Neither of us are massive fans of the Catholic Church. Even though my Dad is a Catholic (non-practicing) and I have attended a couple of Catholic church sermons in my life, I was raised in the Anglican Church like my mother, and attended until my late teens – at one point even teaching Sunday School. I long ago decided that religion was not something I believed in or wanted to continue with.
Mum and I are, however, interested in the artwork and the concept of the Vatican City as a destination and that is why we decided to do an Express Tour of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Crypt. Besides, we’ve seen a whole load of churches based on their artistic and architectural beauty on this trip so it would be a travesty to miss out on what is supposed to be the granddaddy of them all.
Meeting our Dark Rome tour guide outside the Vatican Museums before they have officially opened (our early Sistine Chapel access means we are entering 20 minutes before customers of other tour companies and almost an hour and a half before the general public), she gives us a bit of a run down on the history of the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo was not a painter, he was a sculptor and his quick rise to fame threatened a lot of people. The artistic community of Rome, which included Raphael and Bramante, decided on a plot to discredit and embarrass him, by persuading Pope Julius II to hire him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When he was first asked to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo declined. He was already working on the Pope’s Tomb and wanted to finish it, not to mention that he didn’t consider himself a painter and had never actually painted a frescoe in his life. But Pope Julius was insistent and Michelangelo was forced to take up the job.
He taught himself along the way using trial and error and it took him four years to complete, all the while standing (not lying down) on a purpose built scaffold.
Our guide leads us directly to the Sistine Chapel, explaining what to look for in the frescoes, from Michelangelo’s daring self-portrait in ‘The Last Judgment’ to the iconic ‘The Creation of Adam’ painted on the ceiling. Of course, you cannot take photos inside the Sistine Chapel (though that doesn’t seem to stop some people), but it is quite incredible and you can stare at it for ages finding new things all the time.
The Sistine Chapel is where new popes are elected.
After we have finished gawping at the roof of the Sistine Chapel, our guide leads us through St. Peter’s “Gate”, a special access door, not available to the general public, that opens directly into St. Peter’s Basilica.
Upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica, you are stunned by the extraordinary size of this building. You’ll also be stunned by just how much money the Catholic Church must have spent on a basilica like this and I can’t help but thinking about how the money could have been spent better on perhaps the poor and the sick maybe?…. Just saying.
The architecture and decoration is absolutely stunning, especially Bernini’s incredible altar (recycled from the Pantheon) but I felt a trace of disgust in my throat the more I thought about the amount of money that had been obviously poured into this place and it started to detract from the experience of the visit. It was weird, I haven’t felt this way about any of the other churches I visited, but I was quite relieved when our visit to the Basilica was over.
Below the Basilica is the Vatican Crypt, which is where the most important Popes in Church history, including Pope John Paul II, have been buried. There’s even the crypt of St. Peter, one of Jesus Christ’s disciples and the first Pope, whose bones are said to be buried beneath the Basilica.
The Vatican City is the world’s smallest nation, with 550 citizens (I can officially say I have now visited the world’s two smallest nations!). The Sistine chapel and St Peters Basilica are within the Vatican grounds.
The current Pope is Pope Francis and he’s proved very popular to date – he has his own twitter account and, as of very recently, an Instagram page. When the Pope is in town, he gives a mass audience on Wednesday mornings – you can get one of the 40,000 tickets by rocking up to St Peter’s Square, locating the bronze doors to the Apostolic Palace and request one from the Swiss Guards. Easy!
Leaving the Vatican City we wander off in search of food and something to do for the rest of our last day.
On a whim, we decided to take a boat cruise down the Tiber. It was a barely professional outfit. The boat, which consisted of a deck strewn with plastic chairs, was tiny and to get to the ‘rooftop deck’ required quite a bit of agility and some faith that the tiny metal ‘staircase’ would hold you as you pulled yourself to the top. But as we boarded, the sun was out (barely) and there were only four other people on board, so it was a nice quiet escape from the crowds.
The Tiber itself is no stunning beauty. She looks as if she’s been long abandoned for more fashionable parts of the city. With her graffiti lined walls, piss-stained staircases, half submerged wrecks of ‘stuff’ and murky green colour – she’s not very inviting. If it weren’t for a batch of temporary stalls being erected on the banks, you would think that no-one came down here save for the homeless you see decamped under the bridges.
I had heard of Trastevere and how it was an ‘off the beaten track’ area of Rome to visit, but I’d somehow come to doubt that and after my initial research I didn’t really think too much about actually making any real point to get there. Then at dinner last night, one of our fellow diners was waxing lyrical about the beauty of it and how you just must go and see it if you have time. I still wasn’t that keen on making time to see it, so it seemed kind of funny that it started to sprinkle just as we got to Trastevere, and with the boat having no roof, we decided to disembark.
We were both feeling a bit touristed out and were really just filling in time on our last day, the weeks of lugging suitcases up and down stairs and on and off trains setting in.
It poured as we got off the boat and headed up the pedestrian ramp to the road. When the light turned green, we ran across the road and into the dry safety of a nearby restaurant to wait for some clear weather. A can of soft drink and a half finished Caprese Salad later (Can you tell this is my new favourite salad? It’s surprising how each one is so different!), there was no rain in sight and we took off to explore the streets of Trastevere, without any real direction.
Every street or alleyway is a picture postcard and I can’t help but think it would have been nice to stay here instead of near Termini Station.
Although we wanted to head back to the hotel, there was no metro stops on our map for this part of town, so we thought better luck would await us back on the other side of the river. Magically we arrived out of the maze of Trastevere’s streets at a bridge that crossed back over and led us on another alleyway jaunt. Spotting the Pantheon on the map, we decided that we should probably check that out and that in any case, it should be easy to get to our hotel from there – some form of transport would have to be around.
To get there, we would have to go close to the Campo de Fiori. What is the Campo de Fiori? I wondered. I knew it was the name of a high end Italian restaurant that used to exist in Perth, but what was it actually here. We were so close, we thought it would be embarrassing to not find out what it was, so we kept following the alleyways, which led to the square where whatever it was, would be revealed.
The Campo de Fiori was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t realise this was a market, but it was like a puzzle, wandering the streets to get there to find out what it was! Oh yay! A market!
Campo houses all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables, local produce such as vinegar, oil, limoncello and other liqueurs, pasta, truffles, clothes, bags, flowers – all sorts! It’s not a huge market – about the same size as all of those we’ve come across in France and Italy, but it had a nice relaxed feel about it and it was a nice place to stroll around for a while.
A few streets away, we find the Pantheon – with a line of empty taxis outside – so we head around to the front of it. At first we see a line of people and assume that we’ll have to queue to buy a ticket to get in, but the line turned out to be a tour group, and once they disappeared, there was no line to get in at all. In fact, you didn’t even have to buy a ticket to get in because it was free!
Emperor Phocas donated this pagan temple to Pope Boniface IV in 608. It was designed by Emperor Hadrian who was an amateur architect in 118-25 and the dome at its centre is the widest masonry dome in Europe. It’s dark inside save where the light pours in through the enormous domed ceiling.
That’s it. We’re done. Time to go home and pack and rest up before our long flight home tomorrow. One more dinner – what I would call a traditional Italian meal of bruschetta, lasagne and tiramisu – and that’s it! The end of five weeks of travelling.