Airport Rating ***** (Rome Fiumicino)
Reception of locals *****
It seems pointless making the trip to Rome and not visiting the autonomous Vatican City, the home of the Holy See, residence of the Pope and home of one of the best views of Rome. It's a short walk from the city of Rome, and as I found out, the Vatican City is definitely worth a visit.
The world's smallest country
At slightly over 100 acres, and with a population no larger than 1,000, the Vatican City State is the smallest country in the world. After attending one of the worst performing and under privileged primary schools in the entire country, I actually went to a Catholic secondary school where my mom thought I'd have the best opportunity to escape the poverty that we grew up in.
To understand the unique nature of the Vatican City State, it's appropriate to understand the history of the territory and the role of the Bishop of Rome.
Catholics hold the Bishop of Rome, more commonly known as the Pope, as the leader of Christianity and the successor to St. Peter, the first Pope who in turn led Christians following the crucifixion of Jesus.
At first, the Bishops were the spiritual leaders of Christianity, practising their faith freely following the state adoption of Christianity within the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great. As the Roman Empire began to crumble in the west, the Popes took on an increasingly administrative and governance role in the area of Rome and its immediate vicinity. As more and more land was donated to the Catholic Church, the area under the direct control of the Pope grew to encompass most of central and north eastern Italy, the territories became known as the Papal States.
The Papal States were a major force in the Italian peninsula from the 8th century until the middle of the 19th century. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Italians began to fight for a unified Italy, and under the command of Giuseppe Garibaldi, began a consolidation of the fragmented states that made up the Italian peninsula, including takes large parts of the Papal States. By 1870, the revolutionaries had taken possession of almost the entire peninsula with the exception of Rome.
The Popes, losing their temporal power, had requested French troops to protect their Roman holdings, even though the revolutionaries had designated Rome as their capital. The revolutionaries got their opportunity to annex Rome in 1870 when the French garrison was withdrawn during the Franco-Prussion War. The Italians took advantage of the situation, and after the defenders put up a token resistance, the Italians took the entire city of Rome, including the area that now makes up the Vatican City State,
The Pope, Pius IX, refused to be an Italian citizen and confined himself to the Apostolic Palace, referring to himself as a prisoner in the Vatican. This, of course, caused embarrassment to the new Italian nation as most of its citizens were Catholics. The situation was finally resolved in 1929 when the Italian leader at the time, Benito Mussolini, signed the Lateran Treaty with the Holy See (the Catholic Church in Rome) giving the Church the Vatican City State as well as financial compensation for the loss of the Papal State territories.
St. Peter's Basilica
The largest and most famous landmark within the Vatican City is St. Peter's Basilica where the Apostle St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome was crucified upside down and is currently buried.
A church has existed on the site since at least the 4th century AD, but the present Renaissance Church, the largest in the world, dates from 1626 AD, when construction was completed, over a century after it began.
The role of the Vatican has similarities with Sikhi. In Sikhi, the most important temporal seat of power is the Akal Takht, the residence of the Jathedar and traditionally seen as the centre of Sikh power. The Vatican serves a similar purpose for Catholics and has become a central focal point of the world's 1.3 billion Christian Catholics.
I visited the Church on a very warm and sunny January. The dome of the basilica is a prominent landmark that can be seen from across Rome, and I noticed it on the other side of the River Tiber that flows through the city, The dome looks especially spectacular when lit up at night. In front of the Church is an Egyptian Obelisk, brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula. My first impressions of the basilica and the plaza that surrounds it was one of awe. It is a huge church, there is no other way of putting it, and it is designed incredibly beautifully.
I visited during Epiphany, which meant the Vatican museums were closed, it also meant that if you wanted to visit the basilica you had to queue outside, The line was long, and extended across the square, I was waiting in line for just under an hour. There is a small metal detector machine that you have to go through, but the only thing you need to put through the airport security type scanner are any electrical items such as mobile phones. I had absolutely no issues going through.
The outside of the Church is matched by the splendour inside. I can't begin to tell you how lavishly decorated the ceilings, walls, alters - literally everything is. It also begs the question of whether it reflects the teachings of Jesus. It's the same question I ask myself when I visit Harimander Sahib in Panjab. Instead of coating the temple in gold, or in the case of the basilica, commissioning expensive paintings, using materials that are so rare that they are no longer found anywhere or creating a large (and very impressive) baldacchino, couldn't the money have been spent benefiting the poor or society better?
That being said, I can't begin to tell you the scale of how impressive the inside is. Entering the basilica is free, but climbing the dome requires an entry fee of €8 if you want to use the lift, or €6 if you want to climb the 551 steps. Thinking that I may see an ancient staircase I decided to pay the €6 and it wasn't worth it. The stairs are fairly new, and seem to go on forever in a spiral. There is then an extra set of stairs at the top following the lift/first set of stairs. These go through progressively narrower corridors that begin to tilt around the dome. The odd pattern is a little dizzying and I saw a few people leaning and falling.
Near the top there is a fantastic view of the Church below but it's the view of the city from the dome that is truly spectacular and probably the best view of the city of Rome. Honestly, the view is worth every penny and I would highly recommend it. You can just about make out the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but you can see the cities many domes, and small streets clearly.
The museums and the Sistine Chapel
I returned two days later to visit the Vatican museums. Unlike England, and similar to many other countries, you have to pay to enter the museums, and at €17, the price isn't cheap at all (although the entrance is free on the last Sunday of each month).
Following its closure all weekend for Epiphany celebrations, I was worried that the queues would be horrendous, but I found myself waiting for only about 15-20 minutes. Inside, as with St. Peter's Basilica, you have to go through an airport style metal detector, but again , the only things you have to pass through the scanner are electrical items such as mobile phones and again I had no problem whatsoever going through. I would, however, leave any salais behind.
The museums were founded in 1503 by Pope Julius II. Over the centuries, the museums have collected an immense number of items due to the Church's power and influence from all corners of the globe, making it one of the largest and most spectacular art galleries in the world. It currently has over 70,000 different works, less than half of which are on display through the 54 different galleries.
The most famous galleries are the Stanze di Raffaello by Raffael and the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and they are toward the end of corridor after corridor of galleries. The route through the museum follows a standard route of rooms and galleries that you must pass through, each of which seems more impressive than the last. Almost from the moment I entered, I was amazed by the beauty of some of the rooms.
For me personally, the Gallery of the Maps was by far the most beautiful of all the rooms. Dating back to the late 16th century, the rooms features ancient maps of Italy and an eye catching golden ceiling.
You can tell why the Raffael rooms are so famous, you could get lost in the paintings and colours for hours. Unlike the other rooms and galleries, the Sistine Chapel is still a functioning chapel, and forms part of site where new Popes are chosen so photos are not allowed. It was hilarious watching people try all manner of ways of slyly trying to take photos on their phones, a few were caught and given some stern words by security, but it's literally impossible to police that behaviour from so many people.
Although the chapel dates from the 1480, the ceiling of Chapel was painted by Michelangelo in 1508 and is seen as the highpoint of the Renaissance. Honestly, you have to see it to appreciate its beauty. It's amazing what art people are capable of producing, and believe me, art is something that usually goes over my head as I've mentioned previously.
It took just under a couple of hours going through the museums, and you could easily spend half a day to really take things in. I left the museum very impressed, it's no wonder the museum is the 6th most visited art gallery in the world. Even if you don't understand or appreciate some forms of art, it's very difficult not to leave here completely in awe of the capabilities and talent of people.
Is it worth visiting the Vatican?
That's a definite yes! I managed to walk from Rome in about 30 minutes, but the metro drops you off just a couple of blocks away at the Ottaviano stop. At €1.50, it's both cheap and quick to reach the Vatican from either Rome's central train station, the Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain or Popolo areas. It's also a very short walk from the Trastevere area.
The history of the Church and the beauty of the museums and the basilica is worth seeing and experiencing. At €17 the museums might be slightly expensive, but I had no problem paying that price once I saw the paintings within. The climb to the dome of the basilica is also a no-brainer as it affords one of the best views of Rome.
I get quite a few requests every week from people asking for my recommendations of where to eat and stay in the places that I visit. I don't provide these on my articles as my tastes may not align with others. I don't post any sponsored content, and if I ever do I will make that clear to readers.
In order to visit the Vatican, I stayed in the Popolo district at Popolo Rooms and Suites. At £35 a night in the off season, it's very competitively priced and the room was clean and modern. I was recommended a couple of food places close to the Vatican by a Roman friend of mine and I visited Il Sorpasso, a handful of blocks from the walls of the Vatican and the food they did was fantastic, although ever so slightly expensive.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.