No visit to Italy, especially Rome, is complete without a visit to Vatican City to see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. And, we took it one step further by venturing out extra early to see the Pope at his mid-week Papal Audience.
The day’s events took a bit more planning than a usual day’s excursion. Deciding what day to go to avoid crowds, what time to arrive (to also avoid lines and crowds), how best to navigate through the Vatican museums and how to sneak through the Sistine Chapel’s “secret” door to save time entering the Basilica. My research, and yes, a few hours of planning, paid off well as our visit went by without a hitch.
Papal Audience: We began our Wednesday excursion by viewing the Pope’s audience in St. Peter’s Square. During our walk through Rome’s various neighborhoods the day prior, we had already picked up our free tickets to the Pope’s audience from the Swiss Guards in Vatican City.On a side note, while researching about the Vatican City, I came across these little tidbits about the Swiss Guards, also known as the Pope’s private army.
The Swiss Guards are the oldest and the smallest army in the world. In 1506, 110 Swiss Guards traveled from Switzerland to protect Pope Julius and today, they still retain many of their unique customs and practices. For instance, a Swiss Guard still must:
- be Swiss
- know 4 languages
- be Catholic
- be 5 foot 9 inches or taller
- come from the Swiss military
- be between the age of 19 and 30
After another indulgent breakfast of croissants (I soon learned that nothing beats the smell of Italy’s bakeries in the morning) we packed a picnic lunch and set off for the Metra, ready for our day wholly immersed in Catholicism and Madonnas.. Rome’s Metra is amazing and really easy to use. With a little detective work and a handy map, the Metra’s three main lines can get curious travelers nearly anywhere in Rome. Luckily, we had a Metra stop just 200 yards from our AirBnB apartment and we were easily able to arrive on the doorstep of St. Peters by 9 a.m.
So…what is the Papal Audience like? The great focal point of Vatican City is the keyhole-shaped piazza of St. Peter’s Square. It is here, between two lofty Bernini-designed colonnades representing “the motherly arms of the church,” that we gathered along with a rock-concert sized crowd to see the Pope. The audience began with the Pope being driven around the square in his “Pope-mobile.” He waved and showered blessings on the very excited, picture-happy crowd. After ascending the steps in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, he addressed visiting groups, read blessings and bestowed his Apostolic Blessing which extended to loved ones and those who are suffering or sick as well as any religious articles that spectators brought with them.
The tiny country of the Vatican is indeed a remarkable place to visit. Boasting rich history, art and architecture, – and a zero birth rate – the entire complex sprawls over 5.5 hectares and features one of the world’s greatest art collections.
I had reserved an entry time and tickets several months prior on the museum’s site, and with tickets in hand, we skipped a huge, albeit not very well marked, line. Nevertheless, we were ushered inside by the guards, leaving those without tickets (and pre-planning foresight) to wait for their turn.
Inside Vatican City, there are kilometers of galleries to explore. And lots of art and tapestries. Immediately inside the entrance doors (and also serving as the exit) is the iconic spiral Momo staircase, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932.
Quite honestly, since I am not a huge fan of religious art, after the first eleven rooms, everything kind of blended together. We passed everything from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to classical sculptures, cartographic tapestries and Renaissance canvases.
The colorful and well-preserved frescoes in the Raphael Rooms, or Stanze di Rafaello, were especially beautiful. We eventually found ourselves descending the steps to the Sistine Chapel…finally!
The Sistine Chapel: Two of the world’s greatest masterpieces, Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes and his Last Judgment, wait for viewers inside the marvelous Sistine Chapel. The only way to see the Sistine Chapel is to enter through the museums; there is no shortcut. However, it was worth putting up with both the long, snaking corridors and the guards shouting, “no pictures, no pictures,” in order to gaze in awe at the inspiring ceiling designs and vivid blues of the Last Judgement. It is impossible to take photos so I don’t have any to share. However, if possible, though the crowds are simply suffocating, try to spend a few moments and absorb the beauty of the small chapel before being ushered out the back exits. Michelangelo was indeed a true master.
St. Peter’s Basilica – My mother especially enjoyed viewing St Peter’s Basilica, the world’s most famous Roman Catholic church and one of the holiest sites in Christendom. First of all, its cavernous 187 meter long interior is startling, and the spacious church is filled with brilliant masterpieces, one after another. This includes Michelangelo’s Pietà, where Madonna cradles her lost son.
After viewing the church’s many sculptures, tapestries, murals, mosaics and Michelangelo’s soaring dome, we journeyed beneath the church to view the Vatican grotto which houses the tombs and sarcophagi of over 90 popes. I appreciate the tranquility and peaceful ambiance of the church. It was truly enlightening to see so many cultures and nationalities gathering together to admire and pay respects to a world renowned destination.
I highly recommend booking reservations for entrance to the Vatican. The museum’s website it simple to navigate and the result of skipping long lines relieves a bit of the headaches and worries of travel.