Vatican is the world’s smallest country, an absolute monarchy and the spiritual center of one the world’s one billion Catholics. Whether you are a devout Catholic, a non-Christian believer, an atheist, an agnostic or you simply don’t care; you will still be impressed by it. It will surround you with a truly Babylonian mix of languages and races, slow you down with mile long lines, crash you with heat, overwhelm you with dozens of priceless and world famous works of art displayed on every square meter of its museums. Most people spend a day or less there but you could spend a year or even a lifetime and still find something new to learn about or to admire. The same may be true about many other places but I think nowhere it happens in a more concentrated, simultaneously impressive and exhausting way than at the Vatican.
I do not pretend to possess a deep knowledge of Vatican, Roman or Italian history. Nor do I want to impress you with my breathtaking photography. This post is just an attempt at both sharing my impressions with you and cataloguing my thoughts on this most unusual place.
We visited the City of Vatican in early March, 2017. It was our last of three days in Rome and when I was planning the trip, I knew that whatever day I chose, it would be a gamble, since the weather can be rather unpredictable in early March. In the end, we were lucky: the weather was simply perfect. Another dilemma was what to see in detail, possibly with a tour, what to glance at and what to skip all together. After playing with some ideas, we decided that we wanted to see most was the Vatican Gardens, have a quick look at St Peter’s Cathedral, walk through the museums, pay a brief visit to the Sistine Chapel and stroll through St Peter’s square. Unfortunately, we had to skip the necropolis underneath the Cathedral, the grave of St Peter, as well as the tour of the Castle of St Angel, which, while not in Vatican proper, is closely linked to it both historically and architecturally. I hope to visit them in the future.
The gardens are no longer open to individual visitors, so you need to buy a tour and be accompanied by a guide. Tickets cost EUR32 per person and usually go on sale 3 months before the date of the tour. This is a very popular tour, so book early. There are many sites that sell tickets but you are better off buying them directly from the Vatican museum here. I suggest you pay with a Mastercard, as several of my Visas got declined for no apparent reason. The tour starts and ends inside the Vatican museums and the ticket allows you to stay in the museums as long as you like after the tour. The museums include the Sistine Chapel.
I usually don’t like organized tours and prefer to do my own research but this particular tour is well worth it. Our guide was a great source of not only historical facts but Vatican gossip and anecdotes. My favourite quote is “Popes are like dogs. They like to mark their territory. Every time one of them builds or restores something, they put their name on it”. I won’t name the guide or even mention their gender just in case this can get them into trouble.
Once the group assembles, the guide leads you through Vatican security, who count how many people enter and will count how many return, to make sure nobody tries to stay in the garden till afternoon, when the pope walks in the gardens by himself. As soon as you leave the museum, you see the non-religious side of the Vatican: road construction trucks with Vatican license plates; gardeners working on flowerbeds; plumbers cleaning fountains and descaling the pipes that get clogged by very hard Vatican water; labourers unloading crates at the warehouse. After all, this is a functioning city, where many people work and some even live.
The warehouse is one of the first things you pass on your way to the more interesting part of the garden. Our lively guide used this opportunity to inform us about different types of goods that flow through the warehouse. One of the more interesting stories was about wine. Apparently, Vatican makes quite a bit of wine and that wine is horrible. Nobody wants to drink it in the city itself, so they sell it outside. As you can imagine, there is no shortage of people who want to buy wine made in Vatican, so they make quite a bit of money and then spend it on importing good wine from Italy and other countries. Very smart!
Shortly after that you will see the amazing Casina Pio IV, a 16th century villa that is now home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas.
The tour continued through the lush gardens with the dome of St Peters visible pretty much from anywhere. The guide also told us how in the last couple of years Vatican gardens became home to a large colony of green parrots, who, together with some cats, are the only non-human inhabitants of the gardens. In the past, some popes kept lions, tigers and other exotic animals there. The gardens owe much of their splendor to pope Leo XIII, who was known for his very long working days, monastic discipline and his love for plants. He and his pet cat spent a lot of time in the gardens, walking, praying (the pope, not the cat) and enjoying meals. They say the pope often shared his polenta and other simple dishes with the cat.
Our next stop was by a copy of the grotto at Lourdes, that was given to Leo XIII as a present by Catholics of France in late 1800s. If you are not familiar with the Lourdes story, you can read it here. From there we walked on to the pope’s helipad that is used when popes need to travel somewhere by a helicopter. Pope Francis thinks this is too fancy for him, so it is mostly used by children to play football (soccer).
All of Vatican is surrounded by medieval walls, most of them impressively tall and intimidating. There are also several towers, with Torre San Giovanni or the St John Tower standing out by its size and prominence.
It was built in the 13th century, fell in disrepair by the 16th century and then was restored by Pope John XXIII in 1960s. It is now used as a guest house for Vatican’s most distinguished guests. Benedict XVI received President George W Bush there in 2008.
Another “guesthouse” that everyone in our group was eager to see was the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae where Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lives out his days. I am not his biggest fan but it was great to be able to stand just outside of his residence.
As our tour was nearing its end, we walked through several “themed” gardens: Italian, English, the herb garden of Pius IX, who famously declared himself a captive in Vatican when united Italy’s troops seized control of Rome in 1970.
Everything great comes to an end, and so we were soon back inside, counted and re-counted to make sure nobody tried to stay in the Vatican. We had a quick lunch in the courtyard of the museums – it was Lent and a Friday, so there was no meat served but, curiously, several kinds of wine were for sale in the cafeteria. Next, we headed to the museums proper. I will cover them in the next installment but I want to say that after visiting the Louvre, the Hermitage and the British Musuem, I can honestly say that they all pale in caparison to the Vatican.