Visiting the Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica. There are no skyscrapers in Rome because there is a law that no building may be higher than St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter’s Basilica. There are no skyscrapers in Rome because there is a law that no building may be higher than St. Peter’s Basilica.

Sleeping has not been easy these last couple of nights. Thought we’re thoroughly exhausted and force ourselves to stay up past 9pm, we’re still wide awake by 0200 and can’t seem to get back to sleep. We toss and turn and then tend to get drowsy and doze off again around 0500 only to have the alarm wake us at 0530. We’ll get on a schedule sooner or later... we’re hoping for sooner.

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Why up so early? This morning we have a Vatican tour scheduled and it begins at 0720 before the general public is allowed into the Vatican Museums, another ‘skip the line’ type tour. Check-in began at 0700 and we needed to catch a cab no later than 0630. We had originally thought we’d walk the 2-3 miles to St. Peter’s Square, but since it’s still dark at 0600 and rain was expected, we changed our minds. Once again, no rain. Who does these forecasts? The cab came pronto and we had enough time for a quick caffe-latte at a local ‘bar’ before checking in.

I’m putting my Italian lessons to good use now. I ordered our meals last night, checked into the hotel and provided directions to our taxi driver this morning. It’s rough, but evidently understandable. Like all native language speakers, they speak quickly, use local terms and kind of blend their words together. Here in Rome, most also speak English pretty well and help me out when I’m stuck. They are patient with my infant vocabulary, slow speech and mispronunciations, It appears they are much nicer to non-Italian speakers than we Americans are to non-English speakers. I asked one Italian man if he spoke English and his response? “No, but with my bad English and your bad Italian, we will communicate.” And we did.

The grand entrance to the Vatican Museums, but we went in through the ‘group’ door.

The grand entrance to the Vatican Museums, but we went in through the ‘group’ door.

We entered the Musei Vaticani through a special ‘group’ entrance and passed through Security. We really waltzed through the museums quickly, (‘We’re moving, we’re moving’, said our guide more than once) with little time to take in the splendor and grandeur of the galleries through which we passed. Sculptures, tapestries, artwork, the painted ceilings, the rich decor… simply breathtaking.

One of the magnificent tapestries on display.

One of the magnificent tapestries on display.

Barberini bumblebee

Barberini bumblebee

I loved the tapestries in particular. The gallery is about 200+ feet long with high ceilings and its walls are covered with rich, finely woven scenes. Several are from the Barberinis (c.1780-1790) commemorating important moments in the life of the Barberini pope Urban VIII with the iconic bumblebee, the Barberini workshop signature, in the lower corners.



It was the Sistine Chapel, however, for which the guide had saved our time. There was no guide chat, no idle chatter, no photos to be taken in the Sistine Chapel. We sat on one side of the room and then the other, looking in awe at what was displayed on the walls and ceiling. I nicked a picture off the internet to give you a taste, but seeing it with your own eyes is so much better. We sat speechless for nearly half an hour trying to identify and absorb what we were seeing. It’s intricate, vibrant and so very real. It’s nothing short of magnificent.

Gazing up in awe is the only way to see and appreciate the artisanship of the Sistine Chapel.

Gazing up in awe is the only way to see and appreciate the artisanship of the Sistine Chapel.

Next, we made our way into St. Peter’s Basilica and once again, we were given an orientation and let loose to explore for 20 minutes. We visited the highlights first, then took in the smaller chapels and still had time to do a second round, seeing something different with each view. Photos are allowed here and I have some to share with you.

The Pieta by Michelangelo. This is one of few pieces that Michelangelo signed and actually used his whole name, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni which is unobrusively carved on Mary’s belt.

The Pieta by Michelangelo. This is one of few pieces that Michelangelo signed and actually used his whole name, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni which is unobrusively carved on Mary’s belt.

We descended the steps to a lower level under the Basilica to the crypts where several Popes including St. Peter, are buried. There’s a bit of controversy about whether St. Peter’s body is actually buried in this spot, He was actually crucified upside down not far from here by Nero and it’s upon this ‘apparent’ spot that the Basilica in his name was built. No photos here either, but I nicked one for you.

St. Peter’s Tomb in the crypts below the Basilica

St. Peter’s Tomb in the crypts below the Basilica

After checking out the tombs of several popes, the tour ended , but we had come with a mission. We wanted to obtain our first Via Francigena stamp (timbro ufficale) in our Pilgrim’s passports because the Via Francigena either ends here or (as for us) begins here. Sigeric walked in both directions to and from Rome. I asked a pleasant guide where we might get the stamp and he gave us directions. Another guard inquired about our reason for being there, then kindly escorted us beyond a roped off area to the Sacristia, a grand inner office where we were officially stamped. Wow!

The first stamp in our Pilgrim’s passport at St. Peter’s Basilica

The first stamp in our Pilgrim’s passport at St. Peter’s Basilica

Mass was just beginning in the Basilica and we opted to attend, after which we received a warm benediction and blessing from a Maltese priest who happily obliged our request.

We walked around St. Peter’s Square amazed by its size and beauty. Even with so many people wandering around, we found some space.

We walked around St. Peter’s Square amazed by its size and beauty. Even with so many people wandering around, we found some space.

We spotted a Swiss Guard on duty outside the square. The  Pontifical Swiss Guard  has acted as the military for the Vatican City since 1506.

We spotted a Swiss Guard on duty outside the square. The Pontifical Swiss Guard has acted as the military for the Vatican City since 1506.

‘With an area of only 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of about 1,000, the Vatican City State is the smallest state in the world both by area and population.” Totally surrounded by Rome, this sovereign state is ruled exclusively by the Holy See (the Pope).

We decided to walk the 1.6 miles from the Square (the official beginning of the Via Francigena) to the start of the path out of Rome rather than retrace our steps in the morning. Our walk will begin at the entrance to the Parco Monte Mario, then up that hill.

We decided to walk the 1.6 miles from the Square (the official beginning of the Via Francigena) to the start of the path out of Rome rather than retrace our steps in the morning. Our walk will begin at the entrance to the Parco Monte Mario, then up that hill.

We headed back to the city for lunch, passing by the Castel Sant’Angelo, the fortress that protected the city in past centuries.

We headed back to the city for lunch, passing by the Castel Sant’Angelo, the fortress that protected the city in past centuries.

Once over the Tiber, we caught a bus back to the hotel. We’re ready to begin our trek… both in body and spirit. Via Francigena, here we come!