Vatican, a 110 acre city state that has fewer than 1000 citizens is one of the most powerful (not militarily, obviously) independent states in the world. It houses some of the most beautiful works of art in world. For anyone visiting Italy, Vatican city is a must see sight. During my Europe trip, I took a day-trip to Vatican city.
Our day started at the Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Plaza), a large plaza located directly in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica (Pope’s enclave). It is a delightful place to indulge yourself in its vastness, watching and photographing pigeons. I sent home a postcard from the Vatican post office van parked in the Square. It funnily enough arrived in India after I reached :).
After a quick lunch at one of the many small cafes on the street leading to Saint Peter’s Square, we made our way to Musei Vaticani or Vatican Museums. The art I had seen so far in my Europe trip had been amazing. But this place is a treasure-house of incredible magnitude. It can take days to fully experience the several museums that are part of the Vatican Museums complex. You can cover the major highlights in an afternoon.
Tip: Afternoon is a good time to visit since its less crowded and you escape the harsh sunlight outside.
There were three major highlights for me: Cappella Sistina, Gallery of Maps and the Cortile del Belvedere.
Cappella Sistina is a chapel that holds special place for Roman Catholics. The chapel is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected. During the reign of Pope Sixtus IV (chapel’s namesake), celebrated painters created beautiful frescos depicting the Life of Moses and Jesus. For art lovers, it has The Last Judgement a fresco on the altar wall by Michelangelo will stun you into silence. Another fresco The Creation of Adam is stunning not only for the detail and artistry but also because it is on the ceiling. Now its hard enough to paint something that you know is going to be hung on a wall. To imagine what it should look like to people looking up at the ceiling in an age where simulation and imagination were one and the same, is the work of a genius.
The Gallery of Maps are perhaps not on most people’s list of highlights in the Vatican museums. For me, it was an amazing experience looking at maps created as frescoes. They are incredibly detailed and cover the entire Italian Peninsula in an age before flight, satellites or photography. A must-see site here is the ceiling of this gallery dotted with carvings displaying the affluence of the Vatican.
The Cortile del Belvedere is an open courtyard within the grounds of the museum. It is a great place to rest your feet and let the Vatican experience sink in. It also marked the end of my first trip to Vatican city.
I could not visit the most famous church in the world – Basilica Sancti Petri on my first trip to the Vatican city. The queues were very long. Hence, I made a separate day trip to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica. I hatched what I thought, was a clever plan to reach the entrance early on a Sunday morning. That way I could be one of the first in line to enter Basilica Sancti Petri. It surprised me to see tens of thousands of people already in Saint Peter’s Square when I got there at 7:00 AM. As it turned out, I had chosen Palm Sunday, and the people were there to attend a service conducted by the Pope. I had unwittingly experienced something many Christians travel long distances to see.
Tip: As a tourist, avoid visiting Vatican city on days of religious importance
After the service ended, I did manage make my way into Saint Peter’s Basilica. Catholic tradition holds that the Basilica is the burial site of St. Peter, one of Christ’s Apostles and also the first Pope; supposedly, St. Peter’s tomb is directly below the high altar of the Basilica. There isn’t a single inch of space that isn’t covered in artwork. Or my brain chose to ignore those inches. Though most people may not notice, even the flooring has artwork on it. I am not going to even try and explain the beauty of the art contained in this place. You can only experience by seeing it for yourself.
There is an entrance to the first level of the Vatican Necropolis below the high altar. It is home to the remains of many Popes and other high ranking Roman Catholics who wished to be buried close to what is suspected as Saint Peter’s tomb. Its little chilling and sobering to visit this level, but it displays a part of Christian tradition that is worth seeing. I did not make the long climb to the top of Michelangelo’s dome, but for those who want to see a landscape where modern buildings co-exist beautifully with ancient buildings (and ruins), the photos suggest it would be a feast for the eyes.
There is a lot more to explore in the Vatican, especially the Vatican gardens. Vatican Gardens almost cover half of the city nation. However, I could not take guided tours to the Gardens due to short time at hand. I would definitely like to make a longer trip to this fascinating place in future.
You can find my full photo album on Google+ : Vatican City