A trip to Vatican City

Our last day in Rome started slowly as we slept in (sort of — not all of us slept) with plans (and tickets) to visit Vatican City, to see St. Peter’s Basilica, the Museums and especially the Sistine Chapel.

First, we stretched our bared legs — we knew we couldn’t wear shorts to the Vatican City — with a walk past the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Independence Square, and some of the area’s high-end shops. Briar wanted to check out the Gucci store but we needed to get back to our apartment.

A quick change and then we caught a bus across the Tiber River to Vatican City, where we lined up for access to St Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Technically, we were in another nation, one of the smallest in the world, although the colourful Swiss guards seemed to be the only giveaway. No passport required.

The kids were skeptical of checking out churches, but the scale of St. Peter’s left them awed—or at least minimized complaining for a while. A service of some sort was taking place and we watched as a procession of priests led congregants through a sfumato of incense, down the huge central nave, and into a smaller side chapel.

We admired Michelangelo’s Pieta and I helped a small Italian grandmother get a shot of the famous sculpture by holding her phone high above my head for an unobscured image. As we left the church, the Swiss Guard were performing their 6:00pm change with steely-eyed ritual… so we joined the observing throng.

Then we had a 7pm date with the Vatican Galleries, as I’d lucked in and discovered they were open in the evening, only on Fridays, which made it one of the least busy times to visit… which turned out to be true. We were in the first wave to enter and had several of the gallery rooms (such as the Egyptian wing) to ourselves, or joined by only a handful of other visitors, before the larger tour groups starting sweeping down the long galleries.

Highlights included the Belvedere Apollo; a mammoth bowl of porphyry for a Roman emperor (Nero?); the tapestry gallery (with huge depictions of the life of Christ, almost in the style of a contemporary graphic novel), and the map room covering every region of Italy. Then of course there were Raphael’s wall-sized and detailed depictions of papal and church history.

We didn’t do justice to the later and contemporary galleries that were in the way of the rush to see the Sistine Chapel, although I spotted a Chagall and a Francis Bacon down a wide wall as the kids demanded we keep up a good pace.

Finally, the security guards told people to put their cameras away as we entered the Sistine Chapel—and every head swivelled up to its famous ceiling. It didn’t disappoint. I felt dizzied as blood rushed between my ears and my eyes leaped from one famous image to the next, each an explosion of colour (now that the original paintwork has been restored from years of candle smoke) and dramatically frozen action. We sat along the edges of the chapel and tried to take it all in… sore feet and all.

And then the kids’ stomachs started growling and their patience had thinned and it was time to catch the Metro home for a late dinner and plans to wake early enough to pack up for Florence the next morning. But it will likely be an experience that none of us will forget any time soon.