The secrets of Vatican City unveiled
Vatican City, or officially named the “Vatican City State”, is the smallest independent state in the world. The territory of this country is completely enclosed by the ancient city of Rome, making it an enclave within Italy. Although it is small in surface, it has to offer an astonishing amount of valuables, such as art, history, architecture and more. The mini state originated in 1929 as a result of the “Lateran Convention”, that was signed by Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini. It was emphasized that the Vatican is a newly created state.
We spent a complete day in Vatican City, starting from early in the morning before the generic opening hours, allowing us to see the museums without being crowded with tourists. We closed the day with a visit to Castel Gandolfo, a town located 25 kilometers southeast of Rome in the Lazio region, where the pope has his summer residence. Continue reading, and follow us an our day in the Vatican!
Piazza San Pietro
The first thing you will see when entering Vatican City through the main entrance, is the Piazza San Pietro or St. Peter’s Square, with behind it the basilica. St. Peter’s Square was designed by Pope Alexander VII and executed by Bernini, who used the classical style as a platform combined with baroque style elements. Saint Peter’s Square was built between 1656 and 1667. The square is designed to look round, but to give it the impression of being round, it is actually oval-shaped: the square is 240 meters wide and the length is 340 meters.
It is surrounded by 284 Doric columns and 88 pillars that are arranged in four rows. On the colonnade (also called ‘the motherly arms of the church’) are 140 statues of saints. In the middle of the square stands an Egyptian obelisk of 40 meters high and a weight of 340 tons. The so-called Vatican Obelisk was brought from Egypt to Rome by Emperor Caligula, in 37 AD.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Rome has over 900 churches, but none of them come anywhere close the St Peter’s Basilica. It is indeed Italy’s most spectacular basilica. It was built on top of an earlier 4th century church and was completed in 1626 after more than 120 years of construction. The basilica houses many impressive pieces of art, but three of them exceed the others:
- The dome
- Michelangelo’s Pietà
- Bernini’s 29m-high baldachin
The dome is incredible. It’s extremely high and big, and fully decorated with gold plated mosaics. The basilica is free of charge when you visit, but to visit the dome you will have to buy a special ticket. You can take the 551 steps to the top, or alternatively, there is a small lift that takes you halfway and then you can skip the first 320 steps. Whichever way you choose, it is a steep climb. The higher you go, the more steep the steps are getting. The last steps even overturn on the dome itself! However, it is definitely worth it, with incredible and stunning rooftop views!
The interior of the basilica is just as majestic as the dome. Its 187 meters long interior covers more than 15,000 square meters, and is made to perfection. This is where Michelangelo’s Pietà stands. Centrally located is Bernini’s famous baldachin. The masterpiece is supported by four spiral columns and is made with bronze taken. The sculpture stands over the high altar and the pope is the only priest allowed to coordinate a mass at this special altar inside the basilica. Walking around you will find a breathtaking collection of paintings and sculptures. I have visited many temples all over the world, some of them some of unimaginable size or unprecedented detailing, but the St. Peter’s basilica really deserves a place in the list of most impressive religious structures in the history of mankind!
Papal Mass on Sunday
If you want to see the Pope, there are several occasions. First you need to make sure he is in town when you will be visiting. Visit the Vatican website, and look at the calendar to check Pope Francis’ schedule. Or, you can download the free Pope App (I am not kidding).
If he is in Rome, you could attend a Papal audience on Wednesday. Or you could head to the Sundag Angelus. Pope Francis will appear from the window of an apartment there. However, we decided to be at the 10h45 Holy Mass and Canonizations celebration, held outside in the Piazza San Pietro on October 15th 2017. Thousands of people gathered to follow this Holy Mass, given by the Pope himself. Don’t worry if you missed it, you can re-live the ceremony below! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
The Vatican City Museums
The Vatican Museums are a group of museums in the Apostolic palaces in which you can view the Vatican’s art treasures. This collection has grown over the centuries because popes bought, made or conquered artworks. We are privileged to view the collection very early in the morning, before the museum open the the public. The collection of art is simply insane. We start in the Gregoriano Etrusco Museum, witnessing ancient mummies and sarcophagus, we walk through immense halls with marble statues, see hundreds of devoted jewels such as crosses and church silver in the Museo del Tesoro di San Pietro, walk through the Gallery of Maps and see wall-painted fresco’s of ancient maps,… It is too much to describe, and it would take days to see everything in detail. The value of the collection is insane.
There is even a very nice collection of contemporary art, with very well-known artists, we see the restoration department, and before leaving the museums, there is the famous spiral staircase of Giuseppe Momo, commissioned in 1932. Instead of continuing with unnecessary descriptions, I think it’s better to let the pictures speak for themselves.
The Sistine Chapel
Basically it is Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes and the Last Judgment that everyone wants to see here. So much that on a busy day you might be sharing the room with up to 2000 people (!). Michelangelo’s work is literally breathtaking, and therefore it is good we came early and before opening hours. Unfortunately we are not allowed to take any pictures in this part and security guards keep an eye on you while you are there. I managed to get one sneaky picture though, but blurry due to being too fast…
The design is incredible, and covering over 800 square meters of surface. It depicts the scenes from the Creation, the Fall, the story of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah. Opposite, The Last Judgement shows Christ passing sentence over the souls of the dead, whilst being taken from their graves to face him.
The Vatican Gardens
The Vatican Gardens are located behind Vatican Museums in Vatican City. They are approximately 23 ha in size. The Vatican Gardens occupy more than half of the Vatican City. The gardens are located around 60 meters above sea level and are mostly on the Vatican hill. According to legend, the land of the gardens would come from Golgotha to symbolize the blood of Christians, who died during the Christian persecution of Emperor Nero.
The gardens were built in the Middle Ages, when the tree and vineyards were added to the Apostolic Palace. Today there are several outbuildings in the gardens, dating from the 9th century to the present. There are also fountains for cooling, images and vivid flower parcels. Even a cave was built in the garden dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, and there is a palm tree in the garden donated by the government of Israel. After we visited the garden, we arrive at the Vatican’s own train station, where we head to Castel Gandolfo.
It’s around 40 minutes by train from the Vatican train station, when we arrive in a small station on the side of a hill, overlooking a beautiful blue lake, Lake Albano. Lake Albano is a small lake shaped by a volcanic crater. We have been crossing the countryside of Italy, and it’s a completely different sight as the urban surroundings we have been seeing before. Castel Gandolfo is a small town in the province of Latium, 30 kilometers southeast of Rome, on the Albanian hills.
The city thanks its fame mainly to the fact that here is the papal summer residence, and overlooking the nature and the environment we can understand why. The center of the town is really enchanting, overlooking the beautiful lake. There are several shops, and traditional restaurants with great views.
Due to the romantic character of the city, and the holy presence of the popes summer residence, the city is very popular for Catholic wedding.
From former archaeological research, it is thought that Castel Gandolfo is the place where formerly Alba Longa was, a city in ancient Latium, that used to rivale with Rome. The remains of a villa of the Roman emperor Domitian are still visible in the Barbarini Gardens of Castel Gandolfo. Since 2014 these garden can be visited during only e few hours a day, and that’s exactly what we did. We took a safari-like tour, in an electric bus, filled with elderly people. And us. Not the everyday kind of visit, but fun to do anyway!
If you know someone that still collects stamps, you’ll do them a big favor by swinging into the Vatican City post office. The Vatican is its own little country within the city of Rome, and consequently has its own stamps and postal system.I sent a postal card to my grandmother, and made her very happy with it (even she’s not a stamp collector).
- about visiting the Vatican Museums and basilica: dress appropriately. Cover your shoulders and avoid shorts. Take a light scarf to wrap around yourself. Dress modestly and be respectful.
- Set your alarm because the Vatican doesn’t wait for anyone. If you want to beat the crowds, the lines start winding around the block before 8am, so you should plan to be in line by 7:30am-7:45am to make sure you’re one of the first when the museums open at 9am.
- The key point to know about the Vatican is that it is very crowded throughout almost the entire year. It is nice to visit during January and February or the end of November and early December, when it’s quieter.
- Buy your tickets in advance (see link below) or try the skip-the-line-tickets. You’ll still be queuing up, but less.
Did you know?
- The Vatican Post office is among the world’s best. Many Romans are said to make the trip there every week to post their letters there instead of using Italy’s less reliable national postal service.
- The Vatican Museums contain the world’s largest collection of art. The amount of art could wrap four and a half times around the walls of the Vatican.
- The Vatican doesn’t have any taxation revenues. It generates 90% of its revenues from Museum admission fees, contributions, souvenir and stamp sales.
If you want to visit the Vatican Museums yourself, surf to the Vatican’s website museivaticani.va/tickets