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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.