Visiting the Vatican is a must-do on the list of Rome attractions – a small city state, of only 44 hectares, the Vatican is the home of the Pope and St. Peter’s Basilica, the massive building which dominates St. Peter’s Square.
The signage to St. Peter’s Square – or Piazza San Pietro, in Italian – is very well marked in the metro but no one warns you about the insanity you are about to face. Exiting from Ottoviano there are dozens of tour guides, stationed mere metres apart, yelling at you in English as they try to encourage you to sign up for a tour. “Skip the line,” they promise, knowing how miserable the wait can be in the Roman sun. Also, waiting in line is a special type of torture that seems to have been designed by the British as they truly love to queue.
I had no plans to go into the Vatican Museum or the Sistine Chapel. I had heard horror stories of the crowds, tour groups and officials and decided that it would be a stop for another trip – one where I have more money in the budget (so I can take a private tour, ideally with early morning entrance before the general public is allowed in) and more patience. To go into the Vatican Museums is €16, but the line can stretch for hours and horror stories abound with respect to waits between two and three hours. You can book online, for a €4 surcharge, which allows you to skip the line and set an arrival time.
Touts were really pushing the Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica combination tours where, for the low price of €35-40 I could skip the line, do a guided tour and see the highlights. I turned down all of the offers, trying to walk towards St. Peter’s Square with purpose – a challenge in the crowds. The black market was in full effect on the sidewalks, with fake sunglasses, handbags and watches available for sale. Not to mention a full assortment of Pope souvenirs, for all of your Papal decor needs.
The line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica is immense during the day, stretching around the square and slowly moving through the security checkpoints. Tour groups, pilgrims, visitors – St. Peter’s Basilica is free for everyone to enter. I browsed the official bookstore and gift shop, marvelling at some of the prices – Papal souvenirs are very expensive when bought through official channels. I also had a chance to visit the Vatican post office in order to send a postcard to my Catholic grandmother & great aunt. I had picked up a postcard with the Basilica, the Square and the Pope… but after I looked at it closely I realized it was the old Pope, who has since retired. I settled on St. Peter’s Basilica and the Square, a fairly imposing sight on its own.
With my purchasing needs fulfilled, I headed back into the square and cast an appraising eye on the line. I had already decided that I was going to come back later, as the line is much shorter and moves much faster after 5 pm. I spent a bit of time exploring the neighbourhood with its cobblestone streets, religious themed stores and sidewalk trattoria’s. I had already settled on the perfect spot for a drink, a quiet but cool seeming wine bar, but wanted to finish walking down the street first.
When I returned, two other people had entered the wine bar just before me and snagged the big barrel table right on the doorstep. Shoot! I hesitated too long!
The wine bar was a strange experience and one that would never fly in Canada. It was self-serve. There was a pile of corkscrews (although I had my emergency corkscrew, which I preferred), some bottles of wine were already opened and it operated on the honour system where you paid €5 or so per glass. If there wasn’t enough in the bottle, or if there was something you wanted to try and the bottle was closed, you simply opened it up yourself and poured. The philosophy of this wine bar, which seems to fit with the Italian wine culture I’ve experienced, was “better a good wine in a plastic cup than a bad wine in a crystal goblet.” Truer words have never been spoken.
There were also house rules, which included no mobile phones, share your wine, don’t talk about Berlusconi and if you don’t like it – go next door. There was a discount scheme, with 10% off for students and retirees, but members of the Italian parliament would face a 10% surcharge to help subsidize the students and retirees. I would love to see something like that in Ottawa, just because it’s hilarious.
The two people at the barrel invited me to join them and we started doing the break the ice questions, which is when things started to get a bit strange. Alisa was a Canadian, from Cape Breton – the first Maritimer I’ve met in Europe – who had gotten her Chartered Accountants designation after completing a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting. She made the bad decision to go to St. Mary’s instead of Dalhousie, but not everyone can be perfect… I explained my status as a CA dropout, which she found hilarious, and during the course of our conversation I mentioned that I had been in the military and was pursuing a career as a MARS Officer… coincidentally, this was what her ex-husband had been. Alisa now lives in London and was travelling with her friend, Rob, a tall Brit with a great personality who patiently sat through our conversation riddled with Canadian references and, more specifically, Halifax references.
One glass of wine turned into several, including a cheese plate which was thoughtfully suggested to us by the owner, Ricardo. The time on the clock ticked away and before I knew it – ok, that’s a lie. I totally knew how late it was getting but I wanted to stay and drink wine with cool people – St. Peter’s Basilica was closed.
We exchanged contact information and made tentative plans to meet up the next day to try again. I was going to spend the day at Ostia Antica, exploring some ancient Roman ruins, and over e-mail we decided to meet at 5pm. We met up without too much difficulty and joined the line in the square which appeared to be moving faster. Everyone has to go through a security checkpoint, which included an x-ray for your bags and a metal detector. The security guards worked efficiently, which was no surprise – they had to process thousands of visitors each day. It was only after this point that the clothing police made their appearance, telling visitors whether or not they could proceed into the Basilica. The rules were strictly yet inconsistently applied, but I would never line up for hours without wearing the appropriate dress. Shoulders had to be covered, knees had to be covered and you couldn’t show too much cleavage.
Alisa had been to St Peter’s Basilica before, but Rob had not. I wasn’t sure if I was going to head up into the dome, but I followed Rob on a quick elevator ride to the base of the dome and read, with trepidation, that it was another 320 steps to the very top. Alisa had said the staircase narrowed, and that doing the climb once was more than enough, but I figured it couldn’t be that bad – right?
Wrong! I am taking this opportunity to announce to the world that climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica was a once in a lifetime experience because I will never put myself through that again. I hate spiral staircases at the best of times and while I do not consider myself to be claustrophobic, the walls were quite literally pressing down on us as we climbed the stairs, forced to walk on an angle. A woman behind me was in tears, freaking out, and the staircase was so narrow – and one way only – that there was nowhere else to go but up. I fought panic, convinced I was going to die at St. Peter’s Basilica, as we approached the top. The very last staircase, before you emerge into the fresh air, was the worst. There was barely enough room to climb the stairs and instead of a normal handrail, there was a rope hanging from the ceiling. You could grip on the rope to help drag yourself up these stairs and I couldn’t look up – I focused on each step, on putting one foot in front of the other, and cursed the Vatican authorities who thought this climb was a good idea.
Rick Steves had described it as a “sweaty, crowded, claustrophobic 15-minute, 323 step climb to the top” in his audio guide and he was correct. He neglected to mention the one-way staircase and that once you committed to the climb you were stuck with the follow through. Rick Steves still gave more information than the Vatican, however, because they only warned visitors that the elderly and infirm may want to reconsider.
The view from the top was incredible as it’s the highest point in Rome and you could walk around the entire cuploa, hundreds of feet in the air, for a full 360-degree view of the city. The view was the most impressive facing St. Peter’s Square and one can only imagine hundreds of thousands of people packed in for Papal audiences and to await the results of the conclave (Pope vote). There wasn’t a lot of room for photographs, so it was really hard to get the square in the background, but I do at least have a photo to show I made it to the top, alive.
Climbing down was much faster, but was also dizzying. Once again we had to go through the narrow staircases, the walls closing down on us, through metal walkways and along the perimeter wall of the Dome. The inside was mostly covered in cool, slick yellow tiles. I suspect that was designed to be a calming influence, but it didn’t really work.
The view from the base of the Dome, where you could look down on St. Peter’s Basilica, was pretty amazing and worth the €7 on its own. The walls were decorated with what appeared to be paintings but in reality were mosaics, with brilliantly coloured tiles gleaming in the light. There was a high, fairly tight metal fence ensuring that no one could climb over the railing or accidentally fall onto the floor below. When Alisa had first climbed to the Dome, several years ago, the protective fencing wasn’t in place.
Once we reached the ground floor we had a bit of time to explore the Basilica itself. The building is beautiful, but it just seems so excessive… and expensive. Gleaming marble and granite, intricate paintings and the shine of gold caught your eye. It was hard to know where to look and where to focus because everything cried out for attention… there were no pews laid out along the main aisle of the church, so I wonder if they only install them for special occasions or specific masses. The centre aisle was blocked off so to pass from one side of the church to the other you had to walk down towards either end. There were signs everywhere requesting silence, but no one seemed to be enforcing it. Based on what I heard, this is rare for the Vatican as they are usually quick to silence those compromising the sanctity of the sacred place.
Finishing up at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rob and I wandered out to meet with Alisa. We headed back to the street with the wine bar, hoping to find a nice patio for a drink. We shared some pinot grigio, everyone’s favourite easy drinking white wine, before deciding to stick around for a traditional Italian dinner. Healthy portions of pasta or, in Alisa’s case, chicken, appeared in front of us as we continued to regale Rob with stories of Halifax student life and discussed everything around us. We went to the wine bar for a night cap, but I had to be on the metro by about 11:30 in order to get back to Camping Roma.
Meeting Rob and Alisa was definitely a highlight of my time in Rome and – the best part – is I have two new friends (who are part of a whiskey tasting society, so obviously we get along) that I can visit in London!