Before I saw the Vatican for myself, I’d imagined it as merely a cavernous maze of churches festooned with angels and weeping saints.
But now that I’ve taken the Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Walking Tour including Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms and St. Peter’s Basilica, I see the Vatican as home to one of the most amazing, impressive and extensive collections of artistic endeavor on the face of the Earth.
I owe this change in perspective largely to the passion, knowledge and humor employed by Chiara, our small group’s unflappable tour guide. A small Roman bundle of energy and historical anecdotes, Chiara led me and five other people on a fast-paced, thorough, endlessly exciting three-hour journey through several of the largest, most dazzling buildings any of us had ever seen…and she left us wanting more.
A few minutes after meeting across the street from this mind-bogglingly popular tourist attraction, we were handed small earpieces with adjustable volume, allowing us to clearly hear and find Chiara amidst crowds of other tour groups. True to its name, the tour allowed us to breeze past the long ticket lines, heading just about straight for the elegant Cortile della Pigna (Courtyard of the Pinecone) and a poster-mounted triptych of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Neither photography nor talking is allowed inside the chapel, so Chiara used this triptych time to point out details we might otherwise have missed on the famous ceiling. I especially enjoyed learning that Michelangelo had a subversive sense of humor, occasionally portraying his opponents and detractors as buffoons—or even the Devil.
Once inside, I was fairly astonished by the stunning, gilded Hall of Geographical Maps, a long corridor festooned with paintings of the world’s topography and seas as they were known in the late 1500s. Chiara pointed out details like Pope Urban VIII’s bizarrely creepy crest, with its trio of bees and stone banners studded with eyes. Passing other tour groups as we visited galleries and former popes’ receiving rooms, I had the chance to see far larger groups fidgeting, losing the thread of their guides’ often lackluster spiels. I felt lucky to have such an engaging guide and only a few tour-mates.
One of the most thrilling moments of the day was a peek through some huge wooden doors into the Pope’s private apartments. I swear on my own love for architecture that you’ll never see a more stunning living space, paved with marble from end to luxurious end.
For the entire three hours, I never felt like I couldn’t wander away to more closely examine a piece of artwork without losing the group, and we were given free rein to roam in wonder beneath the soaring marble arches and glittering dome of St. Peter’s. I was never bored, learning something new and fascinating every few minutes.
So now, if someone asked me if they should bother with The Vatican while they’re in Rome, I’d tell them it shouldn’t be missed—and should absolutely be seen via this particular tour.
All photos courtesy of Melanie Waldman.
– Melanie Wynne