An Audience With the Pope from 448 Feet

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Europe » Vatican City
June 2nd 2018
Published: June 8th 2018
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St Peter's SquareSt Peter's SquareSt Peter's Square

The view of St Peter's Square from the cupola.
It's Italian National Day, celebrating the anniversary of the referendum to abolish the monarchy on 2 June 1946. It started with some midnight fireworks, although we were laying in bed by that point having been up at 4.30am to catch our flight.

We turned on the TV after breakfast and there was the Colosseum, covered in a huge Italian flag, and a parade moving slowly along where we had been walking the previous day. At its climax there was a fly-pass leaving a trail of green, white and red smoke. A few seconds later we heard the roar of the engines as the planes flew over, not far from our hotel, still leaving their trail of smoke.

Today, we had booked to go on a tour of the Vatican Museum (which included the Sistine Chapel). The concierge at our hotel had recommended that we use the Metro to get there. He had obviously got extremely lost on the London Underground as he was at pains to tell us that the Rome Metro was no where near as complicated.

The nearest Metro station was Spagna, which, unsurprisingly, is close to the Spanish Steps. Despite being a long way from
St Peter's BasilicaSt Peter's BasilicaSt Peter's Basilica

The stunning interior of the St Peter's Basilica.
the celebrations, there were still a number of soldiers scattered around with their big guns and armoured vehicles. We stopped for some selfies at the Spanish Steps, which were on a par with the Trevi Fountain for the number of people.

It was a very uncomplicated four stops on the Metro, with no changes. The other big differences to the London underground are the air-conditioning in the trains and the fact that the people were actually talking to each other. The noise and chatter was very unnerving when you are used to the up-tight silence on a London tube train.

The walk from Cipro station to the entrance to the Vatican Museum was another barrage of unofficial, official tour guides, street vendors and a chaotic queuing system. We saw one of the street vendors getting arrested, but it wasn't clear what made him any different from the 100s of others who just carried-on regardless.

The best way to ensure that we were going in the right direction was to follow the nuns, who were increasing in numbers as we got closer.

We were early so we waited at the tour meeting point for our tour to
St Peter's BasilicaSt Peter's BasilicaSt Peter's Basilica

The view of the Basilica from the inside of the dome.
start. The Vatican website and all the guidebooks had made it clear that respectful dress is essential and all shoulders and knees must be covered. I had even gone out and bought some long shorts to be sure I was ok. I needn't have bothered as there were a large number of shoulders and knees clearly on show.

Given that there is supposed to be a strict code of silence in the Sistine Chapel, the tour guides give a detailed overview of the artwork using some visual aids at the start of the tour. One guide was giving this overview in Italian when she clearly said something that someone in the her group did not like. All hell broke loose, which was getting louder. more passionate and more animated as it went on. We so wished that we could understand Italian, but the only word that made any sense was "rispetto", so the guide had obviously said something that he found disrespectful.

Our tour guide then arrived and gave us our overview of Michelangelo's life work. Stunning as the chapel is, the one observation that I would make is that he had a complete obsession with nudity. I
The Swiss GuardThe Swiss GuardThe Swiss Guard

Clearly sick to death of the tourists.
am sure that history of the Christian faith, with the possible exception of Adam and Eve, did not consist of people who spent most of their time without any clothes. But then who am I to question Michelangelo, although there is a consensus that he crossed a line when he painted god with his nude arse showing. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, the pope at the time had a bit of a sense of humour failure on that one.

We also loved the bit where Michelangelo had painted the face of a cardinal, who he was in a feud with, on the face of one of the characters in the part of the chapel that depicted hell. His contempt for that poor cardinal has lasted 500 years.

After the overview, we set-off through the museum at a pace that would make the guide at the Colosseum seem plodding and pedestrian. The museum is absolutely spectacular. Not just for what is on show, but the actual building itself. The walls and ceilings are covered in stunning paintings, much of it by Michelangelo, which is apparent by the lack of clothing.

Again, the guide thankfully had a flag for us to follow although it did get increasingly difficult to keep up whilst fighting your way through the crowds. Apparently 30,000 people visit the Vatican Museums daily.

Three particular rooms are known as the Raphael Rooms. Apparently Raphael and Michelangelo could not stand each other, but when Raphael saw the work-in-progress in the Sistine Chapel, he was so impressed that he copied aspects of Michelangelo's style. Thus the third of the Raphael Rooms is different to the other two in that, you guessed it, there is a sudden lack of clothes.

The tour finished and then we were left to ourselves to go into the Sistine Chapel. A strict code of silence I don't think. Despite occasional blasts of "Silenzio" from a PA system (which seemed a massive contradiction) the chatter died down for about 30 seconds before going back to how it was. In fact many of the unofficial, official tour guides were quite happily explaining it all to their tour groups in-situ.

Our guide had recommended a back entrance from the Sistine Chapel that took us straight through to St Peter's Basilica. Before going into the Basilica itself we though we would take the lift to the edge of dome. The views both inside and outside the dome were fantastic. We saw to little door leading to the cupola so we thought we would have a look. What we didn't realise is that the cupola is on the very top of the dome and involved 300 progressively narrowing steps in a passage that increasingly leans in line with the angle of the dome. If you have any form of claustrophobia and you see that little door, just walk on past. It was worth it when we got to the top as the views were stunning and there was a surprising amount of room, despite the number of people.

The view was helped by the fact that Rome is such a attractive city and it hasn't been ruined. Unlike some other cities, such as London, anything new is in keeping with the historical look. No 1970s brutalist carbuncles here.

Whilst we were at the top we heard a band playing. A parade of people was walking through the immaculate Vatican Gardens far below us and we are sure that a person close to the front was the pope (i.e. dressed in white with a large hat).

Sadly he was too far away to hear me challenge him on the enforcement of the dress code and the fact that he owed me for a pair of shorts that I didn't need.

Back on the ground the Basilica itself is in a class of its own and more ornate and opulent than the museum. Cathedrals back in the UK are lacklustre and dull in comparison.

As we were leaving, we thought we would check that it actually was the pope that we saw, so we asked a poor, unsuspecting and confused lady on an information desk. After looking at the blotchy photo, which was at the limit of the digital zoom on an iPhone, she was happy to confirm that it was, indeed, the pope. Either that or she just told us what we wanted to hear, was desperate to get rid of us or hadn't got a clue what we were going on about.

So officially we saw the pope. Unofficially, he was a long, long way away and we are not 100% sure that it was even him, however given that the boundary between official and unofficial seems pretty blurred here, that will do for us.

We had a walk through St Peter's Square before walking back to the Metro Station to head back to the Spanish Steps (which were still covered in people).

You definitely need a whole day for the Vatican and that's without also going to the massive Castel Sant'Angelo, as there simply was not enough time in the day.


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