Neither Alex nor I are religious in the least, but the Vatican was still someplace that we really wanted to visit while in Rome. To avoid the lines, and better understand what we were seeing, we ended up using a tour company. It wasn’t cheap, but I think it was worthwhile, as the guide was knowledgeable, and we did indeed avoid any standing in line whatsoever.
Most of the tour companies operating in Rome use a wireless headset approach to narrating the tours. Participants are given an ipod-sized unit on a lanyard (which also serves as the antenna). The tour guide has a small microphone, and so can talk at a normal conversational level (or whisper, if appropriate) and still be easily heard by a large group. Given my early signs of hearing loss, this was particularly helpful for me.
We met at the tour company’s office near the Vatican at 8am, and then walked over to the Vatican museum entrance where our guide acquired tickets and then took out to a courtyard, where tour groups with their guides were gathered around large billboard-like signs. Apparently the guides are not allowed to talk–not even a whisper–in the Sistine Chapel, so the signs are there for them to give an explanation of the various aspects of the chapel’s ceiling before taking the groups in. However, there are more groups than signs, which leads to some interesting jostling and inter-guide interaction.
Once the orientation was done, we got a lengthy tour of the museum. For me, the most interesting part of the museum was the section with ornate trompe l’oeil paintings on the ceilings. They were astonishingly good–it was quite difficult to believe that we were looking at flat surfaces.
I don’t have photos of the Sistine Chapel, since no photography is allowed. I will say that I am deeply grateful to have had a chance to see it in real life. It is astonishing, and powerful.
After the chapel, we toured the main cathedral, which is as stunningly beautiful as I expected. However, I was caught completely off-guard by the presence in the Cathedral of an actual mummified pope. Apparently popes who are also saints are mummified and made available regularly for viewing either in the cathedral or the crypt. Many of the devout Catholics there seemed quite moved by the display. I found it disconcertingly creepy…I guess I’m too much of a heathen to appreciate it properly.
That concluded the formal tour, but the guide told us that it was in fact possible to climb to the top of the cathedral dome–500 steps–if we wanted to. Well, of course we wanted to! So up we went. It’s not an easy climb, but it was no more difficult than our daily walk home in Dubrovnik. As you ascend, the stairs get narrower, and the walls begin to slant. I couldn’t get as many photos as I wanted because I didn’t want to slow everyone’s progress upwards, but I did get a few.
The climb was well worth it–the view from the top was truly spectacular.
By then it was early afternoon, so we headed back to our Rome b&b, collected our belongings, and headed to the station to catch our high-speed train to Florence. Both of us agreed that the visit to Rome had been great, but that two days was plenty for what we wanted to do. We’d enjoyed ourselves, but were happy to be moving on.