The curious country, the world’s smallest and least populous, is home to the Pope, and some of the world’s most famous art and churches. It’s strange to visit, situated wholly inside Rome.
We’d tried to be smart, by pre-booking entrance to the museum. We booked the 12:30 intake, as 8:30 was going to be impossible. It should have been easy to be awake and in central Rome by lunch time, but we, as usual, struggled. It was a rush from the metro station to the entrance of the museum. I felt smug passing the enormous line for the general entry queue, who for whatever reason didn’t also jump online and buy tickets – there is a €4 booking fee per ticket, but it beats standing in the sun, harassed by men selling hats and bottles of water for an hour.
Inside was barely contained chaos, with security screenings, cloak rooms, ticket collections, audio guides, tour groups forcing people to mix and merge in all sorts of inefficient ways.
We decided to be a little ruthless, and make our way straight to the big drawcard, Sistine Chapel. Little did I know just how far it was from the entrance. There were countless halls, filled with paintings, tapestries, and gilded decorations. Someone may have been able to count, but I lost track at a dozen. We particularly like the hallway with the 15th century maps (with Australia missing, of course). We were unsure why Corsica and Sardinia were upside down – Rome is the axis, perhaps?
The closer we got to the chapel, the more decorative the rooms became. I even started recognising some of the works by Raphael. It was strange, I know that they are impressive, but I failed to be impressed. It was something to do with the colours, and the lighting that didn’t move me. I’m generally not much of a fan of classical art, but I thought that given the renown of these works, it would be different. Plus, being crowded in these rooms, with a mass of other bodies, talking, moving, bumping into you with iPads out stretched made it a little hard to just enjoy.
I did find it interesting looking close at the walls, and seeing just how fragile it is, with giant cracks developing.
Sistine Chapel was the only place inside the museum where photography was forbidden. Actually, this was a place where most things were forbidden – and they were strictly enforced. I was told that there was also a strict dress code, and men were required to wear long pants – this wasn’t enforced, and I’d worn long pants in the summer heat in Rome for nothing. Once the hushed whispers evolved into a dim rabble, there was a loud voice over the PA system asking for silence. But, that’s all irrelevant. The focus is on Michelangelo’s artwork that covers the ceiling. It was enormous, and it was impossible to know where to look. The ceiling tells the story, from the creation of the sun and the moon, man, woman, the original sin, through to the flooding and Noah. Some panels were immediately recognisable, such as the Creation of Adam, with God’s outstretched hand reaching to give life to Adam. There are further panels surrounding the walls, too.
We spent about fifteen minutes here, with our necks craned staring up at the ceiling, yet somehow I still expected more. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, but I was a little. We have definitely seen prettier churches, and the style of painting isn’t my style.
It was more hallways, and more galleries, some modern, some with tapestries, some with furniture. There were even souvenir shops within these galleries, which I thought a little sad.
Under the garden was the Pope’s vehicle collection, which featured some really nice vintage Mercedes, as well as the famous Pope Mobiles. Though, I was more interested in the gifts from Ferrari – they donated an Enzo (which was sold to charity), and a wheel from a championship winning F1 car.
Back inside, continuing towards the exit, I saw my first Da Vinci! Maybe not his most impressive work. We also caught some of the originals from the multimedia exhibition in the old quarry in Provence.
We were hungry and exhausted, and we’d skipped large sections of the museum. We’d been inside the museum for three hours, which is roughly what they suggest it takes. I’d wanted to see the famous spiral staircase, and was a little disappointed to have missed it, and I didn’t think I’d have the energy to walk back to see it – only to realise that it was actually the path to the exit. I’ve seen countless photographs, and it was every bit as graceful and beautiful as I’d hoped.
Food options in the museum were grim, so we made what we thought was a short walk to a neighbouring suburb for some pizza. They had a huge range, which they cut square slices by scissors, and then charge by weight. I was expecting a cheap meal, but when two pieces came to €14, I had to quit being greedy, and reconsider lunch. It was like no pizza I’d had before. The base was fluffy yet still super crispy. One of the pizzas they put a further piece of pasty on top, which was just like a piece of filo pastry. And, to the disbelieve of my eyes, this was enough food for us – it did weigh 600gms, after all. A shot of coffee, and we were back on the road.
St Peter’s Basilica
As the crow flies, it wasn’t far from the museum to the café, or from the café to the basilica. However, we weren’t crows, and we had to walk a considerable distance to get back inside. It was hot, and I hate sweating.
I really wanted to climb to the top of the tower to get an aerial view of Rome. They close this at 5:30, and it was already 5PM – and we still had to queue to get inside. When we entered the plaza, we were amazed to see that the queue was nearly non-existent, and we were inside within 15-minutes.
We rushed straight to the entrance to the tower, and found out that the only way up was elevator – we were too late for the stairs, which meant an €8 entrance fee each. The elevator took us to the roof, from where it was a short climb to the view platform inside the dome.
When we first caught sight of the basilica far below, we were both speechless. I think I was actually laughing in disbelief that something could be so beautiful. The scale and the grandeur were incredible. The people far below, on the beautiful marbled floor, were just specks. The top of the dome was still far above us, too. I didn’t understand the beauty of Sistine Chapel, but this was easy for me to comprehend.
The battery in my camera died during the museum – and I’d forgotten to bring a spare. I didn’t think it was a problem, as I believed that photography was not allowed inside. I had to make do with the rather poor camera inside my phone – which was also rapidly going flat… As chance would have it, the camera phone was perfect, as the lens fit inside the gaps on the fencing.
There was still a further 200+ steps to the top, with the path progressively getting narrower and tighter. We were walking inside the curvature of the dome, and eventually in a tight vertical spiral to the very top.
At the top was the final view platform. From the top it was possible to see the entire country – not sure how many other places it is possible to see an entire country from a single viewpoint! Miraculously, my battery gave me enough power for a few quick photos before dying again. We were at the top for around five-minutes, doing our best to pick out all the sites we’d visited over the past three days. Before long, security came and started to move us towards the descent. We were the tail of the day’s tourists, and they were closing the tower.
They close the basilica at 7PM, and we wanted a little time to enjoy this from the ground, too.
To my disbelief, photography was allowed inside! I was in one of the most beautiful buildings I’d ever stepped foot inside, allowed to photograph it, but my battery was flat. My own ineptitude meant I would miss out. I thought I would try my luck asking a fellow Nikon shooting tourist if they had a spare battery that I could use for a few minutes, and as luck would have it, I found one!
The scale of this building is hard to capture, but it took me the best part of a minute to walk from where I received the battery, to further back towards the entrance. I knew that we didn’t have much time before we had to leave, but at the same time, I didn’t want to run around a church – I’m sure this isn’t tolerated church behaviour.
And sure enough, after I’d finished taking a few photos showing the scale of the church, we were being ushered outside. Once again, we were the tail of the day’s tourists. It was a shame to have to rush our way through, but we were happy to have had the time to climb the tower – and not had to spend more than an hour in a queue.
I’d heard all about the amazing Swiss Guards, and as we were leaving, I finally found two! Probably the best military/guard uniform I have ever seen! And with that, we said our good-byes to this tiny little city/state/country, and headed back into Rome.