We were crossing one of the city’s numerous bridges, when Bogdan told me not to turn and look around until we reach THE viewing spot. We continued walking until we almost got to the other end of the bridge and then I turned around with my eyes closed. I knew that when I will open them, the view will either meet my expectations or it will disappoint me, as sometimes happens when you desire something for years and set your expectations very high. But when I opened my eyes I realized it wasn’t the case. The view in front of me, with the arched white bridge, the “broccoli” trees and the imposing Basilica of the Holy City, reining over the entire state, was everything I imagined and much more.
When Pope John Paul II died, I was 14 years old and didn’t know much about Vatican, just that it is the smallest state in the world. But as I watched together withmillions of people around the world the live transmissions of the papal elections, I was mesmerized by images of St Peter’s Basilica and square, as I felt it is a special place. Although back then I didn’t like to travel, I hoped that one day I will be able to go to Vatican and 12 years later here I was, less than a kilometer away from the Holy City.
First time in Vatican
Even if it was already evening and the basilica and museum were closed, we decided to take a walk to St. Peter’s square. We passed by Castel Sant’Angelo, crossed Via della Conciliazione and less than 20 minutes later, found ourselves in the middle of St Peter’s square, near a 4000 years old Egyptian obelisk, mesmerized by the grandeur of the basilica and the peaceful atmosphere reining there.
The square, designed and built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, was unexpectedly quiet and empty. There were only a handful of people taking pictures and sitting on the stairs of the massive arcades, which represent “the maternal arms of Mother Church” embracing the visitors. We joined those few tourists and spent a couple of minutes just admiring the unparalleled beauty of this church, which is considered to be one of the holiest Catholic shrines. After more than half an hour spent there, we left Vatican to explore Rome, knowing that in the following days we will return for the much-anticipated visit to St Peter’s Basilica.
The early birds…
As we heard Vatican is extremely crowded all year round, we got up very early next morning and rushed to the cathedral to beat the crowds. We arrived there before 8 a.m., so we didn’t spend more than 5 minutes at the security check. 45 minutes later, when we left, the queue was way longer and the peaceful atmosphere we felt the other night was entirely gone, as the square was now bustling with tourists. If you want to enjoy your visit to Vatican, my advice would be to get up as early as possible.
But returning to our visit… After entering the secured area, we were “greeted” by a member of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. He was guarding the Bronze Door, which is one of the entrances of the Apostolic Palace, the residence of the Pope. The Swiss Guards are responsible for the safety of the Pope since the 16th century and are mostly famous for their colorful uniform, which is said to have been inspired by Michelangelo.
Next stop was the magnificent basilica. Although I was impressed by its exterior, nothing could have prepared me for the splendor of its interior. From the moment I set foot inside it, I was completely taken aback by its immensity and invaluable decorations, but more important, I was profoundly humbled to be inside “the greatest of all churches of Christendom”.
As we were there so early, there weren’t many people inside, so the church was ours to explore. We took a tour of the basilica and admired all the masterpieces of Bernini and Michelangelo. The most impressive of all is for sure the Baldachin designed by Bernini, which lies directly above what is believed to be the tomb of Saint Peter, but the cupola of Michelangelo or the main altar are also outstanding.
…couldn’t escape the crowds
Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend more than 45 minutes in the cathedral, as we booked tickets for Vatican Museum for 9 a.m. The Museum opens at 9 a.m. for the large public (you can tour the museum with a private guide before the opening) and in my naivety, I thought that if we enter that early, we will be among the first visitors. I couldn’t have been more wrong! When we arrived at the museum at 8:50 a.m., there were thousands of people – literally – outside it, waiting to enter. As we already had tickets, we passed by this large crowd, but inside there were another thousand people.
You know those articles with “expectations vs reality” for known tourist attractions? Well, at Vatican Museum, it was exactly as in those pictures. I expected the museum to be almost empty, considering that we got there when it opened, but instead we had to walk almost all the time in a line with other people. Honestly, I can’t say I really enjoyed our visit there, as almost all the time we had to be careful not to stumble on somebody else. Yes, I was impressed by the priceless paintings and sculptures exhibited there and I felt blessed to be able to see with my own eyes such a holy place as the Sistine Chapel, but we couldn’t really admire all the invaluable art hosted by the museum, as there were way too many people.
Despite the crowds, visiting the Vatican Museum is a must. Though I have to admit that I am not an art connoisseur, I couldn’t help but be wowed by all the historic pieces of art exhibited there, especially by the ones in Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel. Of course, the Sistine Chapel was the most crowded. We had to enter there in a line and we weren’t allowed to spend too much time inside. But just the idea of being in the chapel where the cardinals gather to elect a new pope, which is considered to be the apostolic successor of Saint Peter, gave me goosebumps. Beside the symbolism of the chapel, the frescos made by Michelangelo are absolutely impressive and is a delight to admire them.
So nice we went there twice!
We spent about 3-4 hours in the museum and afterwards it was finally time to visit Rome. But about our time in Rome, I will tell you in another post. After strolling Rome for a couple of hours, we returned to Vatican in the late evening. I simply liked too much the peace that descended on St. Peter’s square once the sun set over the city. As soon as the church and the museum closed, the majority of tourists were heading to Rome. Therefore, this was the perfect time for us to return to the square and simply sit on the stairs and admire the surroundings. This is one of the few places in the world, where I loved to just stay and enjoy the moment, without rushing. We stayed there until 11 p.m., when the police asked all of us to leave the square, because during the night it closes. But we didn’t say goodbye to Vatican, as we knew we would return the following morning.
View from above
We felt so deeply in love with St. Peter’s Basilica that we could have spent every minute of our trip to Rome visiting it. So, we began our second morning once again in Vatican. This time we wanted to climb to St. Peter’s dome and then attend a morning Mass. By 8 a.m. we were already past security and heading to the dome. There are two options to get on top of the basilica: either climb 551 steps or take an elevator to the roof level and then continue to climb the last 320 stairs. We chose the first one and paid €6 (for the second option you have to pay €8).
At the roof level we reached an interior gallery from where we could admire the dome and its paintings, and had a wonderful panoramic view of the interior of the church and especially of the main altar. After spending a couple of minutes in the balcony, we continued the climb to the top. If in the first part, the stairs were wide, after the roof level, the spiral staircase became so narrow and slope that if you are claustrophobic, I wouldn’t recommend you to go up. But the sights from the top were really worth the climb. The iconic view of St. Peter’s square, the Vatican garden and museum were breathtaking. We could have stayed here for hours, just watching the beautiful surroundings, but we knew there are so many other interesting things to see and do, that after about half an hour we decided it was time to begin our descend.
On our way down, we stopped once again at the roof level, but this time on the exterior, from where we could see the details of the cupola and the statues of the façade. There is also a souvenir shop at this level for those who want to take home a tangible memory of Vatican.
A Mass to Remember
Back in the basilica, we heard there is a Mass in German language, so we decided to take part in it. As on that day, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was visiting the Pope, there was a special Mass held in the main altar, where a group of musicians from Bayern were invited to sing at their instruments. I cannot describe the sentiment I had during the Mass. It was so emotional and breathtaking that I am seriously thinking to return one day to attend a Sunday Mass or a Papal Audience.
A visit to Vatican is a one in a lifetime experience and it doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, Orthodox (as we are), or not Christian at all, the Holy City will for sure impress you and remain in your soul forever, as it is a very special place, where you can fill your heart with peace and joy.