There Are So Many Stairs at the Basilica

In Rome’s subway.

In Rome we were proper tourists for the first time; doing the stereotypical tourist things. Neither Pedro nor I typically wish to do what everyone else is doing, but it seemed that there were some things that simply needed to be experienced in Rome, even if that meant behaving like a lemming. One of these of course, was Vatican City.

We rose early and enjoyed a complimentary continental breakfast at our hotel’s rooftop dining area. I have decided what to do about the too-milky cappuccinos. I order both a cappuccino and an espresso, and when no one is looking, I dump the espresso into the cappuccino. I’m not sure that’s allowed, but it improves the drink. Unfortunately, our excellent skies were gone and the dome overhead was the thick white of humid air. No interesting clouds, just a bright boring backdrop for all views.

Gates in the medieval wall surrounding Vatican City.
Massive columns that ring St. Peter’s Square.

We knew exactly where to go to find the subway, and we bought tickets and got on a train right away. In minutes we were at the Ottaviano stop and we walked into Vatican City through medieval city gates. I had already purchased tickets so we went to pick them up, and got stuck in line behind people who were planning their Italy vacation while standing at the counter. The patient people at the counter had to explain and answers questions forever. We were only behind three groups of 2, and there were two lines, but we waited forty minutes until it was our turn. Oy. One funny thing was that we were asked to show our passports, which reminded us that Vatican City is a sovereign nation.

Looking across the square past the obelisk that was brought from Egypt by Caligula, to St. Peter’s Basilica. Behind the fountain on the right, you can make out the corrals for all the people going through security (and decency) checks prior to being allowed to enter. [click to enlarge]
Basilica di San Pietro/ Basilica of St. Peter
A close look at the top left corner of the basilica, holding a bell.

Interesting fact: there are about 800 citizens of Vatican City. Most of them are members of the clergy who occupy important posts abroad. Around 135 of them are members of the Swiss Guard. Walking through the gates and picking up our tickets, we were still in Italy. When we crossed the oval boundary and walked into the plaza, we had finally entered Vatican City, the smallest country in the world.

The Renaissance-era uniforms of the Swiss Guard are fabulous! Yes, despite your first guess, the guard is a highly trained protective force here to ensure the safety of the Pope at all times. Each member is a Swiss National and a Catholic.

The great thing is, we never really had another bad wait like that again (except one for a green pass/COVID check the next day). There were lots of queues, but they moved fast. The wait for tickets had made us late for our reserved time to see the Basilica of St. Peter, but no one cared. We showed our pass, our CDC white card, and I received a quick scan to make sure I was decent. Women with bare shoulders or legs were provided with a little black scarf to tie around and cover themselves up. I am used to having to cover up my shameful womanhood in religious places, so I was prepared and pulled a scarf out of my purse. In minutes we were inside.

I spotted this dragon in the arches on the way to the entrance, and approved.
The floor of the central nave was protected by a red velvet barrier.

Inside I was astounded. Gobsmacked. Bewildered by the enormity and opulence and gravity of the Basilica di San Pietro, I feel validated by finding out later that it is the largest Christian church in the entire world. Long, long ago this site was a necropolis, and Christian legend has it that St. Peter (one of the Apostles of Christ) is buried in the necropolis. Due to the holiness of the site, churches have been here since the 4th century. Construction of the present building began in 1506, and the remarkable dome was designed by Michelangelo himself.

Extraordinary statues fill the interior, often depicting Popes.

I’ve learned that churches are often in the shape of a cross, with a central nave intersected by a segment that is wider than the central nave. Larger churches will have more than one additional cross segments intersecting the main part of the church. In these, you enter at the back of the church, and walk toward the altar, and bays will open up to your right and left if it’s a really big church. In this basilica, there are six cross segments, and the bays opening up to your right and left also have bays opening from them and sometimes those rooms are connected to each other independently of the main hall. The central nave is 613 feet long and 147 feet high. It’s so enormous I was dizzy.

I spotted people exiting this door and naturally went inside. I followed a corridor until I came to a gift shop. At the back of the gift shop was an opportunity to pay 5 Euros and see the Vatican Treasures, but I had only just entered the Basilica and wanted to see more of it, so I went back out.
Staring at the ceiling is just as impressive as staring at eye-level.

The wealth displayed is even more difficult to wrap my head around. The sight before me was almost incomprehensibly grandiose and ostentatious. I don’t even want to think about where it all came from because there are some notoriously heinous stories that hit close to home regarding how the Catholic church acquired wealth from the Indigenous communities of the Americas. But if I can let go of that, it was a show in itself, and I wanted more. I swallowed as much of the views as I could with my eyes and my camera, but didn’t really absorb much.

St. Peter’s Baldachin, a bronze canopy designed by Bernini over the high altar.
Looking at the ceiling of the main dome from beneath the altar. This spot is believed by Christians to be above the exact location of St. Peter’s grave.

Pedro and I wordlessly wandered away from each other, gaping like idiots at the lavish marble monuments, carved wood, bronze, gilded accessories (probably REAL gold), murals of perfection, mosaics, columns, domes, and windows letting in light to intentionally celebrate the interior majesty. I completely lost him at one point as I was pulled deeper into the complex. We found each other again in front of the chair of St. Peter and got a few pics before being distracted by the unmistakable notes of mass being sung. This place was so huge there was a service with a priest and a congregation off to the side and most people inside hadn’t even noticed.

Monument to Pope Alexander VII, the last creation of artist Bernini. Alexander prays while women represent the virtues he strives for. Truth, on the right, has her foot on the globe. Specifically on top of England, which needed to be controlled, apparently. Death is shrouded in front, brandishing an hourglass and reminding us all that our time is finite.
At the very front of the basilica is the Chair of St. Peter. The actual Papal Chair of Saint Peter, the first Pope, is unseen, engulfed in this magnificent creation from Bernini.
Since he is named after San Pedro, I think Pedro should be allowed to sit there.

We found ourselves in a tour group and allowed ourselves to become embedded with them, and somehow we were next in the Vatican Grottoes. We walked beneath the basilica in the place of the tombs of many popes. About half the tombs of historical popes were destroyed in the demolition of the old basilica to make way for this one, but today nearly 100 tombs are within the basilica or the grottoes. Signs told us not to take any photos. We walked in quiet respect past many sarcophagi, and we tried to find the especially old ones by reading the signs. Some sarcophagi had an entire image of the deceased pope carved in marble and lying atop the tomb. The place was large and we did not see all of it and eventually stumbled up and into the light again.

We spotted a sign inviting us to climb the dome and not knowing anything about it, we nearly got paper cuts as we whipped out our Euros so fast. We opted for the less expensive option of steps instead of the elevator. Flashing our vaccination cards once more, we began climbing steps.

Outside the Basilica once more.
The covered walkways outside were also astonishing.

Maybe it was our inability to wholly take in St. Peter’s Basilica, but for whatever reason, at the end of this day, the thing we commented about the most was the stairs. At first we ascended smooth, brick-paved steps with a gradual slope, wide enough for people to pass each other going up or coming down. Round and round we went, up and up. It lasted a surprisingly long time and gave us quite a workout. A little out of breath, we emerged from a door onto a catwalk above the very floor we had just stood on. The vastness of the place was further impressed on me.

Catwalk inside the Dome of the Basilica. A fence to our right kept us from tumbling off.
Exquisite mosaic murals ringed the walls, and I realized that what had appeared to be paintings when viewed from the ground, turned out often to be mosaics.
Looking down onto the top of St. Peter’s Baldachin. From here there is a good look at the gorgeous patterned marble floors inside the basilica.
We got a good look at the main dome, and above it the cupola, from the catwalk.

Pleased for having made that decision, satisfied, and prepared to return to the ground, we noticed yet another sign. This one invited us to climb the cupola. Yes! More steps!

Is it my imagination, or are the walls slanted here? Up ahead you see one of the windows that was open and allowing in a fresh breeze that helped us breathe up there.

Since the catwalk was not at the top of the dome, our first chore was to complete the sloping, circling, ramped steps till we got to the top of the main dome. It was narrow, and the climb became steeper, and it was a hot and humid day and people were sweating and gasping. I’m not too proud to admit that I am one of those who stopped in front of the breeze through an open window and drank water and gasped a bit, pressed hard against the wall so others could squeeze past me. Picture a dome in your mind, with people circling it and walking upright at an angle perpendicular to the ground, and imagine how the angle of the dome changes while the people wish to continue their original angle, and imagine the impacts of physics and gravity. Eventually the roof was slanting at an angle that forced us all to lean over as we walked. When the angle became ridiculous, we were high enough to walk directly up the side of the dome, so again there was a wide marble staircase. At the top of the staircase we had to climb narrow metal spiral stairs. Priests must have been tiny men when these stairs were conceptualized. Or maybe Michelangelo was a small man.

My camera is upright; the walls are slanted. Look at the staircase up ahead and see the orientation of the railing.
Standing in the same place I was standing for the above photo, I am looking up toward the peak of the dome.
Spiral stairs for thin priests.

And we made it! The views were outstanding. Best of all was the view of St. Peter’s Square, the oval shape made by the columns, and the Egyptian obelisk at the center. I have seen this design in Roman ruins multiple times, but here was an example of what they all could have looked like in their full glory. It was truly stunning.

Looking down onto St. Peter’s Square. You can see the curved walls of Castel Sant’Angelo in the distance.
Looking onto the gardens behind the basilica.
Standing on the roof of the basilica, looking at the dome we had just climbed.
We even spotted the tourists who had taken our places at the cupola

We came back down to earth when we reversed all those stairs and found our way out of the square. We waved goodbye to St. Peter. We passed the Vatican Post Office, with people lined up to get real Vatican stamps and a real Vatican postmark. We went through the medieval gates once more in search of the entrance to the Vatican Museums.

Goodbye Saint Peter. (The saint is helpfully pointing the way out for us.)
This member of the Swiss Guard politely blocked my path when I tried to walk this way. He gave us directions to the Vatican Museums. I asked if I could take his photo. “You must exit the property,” he said. “Then you may take a photo.”

14 thoughts on “There Are So Many Stairs at the Basilica

    1. Thanks Andrew! I appreciate the praise especially because this post took me a very long time. We saw so much in such a short amount of time that it was hard to remember it all and tell the story sensibly.

      1. Do you carry one? It’s a great idea if I would be able to remember to use it. I use my photos as a notebook, but they fail when I enter an area where no photos are allowed, or when I neglect to take pics of things I think are not relevant.

  1. Oooo, you did what neither I nor amore have done: climbed to the top! Your photos make it all worthwhile. Spectacular views!! I had a feeling I’d suffer a lot until I’d reach the top and I’m happy you did it instead. I love the first photo of you, and the last of the guard and the two guys, and all the slanted one (my word!), and many of Mr. Pedro. And that cupola from up close, oh my!!

    1. Sweet! I’m glad I got to show you two something from Rome you had not seen. The slanted walls and tight spaces were a challenge, but that makes the story afterward so much better. A photo I left out was the windows around the cupola plastered in homemade stickers – like the ones on the pipes at Piran! I marvel at people going to the trouble to leave their personal signature at such a place. I’m so glad we did it. We didn’t know it was there, and when we bought tickets we had no idea what we were in for. What a treat it was. The photo of the square paid for all the steps, ha ha. You just reminded me of an actual cupola up close photo I meant to post and I don’t know why I left it out. I’ll add it now.

  2. Such wonderful history you’re sharing, despite your shameful womanhood … haha. That climb reminded me of any number of lighthouses, but omg, that view ! Thanks so much for sharing all of this.

    1. Thank you for appreciating my little snarky comment. It’s tiresome, you know, that it’s the women that are singled out in holy places. The intent is that all people enter respectfully, and I’m sure the church would insist that is their policy. But on the ground (in every holy place not just here), women are identified as a potential problem. The message is subtle and insidious, and I’m too much of a loudmouth not to mention it. I did the same by referring to the slavery and death and devastation wreaked on my Native ancestors to make this basilica look so pretty. It’s a little dangerous when a blogger is also a loudmouth, ha ha!!

      Oooh, lighthouses are another wonderful way to climb many stairs. The advantage of climbing here instead of at the ocean, is that our view was of Rome. 🙂 And that view is pretty wonderful.

  3. This is such an amazing writeup! I took lots of notes but forgot lots of little things because it’s all so overwhelming. This really helped jog my memory as I was working on my scrapbook

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