Due to jet lag, we were fully awake at about 4am after our first night in Rome, so we headed out in the early hours of the morning and basically had the streets to ourselves!
We took some early morning photos of the Colosseum and had a lovely 5km morning walk to the Vatican City.
Along the way, we walked through the Piazza Venezia and saw the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, and further along we walked past the Largo di Torre Argentina, supposedly the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated, although at the time we didn’t know what we were looking at. Just snapped a quick pic and kept on going.
On the way we bought breakfast – a cappucino and a croissant. We reached the Vatican around sunrise, which was a lovely time to see it, with a lot less tourists around than later in the day. Still, we ended up waiting an hour in line to get into the Vatican Museums, the only time we had to wait in line for a tourist attraction on our whole trip!
The Sistine Chapel is inside the museums, and possibly the main attraction, but we didn’t spend too much time in there as it was packed and no photos were allowed. It is interesting though, as it is the place where the cardinals elect new popes, and white smoke coming out of the chimney means a new pope has been elected, but black smoke means no decision has been made. Also you can’t deny the magnificence of the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo. It is thought that he painted the whole thing standing up, which is amazing when you think about how sore his arms and neck must have been. It was good to see, but I wouldn’t say I was blown away by the whole experience for a few reasons. Firstly, the number of people in there meant that you had to spend more time dodging open mouthed tourists who were walking around whilst looking up, instead of looking where they were going. Secondly, the guards at the doors telling everyone not take photos, combined with the regular loud speaker announcements instructing us in multiple languages to be silent and not take photos sort of defeated the purpose of quiet admiration and made the whole experience a lot less enjoyable than it could have been. Secondly, the ceiling is very high, so you’re standing there looking at artwork that is a long way away from your craning neck , with no real description to help you appreciate what you’re looking at (unless you’ve done research beforehand or have an audio/tour guide). Also, there were plenty of other very beautiful ceilings to admire elsewhere inside the museums.
I quite liked the Sala Rotonda, because the roof was similar to the roof of the Pantheon and the statues were impressive. The Gallery of Maps also had an awesome ceiling.
We had lunch at the Vatican Museums, and one thing we did learn this day was that in some places you have to pay for your food first, which is sort of difficult when you don’t know the name for the items you’re trying to order. Don’t make our mistake of assuming the cashier will tell the food servers what you want. You have to take your little receipt back to the food display and repeat your order again. It’s quite an odd setup, and I kept wondering how often they have people pay for an item only to find there’s none left by the time they reach the food display.
We didn’t spend too long in the museums because we’re both the type who easily get ‘arted out’ or ‘art fatigue’ or whatever you want to call it. So we headed back to St Peter’s Square and watched the pigeons playing in the fountain. It really was quite entertaining.
After that we went on a tour to the necropolis underneath the Vatican. They only allow around 250 people into the necropolis each day, so you have to book by email beforehand. We had to show our ticket to one of the colourfully clothed Swiss Guard who was very friendly.
The first thing our guide told us was that Necropolis means ‘city of the dead’, which is basically an ancient cemetery. This was very interesting, but again, we weren’t allowed to take photos, so the only thing I have to share is information. The Vatican is named after the Vatican Hill, which existed before the Vatican was built on top of it. Before the Vatican was built, the area used to be occupied by the Circus of Nero, started by Emperor Caligula and finished by Emperor Nero. The big obelisk in the middle of St Peter’s Square was originally positioned in the centre strip of the racetrack by Caligula who took it from Egypt to decorate his circus. This site was later used for the crucifixions of Christians under Emperor Nero. It is believed that St Peter was crucified there upside down. The body of Peter was then believed to be buried in a cemetery located on a nearby hill, called the Vatican Hill. Our guide told us that during the times of persecution, Christians would travel to the site of Peter’s burial and pray there. However, when the persecutions were particularly bad, the buried bodies of Christians had no legal protection and so the remains of Peter may have been secretly removed to protect them, and then later returned. At some point, Peter’s tomb had a shrine built around it on a wall that had been built to protect it from other graves.
Over 200 years later, Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, was part of issuing the Edict of Milan, which gave legal rights back to the Christians and brought about some form of peace. Constantine built a basilica over this place where Peter was thought to be buried. When building the basilica, there were issues with the foundation, so they covered the rest of the necropolis in dirt. I’m slightly unclear on the next details, but it seems like Constantine wanted to build his altar directly above Peter’s tomb, but the Christians didn’t want the shrine destroyed, so he surrounded the shrine with marble and built the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica around it. The Old Saint Peter’s Basilica was destroyed in the 16th century and the modern St Peter’s Basilica was built.
The excavations to find the actual grave of Peter began around 1940, when the papal crypt had to be enlarged and they found an opening that wasn’t the floor of the old basilica. Our guide told us that the excavations happened with the Pope’s permission, but were kept secret because it was during WWII and they didn’t want the Nazi’s to find out what they were doing. They found many Christian burials there, due to Christians wanting to be buried near Peter. They didn’t find any bones in Peter’s tomb, but found a set of bones higher up in a niche in the wall that protected it, which were determined to be likely to be those of Peter. There was also graffiti on the wall that read ‘Peter is here’. While in the Necropolis, we were shown the place where the bones were recovered. Our guide made it clear that, while evidence does suggest that these were the bones of Peter, they can’t say this is a fact with 100% certainty, so it was up to each of us to choose to believe what we wished.
Above the Necropolis and below St Peter’s Basilica are the Vatican Grottoes, where we exited from our underground tour. There are many Papal tombs here. On this level there is an area called the Altar of the Confession, which is over Peter’s tomb and contains part of the shrine that stood over Peter’s grave. This can also be seen from above looking down from the floor of St Peter’s Basilica. If I understand correctly, St Peter’s Basilica is shaped like a cross, with Bernini’s Baldacchino and the main altar of St Peter’s Basilica being positioned in the middle, directly above Peter’s tomb. A Baldacchino was a canopy that was carried above the Pope on holy days. This one is made completely of bronze and took 11 years to make. With all the details, it was hard to put it all together exactly, but that’s the best I can do anyway!
We then entered St Peter’s Basilica and had a look around before climbing the Dome. I didn’t count, but supposedly it was 551 steps. The Dome was partly built by Michelangelo and was based on the dome built by Brunelleschi in Florence (which we saw later in our trip). The stairs were quite narrow at some points, but the views were great. We were lucky enough to go up there before sunset and stay up there until after sunset. It was a little cold, but the views were worth it!
We looked down at St Peter’s Square, which was designed by Bernini to surround the obelisk that once stood in the center of the Circus of Nero where Peter was crucified. The colonnades are said to represent the open welcoming arms of the church.
We then walked the 5kms back home, which we sort of regretted after all the walking and climbing we had already done. On the bright side, we saw some nice night views.
Crossing the roads was a real adventure. Although pedestrians are supposed to have right of way, the Italians seem to have worked out their own system. If you stand on the side of a pedestrian crossing, you’ll be standing there all night. You have to just close your eyes and step out in front of the traffic in order to make them stop, or, do what we did in the beginning and wait for a local to cross and stick close to them. Safety in numbers, right? There are also so many police and ambulance sirens going past all the time. We found it a bit amusing that the police there carry little white stop signs in one boot.
Since we were so cold, we thought it would be a great idea to try some gelati, so our first flavours for the trip were hazelnut and whisky cream. I don’t think we took photos of any gelati on our whole trip because we were too busy eating it!