. Peter’s Square (without the hoards of tourists if it’s still early in the morning).
Being inside St. Peter’s Basilica is another experience altogether. Charles Dickens described it as such “The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome; is a sensation never to be forgotten.”
The sheer size (2.3 hectares) is overwhelming. If you look up (way up) towards the ceiling of the dome, the letters of the inscription look so small when in reality they are about 2 metres high. It says:
TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.Also, none other than Michelangelo himself designed the dome. Aside from being a sculptor and painter, he was also an architect. How’s that for multi-talented? Anyway…
Right in the centre of the Basilica, the only black structure amidst all the gold stands Bernini’s Baldacchino. This structure is the central focus inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It fills the vertical space under the great dome. The baldacchino is a massive canopy that shelters the papal altar. Only the Pope is allowed to hear mass on this altar. Under the floor are the holy relics of St. Peter.
Just off the entrance of the basilica, in the first chapel on the right, is another one of Michelangelo’s most famous works -the Pieta. Made from Carrara marble, it’s the only piece that bears the artist’s signature. Unfortunately, you can’t take a close up photo because it is encased in bulletproof glass and situated a couple of feet away inside a barricade. The Pieta is heavily protected after an attack by a crazy person back in the 70’s. The psycho hacked away at the sculpture breaking off the large chunks of the marble. The piece was restored and reconstructed using a block of marble from the back of the sculpture.
Once you step out of St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll be surprised that the whole morning has passed by. Don’t just walk away, make sure to stop by one of the gates to take a photo of the Swiss Guards, who are the de facto military of Vatican City and are responsible for the safety of the Pope. Swiss Guards must be Catholic, single, Swiss citizens and completed Swiss Military training to be recruited. They also have the coolest uniforms in the world. Oh yeah, they don’t smile at all.
On the way out, our guide pointed out the Papal apartments (2nd window from topmost right) where Pope Francis gives his traditional Sunday Angelus blessing to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. He’s cool like that.
And so ends our Vatican City adventure. Ending the tour with a photo. Buongiorno!