Long ago, before Rome was even on my radar, I read a blog post which mentioned the Scavi tour, which is the underground necropolis at St Peters Basilica. It isn’t open to the general public – you have to send an email to the Vatican to ask about availability and, if there’s a space (only 250 people are allowed through each day, with a maximum of 12 per tour, compared to the 30,000 per day that visit the Vatican Museums), they will book it for you and send an invoice which you pay online. I kept this piece of knowledge in the travel portion of my brain (which is a lot bigger than, say, the common sense portion) to be used at a future date.
Fast forward then to September 2017, when plans for our trip were taking place, and I unearthed this memory and sent an email directly to the Vatican (I like to think the Pope himself opened and read it) who confirmed our booking in writing, with a request for payment of just 13 euros each. Although neither myself or the husband are of any religious persuasion, we do enjoy religious architecture and history and not missing out on ANYTHING (OK, the latter is just me) so this was a no brainer. We were booked for 1.30pm so it made sense to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in the morning. Checking on the website I found that you can also book and pay for timed museum tickets in advance, which made sense as we knew our itinerary and I guessed that the queues may be quite long (more on that later).
It was another beautiful morning with bright blue sky so we set off on foot across the Ponte Umberto bridge to the other side of the River Tiber. St Peters Basilica is visible from quite a way away, its dome dominating the skyline as you walk down the long wide road towards it.
We were approached a few times by people asking for money; old and disabled brandishing a paper cup towards us, which I found especially disturbing considering the location – isn’t the Church supposed to look after everyone? I was even more disturbed after our museum visit, because the amount of wealth is catch your breath obscene. Perhaps the Vatican City could rely less on harbouring so many priceless historical artefacts and more on looking after it’s own. But that’s a whole other post!
All around the area are ticket touts trying to sell tours, but also lots of tourist information people who are there to offer advice and directions, which was very helpful because, as expected, it’s incredibly busy with hundreds and thousands of people. As we rounded the corner to the street leading up to the museum entrance, our decision to prebook tickets really came into it’s own – the queue was 4 people wide and a good 300 metres long. We approached a tourist information person and showed him our booking, and he advised us to go right to the front, result!
Security is akin to going through an airport; you have to put your belongings in trays that go through an X Ray machine and then walk through a full body scanner (we felt safe everywhere in Rome; all the main attractions had armed police nearby, and the size of their guns would be a deterrent to anyone).
I’ll be honest here, I didn’t really know much about the Vatican Museums. OK, anything. I’m aware of the Sistine Chapel but hadn’t anticipated everything else that made up the attraction, and it was mind blowing, and somewhat overwhelming. We’re talking gallery upon gallery of priceless paintings, tapestries, sculptures, historical artefacts – even the ceilings are complete works of art. The amount of gold leaf was akin to nothing I’ve ever seen and we marveled at how so much of what was on display was completely priceless – how do you insure an Egyptian mummy?!
The sheer volume of stuff, for me, meant that I became a little bit complacent about what I was looking at. In a long narrow gallery full of sculpted busts and statues it became a little bit “oh look, there’s another centuries old piece!” which is bad but understandable, because its impossible to take it all in, and you find yourself drawn to the bigger pieces which means you could be missing out on something amazing next to it because it’s a bit smaller in size.
By selling off even 5% of the collection, the museum would still be an absolutely amazing place to visit but maybe, just maybe, the poor and needy begging outside would have homes to live in and food to eat.
Another thing I was surprised by – it’s a bloody long way to the Sistine Chapel! I’m talking thousands of steps on your FitBit! You keep following the signs, thinking it will be in the next room, or the next room, but instead there’s another gallery of statues, or more irreplaceable artwork and while it’s amazing, I started to think, just get me to the Chapel already! And then, when I got there, another honest admission, I was totally underwhelmed. Like severely “is that it?” Which is probably very heathen like of me and, if I believed in him, I’m sure God would strike me down but I’m not going to pretend I thought it was amazing when I didn’t. I expected it to be a wow moment, which I’m sure for religious people it is, and maybe it was because we’d already seen so much amazing stuff, but in contrast to the bright colours and intricate artwork of the galleries we’d already walked through it was a bit meh (there’s God, trying to strike me down again). For a start off it’s very dull and poorly lit (presumably to protect the paintings) and the ceiling – arguably the main attraction – isn’t at all what I expected it to be; I thought it comprised mainly of the Creation of Adam but actually it’s lots of different paintings in a collage. I know Michaelangelo and this ceiling are highly revered, but it didn’t tick any boxes for me.
I was much more impressed with everything that came before and afterwards.
Every ceiling was incredible!
The walls of this hall were lined with tapestries depicting the Italian coastline and dated back to the 16h century. Look at the ceiling as well!
I would recommend the museum to everyone visiting Rome because it really is quite something; even if you’re an atheist, critical, non arty heathen like me!
After a quick lunch it was time to join the aforementioned Scavi tour; again we were thankful of the tourist information guides as the location wasn’t immediately obvious. More security ensued and we joined our group of 12 people in a courtyard behind St Peters Basilica ready to embark on a part of the Vatican City that not many people get to see.
Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, talking us through the history of how the excavated space came to be. The Vatican commissioned excavations to be carried out there before Pope Pius IX was set to be buried in the space, in the 1940s, expecting to find very little, but archaeologists found a burial ground (aka a necropolis) dating all the way back to the 4th century; the temple of Emperor Constantine who had ruled at that time, and a funerary monument with a casket engraved with wording that translated as Peter is here (Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down in Rome during first century AD and his remains were interred in a tomb on the Vatican Hill. Bone fragments proven to belong to St Peter have been found and are now kept in a shrine deep underground which you get to see on the tour. He’s important because he’s said to be one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and so to religious folk he’s quite a big deal – hence having a whole basilica built in his name).
The necropolis is basically a city of the dead, and was the part of the city where people built mausoleums for their bodies to be interred after death. You can still see the layout of the Roman streets and the decor on the walls of some of the mausoleums (it reminded me, in a way, of parts of Herculaneum which we visited a couple of years ago). It’s crazy to think how old it all is, and that you’re actually walking on centuries old ground. The reason it was built over is because there was a huge fire which destroyed parts of Rome, but because it didn’t cross the River Tiber, this area of the city wasn’t damaged. Emperor Constantine gave the order to build on top of the Necropolis, and it wasn’t disturbed for thousands of years.
It’s very warm in the necropolis (you’re quite a way below ground level) and a lot of the areas are quite small and cramped. The tour takes around an hour and I would wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you’re not a religious person. Strict rules apply – no large bags (they have to checked in at the entrance and collected later), shoulders, arms and legs covered (this is a very religious space, whatever your own beliefs or non beliefs) – this wasn’t a problem for us as we visited in Winter, but one to consider for summer; and no photographs. The pictures below are taken from official sources because, although I wanted my own photos, I also didn’t want to get chucked out for breaking the rules!
You exit the tour in the crypt where lots of previous popes are buried; many of them have their own altars, some were restricted public access and there’s a lot of marble. When you exit the crypt you can enter the Basilica without the need to queue, which was fantastic because by that time of day the queues were thousands of people deep. For that reason alone it’s worth booking the Scavi tour – queue jumping and a behind the scenes look at parts of the Vatican City very few people have ever seen.
Inside the basilica is less impressive than expected, if I’m honest, it’s certainly not up there with the most beautiful places of worship I’ve ever seen (or maybe I was still reeling from the amount of artwork in the Vatican Museums!)
I was much more impressed by the outside, which really is stunning, especially against the clear blue sky. The columns are immense!
The Swiss Guards, who are solely responsible for protecting the Pope and must be of Swiss birth, Roman Catholic and between 19 and 30 years of age, were the only burst of colour against the stone of the building, and very snazzy they looked too!
Would I recommend visiting the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica? Absolutely. But more than the visit, I would wholeheartedly recommend prebooking tickets for the museum and Scavi tour, even more so in high season, to avoid the lengthy queues.
Did you see day 1 of my trip to Rome?
Thanks, as always, for reading. x