Published: August 25th 2011August 23rd 2011
Angela and I stood in the middle of the Vatican’s humongous square marvelling at St Peter’s Basilica (the largest Catholic church in the world), as well as the beautiful columns of the Colonnades that circled it. Above the columns were carvings of saints and to the right of the church was the Apostolic Palace, where the Pope often gave his Sunday blessings. In the middle of the square was a tall obelisk plundered by Caligula from Alexandria in AD37 that was once said to have held the ashes of Julius Caesar, and it all looked mightily impressive, despite the heat.
The Vatican is the smallest country in the world and also the only county with Latin as its official language. It has its own stamps and its own army – the ridiculously attired Swiss Guard, donning pantaloons and floppy shirts designed by Michelangelo – as well as its own newspaper and radio station. For Angela and me, the border crossing from Italy consisted of simply walking into the expanse of Saint Peter’s Square, stepping over some white blocks of pavement (which we wouldn’t have even noticed had it not been for the guide book) and then we were in, wandering
about in my 82nd country. It was easily the least interesting border crossing we’d made in all our travels.
A large digital readout behind us said that it was possible to book tickets to have an audience with the Pope at 10am the following day, but we had little time to dally for things like that because we heading to the northern entrance of the Vatican to hand over our pre-booked tickets to see the treasures inside the museums. Side-stepping through the crowds, I wondered what the Pope would be doing at that exact moment. What did a man like the Pope do in his spare time? And what would he think of all the tourists swarming over his abode?
It’s always nice to walk past people queuing up,” I said to Angela as we sauntered past them, paper in hand. Plenty of touts were about too, offering tours of the Vatican museums with the chance to bypass the queue. We waved them all away and walked straight to the front anyway, under the gaze of the unfortunates lining up in the searing heat of the morning.
Inside the giant entrance hall we came face to face
with just how many people were in attendance, close to over a hundred billion by my reckoning. As we ascended an elevator, I took note of those around us and came to the conclusion that Japan seemed to have a highest contingent of tourists, closely followed by Americans. Soon we were at the top and we came across a large sign which gave us two choices.
“What do you reckon?” I asked Angela as we backed away from the crowds to think things through. The sign had two arrows, one pointing to a long tour, the other pointing to a short tour. Of course I didn’t really need to ask that question because I knew the answer already. Angela was like me with regard to museums: the less we saw of them the better and so we followed the arrow pointing to the short tour and quickly arrived at the first of the museums.
To be honest, before arriving in the Vatican, the only things I’d heard of were St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel, though I probably wouldn’t have been able to identify either in a picture. I certainly had no inkling the Vatican had a series
of museums, one of which was full chock a block with Ancient Egyptian artefacts. Mummies, Sarcophagi, canopic jars and large statues were everywhere, startling me because I had no inkling they would even be there. It was like the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, only better because these ones had information signs on them.
“Bloody nun!” I stated to Angela bluntly. “Did you see her?” I had just been barged out of the way by a woman of the cloth, eager like I had been, to take a photo from a window offering a scenic view. Angela laughed and nodded. She had seen that I had been waiting patiently, just about to step forward, when the altercation had taken place. Lacking preamble or pause, the nun had literally side-shouldered me out of the way without even so much as a belated apology. But I wasn’t surprised; I’d had prior involvement with nuns, you see. They had run the secondary school I’d gone to in 1980s. One incident will stay with me for as long as I live and involved a classmate of mine called Dominic. Dominic used to be in a wheelchair.
He was never part of my circle
of friends, but he was always there, in his chair, wheeling about, minding his own business. One year, the powers that be at school decided to build a ramp to enable Dominic easy access to higher levels of the school without having to negotiate his way up and down a series of horrible steps.
One day Dominic decided to do something foolish. In a moment of pure insanity, he elected to ignore the ramp and to instead charge down the steps in his wheelchair. For him, it was like being a stuntman, and for the rest of us assembled at the bottom, it was a good chance to see him perform a dangerous deed with perhaps the possibility of him falling over as he did so. As he careered along at top speed, racing towards his imminent and bumpy descent, the school headmistress, Sister Claire, appeared on the scene, a look of sheer fury etched upon her face.
Dominic, utterly unaware of the horror that was to follow, reached the top step and let himself go. While we all watched mesmerise, he jolted and crashed downwards, each bone-shaking step more hellishly fun than the last. At last he
reached the bottom, safe and sound, suddenly becoming aware of a shrill shriek coming from a savage nun. As we all scattered, I turned in time to see Sister Claire whip Dominic across the face with her cane, and then again and again. An everlasting memory will be of the poor thirteen-year-old, wheelchair-bound boy, attempting to cover his already surgery-scarred face from the onslaught of the nun.
Angela and I ambled through more museums and saw lots more things such as paintings, carvings, statues, bowls, jewellery, and beautiful ceilings, but to be honest, we were bypassing them at top speed. The sheer amount of stuff to see had quickly become overwhelming, especially for a couple of self-confessed museum heathens. Suddenly we saw an arrow pointing to the grand finale of trek – the Sistine Chapel. “Are you ready?” said Angela as we descended some steps. “This should be good.”
We entered the darkened hall, filled to the brim with people, and took in the spectacle of the finest building of the Vatican, the place where new Popes were selected no less. “Shhhhhhhhh!” screeched a security guard at top volume, causing a moment of relative quiet to fall across
the chapel. “SHHHHHHHHHHHH!” he bellowed to no avail, the general hubbub rising almost immediately. I looked at the guard and thought he resembled an overstressed teacher. What he needed were some nuns with sticks, I thought. They’d surely get the crowds to behave. “SHUUSHHHH! QUIET!!!!” he said again, with the same result.
We took refuge in a far section of the large chapel and eventually found a seat on a bench with a good view. Whispering, I asked Angela what she thought of the Sistine chapel, and at the same time secretly brought my camera out from my pocket. As Angela looked around at the frescos that covered the walls and ceiling, I took a sneaky snap even though I knew it was not allowed. “Put your camera inside your bag,” ordered a security guard who had rushed up to me, “and then zip it up.” I did so, feeling nearby eyes upon me, both shameful and envious that I’d even attempted to take a photograph in such a security-laden place.
“It’s a masterpiece,” stated Angela, peering up at the works of such artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and someone I’d never heard of called Bernini. “But I
didn’t get that feeling of awe that I’d expected. The Taj Mahal was better. And that security guard coming over to you didn’t help. I was so embarrassed.” I looked at the ceiling and also felt a sense of disappointment. But perhaps it was simply because we didn’t appreciate the religious beauty of it all. The Sistine Chapel, it appeared, has been wasted on us.
After the excitement of the chapel, we headed towards the exit, down a spiralling staircase full of nuns. I eyed them suspiciously, but they paid me no heed and we were allowed to vacate the Vatican without so much as a bump, thump or holy trump. Standing back in the magnificent St Peter’s Square, we looked again at St Peter’s Basilica, with its famous dome visible in the background. First constructed in AD384 by Constantine, it perhaps looked more spectacular than the Sistine Chapel, and as we walked away, I mentioned to Angela that we had been inside the Vatican for a shorter amount of time that any other country we had visited. The Vatican, we both agreed, would never be in our top ten countries visited, but we were glad we’d been there.
We headed east away from the square towards the city that wholly surrounded it: Rome.
-Small enough to see on foot
-St Peter’s Square and Basilica
-Close to Rome
-Full of artefacts
-If you don’t like museums, the Vatican is not the place for you
-Shushing guards in the Sistine Chapel
-Papal gift shops everywhere
There are more photos below