Our day at Vatican City was so packed that I had to break it into two pieces. My last post was everything to do with St. Peter’s Basilica, and this post is about the rest of the day.
It was hot in St. Peter’s Square and I was happy to bare my shoulders again and cool off, after having to be covered up inside. We found our way to the entrance to the Vatican Museums in perfect timing for our noon reservation. Again the line was short and moved quickly, and the longest part of the wait was to show our green pass/Covid card. All the horror stories I had heard about lines in Venice and Rome were not playing out at all, and my guess is that it was both due to the pandemic, and due to our visiting early in the day.
Inside, not knowing where else to go, we followed signs to the Sistine Chapel. This seemed to be what everyone else was doing. As I covered up in a scarf once more, we entered a maze. Thinking back I recall an extended journey through some of the most profound art I have ever seen, and I would like to know the path we tread. I have tried and failed to find a map of the path we took. This must be a carefully guarded secret: the route that tourists are sent before they are allowed to see the Sistine Chapel. I can’t even find a list of galleries and the order we viewed them. We were at the mercy of the signs and we followed them blindly. While inside I lost all sense of direction.
Early in our museum journey, we were routed through long hallway containing sculptures, the Gallery of the Candelabra. It is all beautiful and well presented, and a little hard to see because there were so many people in there. The ceiling was frescoed and gilded. That hall continued into another that displayed large and detailed tapestries. I think maybe after mosaics, one of my favourite old things is tapestries. The ceiling in this room was like the church in Piran that I saw, with delicate cameos etched and carved and painted in pastels.
Next we were ushered into the phenomenal Gallery of Maps. The maps were wonderful, but most impressive to me was the illuminated golden ceiling that framed about a thousand small paintings. When we approached the doors to the gallery and got a first glimpse of the ceiling, an audible “Ooohhhh!” went up from the people around us. It is truly inspiring. I loved this gallery and spent a ton of time trying to keep my balance and not bump into others, with my head tipped back all the way.
After those long hallways, we entered a series of rooms. The rooms historically were chapels and papal apartments and such, but now each is considered a gallery and some are considered a museum unto themselves. They are all connected, either sharing walls, or via stairways and halls.
I don’t know what the other tourists were thinking, but since I didn’t know how it worked here I kept thinking that any minute, the next thing we entered would be the Sistine Chapel. But, it wasn’t. One after another after another, we walked through rooms, each incomprehensibly gorgeous and unique. I could spend all day in a single room. We went up stairs and into a few rooms, then down stairs and through more rooms, then down more stairs and through a hallway, and more rooms. Rooms and rooms and rooms connected directly each other by doorways, and each one bewilderingly beautiful. In the Collection of Contemporary Art, it was so crowded I often couldn’t see the art very well, and contented myself with photographing the stunning ceilings.
We even walked through a modern art museum at one point, with the Collection of Modern Religious Art and while that’s great and all, it felt incongruous. It clashed with the rest.
One website says there are 4.7 miles (7.5 km) of museums to walk through. There are 54 galleries in total, including the Sistine Chapel. We missed so much of this museum complex and I recommend to future art aficionados to eat heartily and get a good night’s sleep prior to visiting the museums. Plan for at least four hours, and resist following the press of the crowd looking for the Sistine Chapel, and take advantage of a tour guide or an audio tour to make more of your visit. We had a single day for Vatican City and I think we did pretty well. Still, after a couple hours in the museums, my thoughts began to go something like, “Will we EVER get to the Sistine Chapel?”
But yes, we did eventually arrive. The Sistine Chapel is impressive beyond words, and I will tell you that it has earned its reputation honestly. It’s not just that the chapel walls are covered in frescoes, because we had just passed plenty of those. But here, each figure painted is compelling. Every single one is poignant and real and expressive. I was captivated. It is clear that Michelangelo truly wanted to pour his whole self into this masterpiece. I would turn different directions, so that a whole new section would be upright for me, and I’d gaze some more. The room is somewhat small, considering its importance and grandeur, so my neck was getting sore from being tipped backward for so very long. We were not allowed to take photos or videos, so please take a look at this exceptional website. In ideal conditions I would have been content to stay there for hours and gaze at the images.
However. We had spent a couple hours at the basilica, and a couple more hours walking through the endless museums and I was running out of steam. Both of us were ready to leave the actual Sistine Chapel much sooner than I would have expected.
We developed a theory. Probably a lot of people, like us, would have spent all day in the Sistine Chapel if we were rested and alert, and full, and fresh. But we were so tired after having been channeled through the museum complex like chattel, that we were ready to leave. The room is somewhat small, and packed with people, and it works out nicely that exhausted tourists take a really good look, then leave.
One funny story from the Sistine Chapel. When we first stepped into the chapel it was mostly silent. Murmurs and light whispers occasionally rose up from one area or another. As happens in a group of people, however, it slowly grew louder. After ten or fifteen minutes there was a rumbling but subdued hubub, and then a startlingly loud voice harped at us over loudspeakers: “Be quiet! No talking! Silence!” This was repeated in multiple languages, the volume sort of shocking us quiet as much as the words. Pedro overheard a woman ask a guard nearby why we had to be quiet, and the guard responded that the vibrations of our voices disturbed the paint and over time, could damage it. Once we got outside we chuckled, and have laughed about it since. We wondered what effect the loudspeakers have on the frescoes, if mumblings will damage them.
After the Sistine Chapel we exited through another very long hallway. This one was less spectacular, and held many special items in glass cases along the walls. They would have undoubtedly been more impressive if we had stopped to investigate each one to find out its history and relevance.
The long hallway had rows and rows and rows of decorated cabinets along one side, reminiscent of high school lockers. Pedro and I called this the Cardinals’ locker room, and imagined that they had photos pinned up inside the doors, and occasionally someone walking by could hear the faint cries of an unpopular holy man who had been stuffed in his locker by the others. This amused us until we made it to the end and the inevitable gift shop. (Pro Tip: don’t invite Pedro and me to anything that requires prolonged seriousness.)
Earlier, Pedro had posted live video of the museums, and identified his location. His sister Rosario responded immediately asking for a rosario (rosary, or rosary beads). A rosary from Vatican City would be a pretty cool souvenir. We found rosaries easily and purchased some for two of his sisters. His standing in his very Catholic family may rise now that he has been to Vatican City. 😉
We were then sent down some stairs, and exited into a cafeteria, which was hilarious, but smart of them. We cut through the cafeteria into the Giardino Quadrato (Square Garden) with no exit signs. In the garden we sat down for the first time in three hours, and looked around and at GPS to discover an exit. The only clue was that a few people seemed to be walking one direction more than others, so we got up and followed them. And that’s how we finally escaped. We came to one last amazing sight as we descended the Momo Staircase before heading outdoors to freedom.
We randomly chose a street, and upon that street randomly chose a restaurant, and it was one of our best meals of the entire trip. If you visit Vatican City, do plan to eat at Dal Toscano. The staff were professional, attentive, and helpful. The food was exceptional. Everything was spacious and clean and tasteful and pleasant. We tried our hardest to order using all our newly acquired Italian words, and the waiter understood and wrote it all down and patiently responded in English, ha ha. Ah well. At least we tried.
Sated and refreshed, we next walked to Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber River. We approached from behind and had an adventure trying to cross the streets there in busy Roman traffic. We walked along the ancient protective walls until we arrived at the front. It had been a long day so we did not queue to go inside, and merely enjoyed the outside, and especially the fabulous bridge completed in 134 CE by Emperor Hadrian.
We crossed the bridge, looking for one of the Omnia Bus hop-on hop-off stops. We found the stop and were told that the last bus left at 4pm. It was 4:12 pm. We had to return north again, so we crossed another bridge on our way to the closest metro stop, Lepanto. We detoured briefly at a pharmacy and got our Covid-19 tests so we would be allowed back into the US without quarantining. The timing was perfect for both trains back, and just like that we were at the hotel again.
Since it was early we decided to take advantage of the lovely rooftop bar in our hotel. We chose the four flights of stairs instead of the elevator because at that point stairs had become a way of life. We ordered a bottle of wine and it was served with complimentary snacks. No one came to the table again. After 90 minutes we had finished the wine, and most of the snacks, and we waited. We were in direct view of the people behind the counter, in a half empty bar, waving every so often, but could not attract the attention of anyone. I gave up and walked to the bartender and began to order another drink. They said to go back to my seat and get comfortable, and a waiter would come. This consistent experience of having no attention at a table is definitely a thing in Italy. And yet at some places such as Dal Tosacano, the very moment we looked up they would come over and ask how they could assist. I want to spend more time in Italy and figure it out.
It had been a marvelously full day and we happily fell asleep on our last night in Rome.
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