Although you can breeze right into Rome, the same isn’t generally the case for the major attractions within Vatican City. And everything in Vatican City is a major attraction. Although you can pay your way to the front of the line (a fact that is made clear to you, oh, about every five steps you take), that doesn’t mean you get to bypass the herds of people once through the door.
Still, if you’re in Italy, you would be foolish to not visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum, which houses the Sistine Chapel. We arrived at St. Peter’s Square fairly early, about 8:30, and were immediately accosted by offers to skip the line by signing up with a tour guide. We nodded to the security checkpoint and pointed out that there was no line.
The sheer magnitude of everything in Vatican City is perhaps what’s most impressive — it’s immense and immaculate, yet every detail is intricate. Entering St. Peter’s Basilica, we saw that an area in the middle was blocked off, but thought it was just for cleaning. But as we made our way forward, the north aisle was closed, and then no one could get to the front, so we couldn’t get up to the nave or look up at much of the massive dome. Turns out some guy named “the pope” was giving a Mass that evening, and they were actually closing the church to visitors midday. That would also explain all the chairs set up in the square. Though we didn’t get to fully experience the church, it was as amazing as you would expect. I don’t think anyone could leave disappointed. Good thing we arrived early.
We did stay in the basilica long enough for a large line to form outside the Vatican Museum. The type of line where you can’t see the end. The wait was slightly longer than an hour, which felt pretty short compared with the 45-minute wait for a slice of pizza in the cafeteria. The thing about this museum is there’s just so much to see, and I don’t know anything about art. You start with some ancient Egyptian and Roman artifacts, which are worth your time. But everyone is there for the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, so the huge tapestries and maps that line the great hallway to the end just get ignored. Eyes on the prize.
The best job in all of Rome has to be as a security guard at the Vatican Museum. First, I assume that they get to walk the halls of the massive complex either before or after visitors are allowed entry. Second, they don’t seem to have to do much beyond sitting in a chair, disinterested in anything other than their phones. One of the very clear rules of the Vatican is that you are not supposed to wear shorts. There were tons of people wearing shorts, and not a word was said to any of them. Sure, a few of the unlucky ones have to monitor the Sistine Chapel and “Shhh!” the crowd every five minutes, but I’m sure they rotate back to regular shift every few days. Until then, they are “stuck” in the air-conditioned room that houses what’s widely considered the most impressive piece of artwork ever created. It’s pretty rough.
Still, as I stood directly underneath the famous image of God sparking life into Adam, I couldn’t grasp the story that the rest of the room told, particularly when surrounded as many people as can be stuffed into the giant chapel. A Rick Steves audio tour came to the rescue, but when he mentioned that Michelangelo painted himself into a very small portion of The Last Judgment, it was frustrating to know that you would never really be able to see it because you are constantly told to keep walking past the altar. You can linger in the middle of the chapel, but when you’ve had your fill, it’s a near-suffocating squeeze out through the exit.
In the end, the museum is hard not to appreciate, yet at the same time incredibly difficult to appreciate.
The following day, we were fortunate to have lunch with Andy and Caitlin, who have been living in Rome for the past couple years but will return to Oregon this summer. Despite the gorgeous sun in the morning, Andy mentioned that rain was forecast for the afternoon, and Caitlin let us know that if we got stuck in it, all the street vendors would miraculously turn up with umbrellas for sale. They are nothing if not entrepreneurial.
Since we were out, we had our eyes on three free destinations to see that afternoon before we left Rome: the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon is in remarkable shape for a building that’s 2,000 years old, and is worth visiting even with no knowledge of its history. In Piazza Navona, street merchants were carrying armloads of umbrellas as dark clouds crept closer. The Trevi, which is what I most looked forward to seeing in Rome, was overloaded with people when we strolled by. I guess I should have visited in the morning. We didn’t have time to linger anyway. The rains really were coming, so we had to delay our gelato plans in order to beat the showers to our hotel. We made it just in time, no umbrella needed.
To summarize, there are a lot of people in Rome. And there are great reasons why. But here’s one travel tip for you: Arrive or leave on a Sunday morning. The streets are nearly empty.