The Vatican is often the main reason for visiting Rome – and with images of Rome and St Peter’s beaming round the world now it is Easter, the temptation to book your trip to the Eternal City may be hard to resist. A visit to St Peter’s and a tour of the Vatican is probably one of the most memorable – and frustrating – tours you will ever take, however! If you hate crowds, hate walking, hate the heat, hate being pushed, jostled and marched around – and love spending time taking photographs – your visit may end up being memorable for all the wrong reasons. However, forewarned is forearmed. Here are some essential tips for making the most of your Vatican visit – and avoiding some of the pitfalls.
- If you have not pre-booked a tour of the Vatican, as soon as you start your stroll along the via della Conciliazione leading to St Peter’s, you will be waylaid by people selling tours. The tours cost around 55 euros per person – but if you go just before a tour is due to start – and they set off at half-hour intervals – you may find that by the time you have reached St Peter’s Square, the price has dropped. The last time I visited St Peter’s, the cost of the tour had fallen from 55 euros to 40 euros by the time I reached St Peter’s Square, as the next tour to leave still had spare places.
- The tour takes at least two hours – you do not stop for a drink, it is a big walk, and unless you are very lucky, the Vatican will be heaving with other tourists, including the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, which is the final destination on the tour.
- Make sure the tour group you choose is going directly to the Vatican and you will not have to spend the next half-an-hour wandering round the surrounding streets collecting other tourists from different tour group offices – otherwise that select group of eight you are in may swell to forty or more once you have trudged round the backstreets collecting tourists from other agents. It can be tiring before you have even reached the Vatican.
- If you enter via the Vatican Museum, you will have to put your bags through a scanner, walk through a metal detector – and large bags are not allowed. You will then be given a guide in your own language which is wifi operated so that you can pickup your own tour guide’s voice in the crowd. This does not always work, however – and often it is like trying to contact the mothership if your tour group marches off without you. You get to keep the jolly bright green earphones when you hand the device back to your guide and you get reprimanded (again) if you try to hand them back thinking they will be cleaned and re-used.
- Prepare to be tired – eat and go to the loo beforehand, take water, a spare pair of comfortable shoes, a discreet snack such as an oaty bar (nothing that will melt), chewing gum, tissues, hand wipes, blister plasters, smelling salts in case you feel faint in the melee – and patience.
- If you are a keen photographer, a Vatican tour will break your heart – the lighting is generally terrible, as there are windows, roof lights and spotlights everywhere, so you will be shooting into light most of the time. No one will respect your attempts to carefully frame a shot – and you will be pushed, shoved, jostled and have other people’s heads popping up in every shot, as they simply walk in front of you without looking. The tour is also taken at breakneck speed and there is little time to frame shots, so, generally, you will be shooting on the hoof in terrible lighting and crowds.
- You cannot take photographs in the Sistine Chapel and it is usually packed to the rafters. It is at the end of the tour, so brace yourself, because you will be tired by then.
- Think carefully about taking young children, as it is tough enough for adults to keep up with a legion of tourists on the march – the last group I went with started out with 36 souls on board and finished with 18. Presumably the remainder had collapsed along the way and were huddled against a skirting board, sobbing, while others trampled over them.
- There are no loo breaks – even if you see a loo, it is likely you will be whisked past it in a tidal wave of people; or if you stop, you may never see your tour group again.
- Guards at the Vatican can be officious and even shouty. I have never been to the Vatican without getting into trouble for some misdemeanour – it was exactly the same when I was at convent school; although at the Vatican, they have yet to slap the back of my legs. But inside St Peter’s Basilica, women must cover their shoulders and everyone must behave respectfully (ie no shouting, kissing, slugging back water, eating). If you commit any violation, you will soon be told, however minor the offence. On my last visit, I was reprimanded by a group of elderly men dressed in black because my cardigan slipped off one shoulder when I was taking a photo. On another occasion, a tourist asked me to take a photo of them inside the Basilica and a man in a black suit came running up and shouted at me in Italian that the Basilica was “not a theatre”. Apologise calmly in your own language and move off, correcting whatever the offence is. I have now been reprimanded so many times in the Vatican that I fear I may have my own naughty book on the premises, so don’t let the disapprobation of an official spoil your visit.
- There are loos at the Vatican on the right-hand side of St Peter’s Square as you look at St Peter’s Basilica. They are tended by a nun and a small charge applies.
- After the tour, pop into the Vatican City post office (handily near the loos), where you can choose a postcard and a stamp for a few euros and post it in the Vatican’s post box. It is a lovely thing to do and you will have a copy of the Vatican City’s post mark when it arrives.
Finally – good news: there are plenty of taxis around the Vatican if you are too tired to walk home. Always use the white cabs, which are metered – the black taxis are illegal.
What to see at St Peter’s? If you cannot face a tour, you can sit in the Piazza San Pietro and admire the architecture or watch the world go by – there are usually no chairs, but people gather round the fountain, the column at the centre or on the steps. Otherwise, the Vatican has one of the best collections of sculpture and artworks in the world, including the Egyptian gallery displaying acquisitions by previous Popes and Roman emperors; the Raphael galleries; the wonderful Map Room, with paintings of ancient maps and a fabulously decorated ceiling – and a gallery displaying the Vatican’s modern art collection.
The Sistine Chapel and Basilica itself are at the end of the tour – St Peter’s houses Michelangelo’s Pieta, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, if not the most famous sculpture. Sadly, gone are the days when the sculpture was openly on display: now the Pieta is behind glass, lit with spotlights – and is in front of a small window with light pouring through it. Trying to grab a photo is also an undignified affair, as other tourists push and shove you out of any pole position you may have. It is at this point you need to pay special attention to what your cardigan or shawl is doing, in case they come adrift in the scrum.
One further point of interest is that the former pope, Benedict, who resigned, now lives in a monastery in the grounds, the roof of which it is possible to see through the Vatican gardens. Apparently, he can be seen at certain times of the day taking a walk on the upper walkway of the monastery with his secretary. More recently, he was seen in a wheelchair for the first time, our guide informed us. His mental faculties are still intact, however. His resignation caused terrible upset at the time, but now Catholics themselves seem more resigned to what happened. An Italian newspaper recently ran the story of the two popes for the first time, we were told, calling Benedict the head (ie the brains) of the church – and Pope Francis its heart.
The pope used to live in the splendour of the Vatican apartments – but Pope Francis through personal choice now lives in a humble room with a simple bathroom at a small hotel reserved for Vatican staff.
Among the undoubted opulence of the Vatican, I find the thought of the two popes living in humility, side-by-side, the most moving and memorable image of my Vatican tour. I hope you enjoy your tour as much as I did.
All images copyright Angela Meredith 2017