No first-time trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Vatican. After my twelve years of Catholic-school education and twenty-plus years of recovery, I was surprisingly excited about going. In a way, it reminded me of going between the U.S. and Canada in that you're crossing an international border but in most ways it doesn't seem like it (I'd apologize in advance to any Canadians but no one reads this anyway).
It was impressive to enter Saint Peter's square and stand in the middle looking around at something that I had seen in photos a million times but had never thought that I would actually see in person. I could tell that there were people from all over the world in that square and that they were all super excited to be there. I saw several groups of pilgrims carrying various sculptures and, honestly, I didn't feel that I fit in with the crowds since I'm no longer religious. Fortunately, one group adopted me as one of their own; that's me just to the right the Brazilian flag with my hand up:
Kidding aside, I read that a tour of the Vatican should start by going to the Vatican Museum. It's a large museum that houses an impressive collection of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art in addition to a bunch of Renaissance stuff. I really wanted my tour guide friend from Egypt to be there with me to explain all the Egyptian stuff but it was fun anyway. It's funny but to hear the story as they tell it there, the Catholic church pretty much was the savior of all pre-Renaissance art and culture. I'm not sure if that's true but they do have a pretty good collection of
booty. treasure. art.
After going through the museum, you go directly over to the Sistine Chapel, which was pretty much the highlight of the tour. (I guess that's why it looked like 90% of the people visiting that day ran through the museum to get to the chapel.) Going into the chapel, you enter through a door in the corner of the room and you're immediately overwhelmed with what you see above you:
In case you're not familiar, the roof is Michelangelo's interpretation of the old testament starting with creation and ending with Noah being drunk. I'm guessing he stopped there because he ran out of roof...
On the front wall of the chapel is Michelangelo's The Last Judgement painting. Much to my surprise, it had nothing to do with the Terminator movies like I thought. Apparently, he did this one a bunch of years after he did the ceiling and the style is different--more serious and dark I guess. The three things that I liked were that he painted one of his critics in one corner with a snake eating his privates, that he painted himself as an empty "bag" of skin, and that when they renovated the painting, they left two small squares in the corners to show what it looked like before. Hint: very dark. You can see the squares if you look above the Last Judgement painting to where the arches of the ceiling curve towards the outside walls and meet in the corners.
After hanging out with about 18,000 of my closest friends in the Sistine Chapel, it was time to leave and go down to see the Basilica. Umm...wow again. The place is huge and having the opportunity to be in such an important religious place was amazing. I hadn't felt that way since my trip to the Holy Land in Israel.
Like I said, the place is huge. To give you some concept of scale, look into the cupola in the photo above (where the windows in the dome are). Below the windows is a gold-colored band that goes from one side to the other. On that band are letters that are about seven or eight feet (2-3 meters) high. Yeah, big. On the floor of the main space, they have information that shows the actual sizes of a bunch of other churches in the world as measured from the front door. They all seem so small when you're standing on the markers and comparing them to the interior of the Basilica. Some of the things that are worth seeing are Saint Peter's tomb and the Vatican Grotto where many popes are interred.
I've always seen photos of Vatican City taken from the roof of the church so I definitely had to do that too. They charge like 7 euros to take the elevator up to the roof, which is cool but not nearly as cool or with nearly as good of a view as up on the very top. Getting there from the roof where the elevator stops was crazy (note: if you're not wild about small spaces or can't climb stairs skip it) because of the narrow stairs that run between the outside of the dome and the inside of the dome but the view is awesome:
On the way out of the church I saw some Swiss guards over on the side. I definitely had to have a picture with them because of those crazy outfits. Oh yeah, by the way, Michelangelo didn't design them contrary to what many people believe. I think I know what I'll be dressing as next Halloween!
Finally, I got lucky. The pope apparently does public audiences twice a week when he's not out traveling the world, once on Sunday for mass and once on Wednesday just because. After arriving into the city mid-day on Wednesday, I figured that it was too late plus when heading over to check out St. Peter's square massive crowds were walking out. About 10 minutes after arriving and having taken about 150 photos or so, I looked up to the front and saw a guy in his bathrobe...oh wait, maybe that's the pope...and IT WAS! He was getting into his Popemobile preparing to leave. I maxed out the zoom on my trusty Canon camera and got about six photos or so. This was the best one I got but you can definitely tell it's him. Score!
I hit the trifecta! The Vatican and views from the roof, the Sistine Chapel, AND a pope sighting! I better play the lotto tonight.
*Travel Tip*: If you're going to the Basilica, the Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel, it's best to do them all at the same time. Make a reservation for the museum online so that you can skip the scary-long line that wraps around the building and, as a bonus, you get to enter up to one hour before the people who didn't make a reservation. When you get there, bypass the people waiting in line and go all the way to the front door--no waiting! Go through the Vatican Museum and check out the displays. Once you're done, follow the crowds over to the Sistine Chapel. It's crowded but, since the display is on the ceiling, it's not really a problem.
When you're done at the chapel, (this is the important part) exit through the door with no sign in the far back right hand corner (with your back to the Last Judgement painting). You'll see another door on the left wall with a big sign that says something like "Exit Here" but that takes you outside via the museum whereas the other door leads directly into the Basilica. This allows you to bypass the lines and security because you're already inside. Doing this gets you the museum, the chapel, and the Basilica without having to wait in line twice. Let me sleep on your couch to pay me back.
Once inside the Basilica, to get to the Vatican Grotto, stand in front of the giant red/brown structure above Saint Peter's grave. From there turn left and walk towards the nearest corner of the room that'll be just in front of you. You'll see a large sculpture in the corner. Just to the right of the sculpture there's a small door with stairs that lead down to the grotto. It's not marked but go anyway...it's easier than going back outside and then finding it. Have fun!