Europe Trip 2013 – Part Eight: Vatican City

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

Part Four: Lake Como, Italy

Part Five: Venice, Italy

Part Six: Florence, Italy

Part Seven: Rome, Italy

Chronologically speaking, our visit to Vatican City came in the middle of our time in Rome. But since it is its own country and we spent most of a day there, it seemed to warrant its own post.

Peter and I had set aside our second day in Rome to visit the Vatican. This was the day after we arrived and we had already seen the Colosseum and the Forum. As we did with L’Accademia in Florence, we got an early start and had reached Vatican City before half past seven on that Thursday morning. The square was completely empty except for us and a police vehicle.

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We sat by the fountain and ate oranges before we passed through security. Like many of the cathedrals we visited, the Vatican requires modest dress so we both wore long pants.

St. Peter’s Basilica is amazing. It doesn’t feel as ornate as San Marco’s in Venice but it is hugely decorated. Michelangelo’s La Pieta stands behind bullet-proof glass. One grand entrance is bricked over until the next year of Jubilee. A dark and elaborate canopy built by Bernini stands over the tomb of St. Peter’s. A purple stone marks the spot where Charlemagne was crowned.

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Many famous churches feel like just another tourist spot, crowded with visitors, everyone trying to snap pictures. The feeling of sacred space is lost. I’ve heard people say this about St. Peter’s but that wasn’t my feeling at all that morning.

The church was hushed, a few small masses being read in some of the side chapels. Men in tailored suits provided directions discretely. Confessions were being heard in multiple languages. A few priests and nuns walked quietly through, either at work or visiting from other countries, just as we were. One young, red-headed priest stood in front of St. Peter’s tomb to take a selfie. And yet, it wasn’t touristy. It was a church. Yes, there were tourists, but there were also people praying, people worshipping. It is still God’s house.

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We paid five euros for access to the dome, without the use of the elevator. It was a good choice because the elevator doesn’t take you to the top, only past the easiest section of stairs. That first stop brings you out inside of the dome, looking down into the church.

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Then more steps – 545 in total (we counted) – this time up a winding, narrow passage. The rounded walls tell you that you’re circling the dome and you have to lean in order to pass by. Witness this photo, taken with the camera held perfectly straight:

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The way is so narrow in parts that you have to go single-file and if the person in front of you stops, there’s no way you can move forward. It’s a little claustrophobic but when you start to feel like you can’t take it anymore, you arrive outside. This time, on the outside of the dome, overlooking Rome. The breeze felt amazing and the view was good too.

The Dome of St. Peter is the highest point in Rome. We spent a good while up there, taking in the sight of the city laid out before us. Enjoying the coldest spot we’d found yet in the city.

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From the Basilica we headed to the Vatican Museum. Forty minutes wait in the hot sun, in a line that stretched around the block. Vendors wandered through the crowds, selling bottles of water from backpacks, postcards of Pope Francis, or coloured parasols. Tour guides try aggressively to convince you to hire them so you can hop out of the line. We feigned ignorance of every language they tried on us and then eavesdropped as they made their attempts to the English-speaker’s around us or as they fought amongst themselves for the right to customers.

The Vatican Museum is expensive (16 euros each) and insanely crowded. Now, a couple months later, I’m glad that we went. That day though, I was miserable for most of it. In many parts, especially the long hallways, you can’t help but be pushed along by the crowds (A special curse was reserved that day for those who walk the length of a museum holding video cameras above their heads.) We had to fight our ground to stop and look at anything and there was so much to look at it that it quickly felt overwhelming. There were very few spots to sit down and we quickly ran out of water, which was unusual in Rome because the city itself has clean water fountains everywhere.

That said, I got to see some of the world’s finest art in person and I really can’t complain about that. Photos weren’t allowed in most of the museum so I can’t share it with you but the rooms painted by Raphael were stunning, particularly the Academics, which has an astonishing depth to it. Near the end of the museum was a collection of modern Catholic paintings which was also fascinating, especially in comparison to all the Renaissance art.

There were rooms of Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts. Tombs and inscriptions and art of the early Christian church, which was wonderful to see.

And then, of course, there is the Sistine Chapel. The climax of the whole museum. The point that everyone in the crowd is pushing toward. Stunning, yes. Sacred? Maybe. This was one of the most crowded points of the whole crowded museum and the police officers (yes, police, not security guards) attempts to keep the place quiet make it louder than anything else. They hustle people along, preventing you from standing still for too long, and every few minutes one of them leans into a microphone and says, “Shhhh! Silencio, per favore! Silence please!”

The set-up of the museum meant we actually entered from the rear of the chapel and so almost the first thing you look at is the grim depiction of The Last Judgement. Right there everyone stops and cranes their faces to the ceiling. It wasn’t until we moved further away from the crowds and looked up that we say the whole story that Michelangelo painted. And that was amazing. While The Last Judgement is still the final piece and dominates your view, you gaze up to see God create man, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The beginning and the end of the world, all in one room. And it is magnificent.

We regained some of our strength over cappuccinos in the cafeteria and then viewed a final area of sculptures before heading home on the metro. We stopped for donairs near our hotel and were so hungry we ate most of them before realizing they were not very good donairs.

Next stop: Cinque Terra, Italy

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