If you are a tourist in Rome, you must visit the Vatican. I know there are some who say they have no desire to do so because they are not particularly religious. This in my view is like refusing to visit the ruins of the very first Olympic stadium in Athens because you are not a fan of sports. Sure, the Vatican is full of history, religion and art but the ‘experience’ is what it’s all about. And perhaps that is why, on any day, there are literally thousands of tourists seeking entry to this institution. But be warned there is a trap for the uninitiated.
Most visitors want to see St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum (which incorporates the Sistine Chapel) and are likely to be lured into joining a queue which is four persons wide and so long and circuitous that you cannot see its front. This is the trap. This winding slow moving queue has all the indications of being a queue for entry to something of importance. It is. We stood in that queue for 20 minutes before realising that it is the queue for the Vatican Museum. However, at that time, we didn’t want to go to the Vatican Museum – but regardless of how long you wait in it, that queue will only take you to the Vatican Museum. It will not take you to the Basilica – nor to our desired destination – the Excavations Tour. Now, given that the Vatican is one of the most visited tourist destinations on the planet there could perhaps have been a sign telling you this – but alas there was not.
The Excavations Tour as the name implies takes you through underground tunnels, beneath St Peter’s Basilica to the ‘excavations’. I wasn’t sure the purpose of these excavations but the website had said it was an elite tour and was limited to 12 per group and so I figured if there was a tour for elite people, I should be on it and had therefore booked it several months earlier. However, following our wasteful time in the Vatican Museum queue, we now had about 10 minutes to be at the commencement point for the excavations tour and we were clueless about where this commencement point was located. We decided to run and ask for directions along the way from anyone who appeared more knowledgeable than ourselves – which of course left the field wide open.
And although I was pre-occupied making my way to our chosen tour, I couldn’t get a nagging thought from my mind which was, based on the hundreds of people queued for the Vatican Museum experience, that it may have been more appealing than my ‘elite’ subterranean tour. I kept this thought to myself and ran onwards until I almost crashed into a couple of Swiss Guards – who we took the opportunity to ask about the commencement point for the Excavations Tour, and who in return, in a tone befitting a security detail, told us to wait for 10 minutes. I was a little unsure whether they understood the question, but they had serious looks on their faces and swords at the ready and I decided not to press them further. Besides, any guys capable of dressing in bright red, orange and blue pant-suits and berets – I decided were confident men who would be unlikely to flinch if they felt the desire to dissect an incompetent Australian tourist who had foolishly decided to join a small tour beneath the Basilica while the balance of the tourist population visited Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the residence of the Pope. I concluded that it might be best that we wait in silence for something to happen. And in due course, it did.
The tour took us below the Basilica to the bones of Saint Peter which made all my junior school religious studies fall into place since the Bible allegedly (I didn’t say I was a conscientious student) says; “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church”. Since Peter means ‘rock’, I was taught that this meant that the Lord would build his church upon Peter. It appeared that since I was about to view the bones of St Peter beneath the Basilica, I was observing the evidence that he did just that.
After viewing the graves of popes’ past and the necropolis, we made our way to what was the climax of the elite tour – to view the bones of St Peter which are contained in a small box which was very difficult to see from approximately 3 metres a result, I have to say, which fell well short of climactic. Yet you could certainly make out some bones (or perhaps stones – they were too old to be identified clearly). Obviously, I have no idea whether these are the bones of St Peter, however it fits quite neatly with the scripture referred to above and what was a plausible narrative provided by our tour Guide. But this, of course, is my summary of information obtained during the tour which may contain some historical inaccuracies and is no way to be read as suggesting that I have accurately captured our tour guide’s shared wisdom (I know he would want me to say that).
After everyone in the group had been given the chance to view the bones of St Peter, we went up one level to see the first altar of the Basilica which was built upon St Peter’s grave, and then to the next level to view the second altar which was built upon the altar which was built upon Saint Peter’s grave, before we finally went up and into the Basilica and saw the current altar which was built upon the altar which was built upon the altar which was built upon Saint Peter’s grave!
After a comprehensive tour of the Basilica, it was 2.30pm and we convinced ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ that it was time for a meal and we walked across the piazza where we found a food vendor and lined up for the obligatory margherita pizzas. While in the queue, the woman standing next to me appeared suspicious. I don’t know why, she just did. Our landlord had warned us to be on the lookout for pick-pockets and with that in mind the woman looked suspicious. In front of us were three young girls whom it is my guess were having their first overseas adventure. I formed this view because one of them had her open bag hanging off her shoulder with her wallet clearly visible.
I remained concerned about the intentions of the woman standing next to me – who did not appear to be examining the luncheon menu at all but whose eyes were darting around over the people in the queue including the girl with the exposed wallet. I then observed the ‘pick-pocket’ woman reach into the American girl’s bag and put her hand on the wallet. Heroically, (and yes, I have given myself this attribution), I reached out and pushed the pick-pocket’s hand away and called to the American tourist that she was about to lose her wallet. Some commotion ensued and there was a lot of noise and movement. The thief, however, adopted the particularly clever disguise of someone standing in a luncheon queue. The American girls looked confused and afraid. The only thing which appeared abnormal to them was me shouting and creating disorder. The three American’s decided that I was the risk to their happy holiday and their wallets and they moved away quickly from the food vendor muttering among themselves about my strange behaviour. Meanwhile the prospective thief who, I re-state for the record, had her hand in the young girl’s bag when I acted, allowed the entire incident to wash over her like the consummate professional that she was.
I came away from the experience, feeling somehow ashamed and embarrassed since it appeared I was the only one behaving oddly. I wanted to approach the Americans and explain what had just happened but decided that would only end in them; calling the Swiss Guards (some of whom were already suspicious of me), yelling ‘Polizia!’, or best case, freaking the girls out even more than I already had.
Instead, we had our lunch sitting against the huge columns which mark out St Peter’s Square looking up at the Basilica, which provided time for quiet contemplation of those things that stretch the capacity of human understanding such as why St Peter’s Square is called a ‘square’ when it is, in fact, circular!
The luncheon interval also enabled us the time to consider what we would do next. And the decision was taken to explore Castel Sant’ Angelo which is situated opposite the Vatican. The Castle has served many purposes over the centuries and I am informed that there is a secret corridor from St Peter’s Basilica to the Castle used by Popes as an escape route. We took the tour of the Castle and while our family of five set off together, Leanne and I became separated from the kids. It was a particularly distressing period for Leanne and I losing our children in a foreign country in which neither the children nor ourselves spoke in the native tongue – and so we decided to have coffee.
And then after a long day, and with children safely back within our care, the pub located directly opposite our apartment was a welcome sight. And while I had been communicating with the Italians sufficiently well to get by, I was a bit daunted by the prospect of having to order beers, wine and soft drink at an Italian bar. With some trepidation and my best “Buongiorno” prepared, I walked into the pub and hesitantly approached the bar. My fears melted as the publican saw me and yelled cheerily “hello mate” with a broad Irish accent.
We left Rome the following day. It was an exciting stay and for me and I have just one criticism; the place needs some renovation. While they have done some work on the Colosseum, St Peter’s tomb is also showing its age. I am advised that the paintwork on Peter’s tomb was done by the Constantines. I am not familiar with this company but I think someone needs to check their trade papers. In the interim, it is my recommendation that if you need a builder around Rome – don’t use the Constantines.