Continuing the account of our Italian Odyssey, this post details our visit to the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica. I’ll start with a confession : we’d actually stumbled across St Peter’s the day before our ‘planned’ visit, without realising what it was until we were pretty much standing in the square! We’d been heading for the Castel Sant’Angelo having spent the morning looking at the Pantheon (absolutely amazing) and the Piazza Navona (beautiful fountains, and even more gorgeous minestrone soup and prosecco!). Being Monday, we arrived at the Castel to find it closed (tourist tip 1 : check for opening days/times before you plan your day). Nevertheless, we managed to get some good photos of the imposing building from across the river.
The fact that we didn’t actually make it into the Castle on this trip is one more very good reason for us to return to Rome in the not-to-distant future, so missing out this time is really something of a blessing in disguise!
Anyway, being at something of a loose end at this stage, we began strolling along the river bank away from the Castle and noticed up ahead the dome of (what we thought) was just another of the seemingly hundreds of imposing churches dotted across the city. So we started walking towards it.
As we approached St Peter’s Square, we quickly realised the mistake we’d made; but at least we knew exactly where we were headed when we returned deliberately, the following morning to visit the Vatican Museums. Tourist tip 2 : don’t assume that the entrance to the Vatican Museums is anywhere near St Peter’s Square – it’s not! Consequently, it was too rather hot Welsh tourists who presented themselves at the ticket office at the appointed entry time (we’d booked our tickets over the internet the evening before and printed them off in the ever-helpful Reception area at the Trilussa Palace Hotel).
You need to allow plenty of time to do justice to a visit to the Museums. The collections are vast, and it’s as well to do your own thing (with the help of one of the audio-guides), as this allows you to time your entry into some of the more popular galleries in between the larger groups who will inevitably be going around while you’re there. The main ticket hall and reception area was opened in 2000 to coincide with the Millennium and is a fantastic space in its own right, with a spiral, sloping walkway linking the three levels that take you from the entrance, through the ticket hall, and up to the entrance to the museums themselves. I haven’t been able to find the name of the architect for the entrance, but it has a very similar feel to the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris.
The main galleries of the museums are organised around a large piazza that is itself full of ancient and modern statuary and sculpture. There is no doubt that the ‘main attraction’ for many visitors to the museums (me included) is the Sistine Chapel, and the way that the museums are laid out tends to encourage this by leading you through pretty much the whole collection before the ‘grand reveal’ into the Chapel at the end. I have to say that I was personally a little bit disappointed with the Chapel, though. This very probably marks me out as a Philistine and utterly without redemption in the eyes of those who enthuse and marvel at the frescos that decorate it. For me, though, the real highlight was the time that we spent in the Raphael rooms. There was an intimacy in these rooms that was simply not present in the packed (but strangely soulless) hollowness of the Sistine Chapel.
We spent a fascinating (and lightening fast) three and a half hours in the museums, and even then there were sections that we barely glanced at. Being absolutely famished by this time, we made the only culinary mistake of the entire trip – we ate in the museums’ cafe. Tourist tip 3 : DON’T – UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – EAT IN THE VATICAN MUSEUMS’ CAFE! It’s not that the food was that bad (although it wasn’t great), it’s simply that the service was abysmal. Anyway – moving on…
After lunch, we joined the queue of people waiting to enter St Peter’s Basilica. Initially, the length of the queue and the heat of the afternoon had led us to question whether it was worth the wait. But actually, the queue moved quickly and the wait was definitely worth it. The Basilica is a truly astonishing space – huge, and providing space for the most amazing collection of statues, carvings and other art works.
I have to say that even I – brought up as a non-conformist, South Wales chapel-goer – was impressed by the size, scale and grandeur of the Basilica. All in all, this was a truly memorable day.