The view from the cupola of St Peter's Basilica
I left Budapest to go back to Rome for a week where I met up with Alex again and we did a few things we missed out on the first time. One of the highlights of not only Rome, but my whole Europe trip was our 4 hour Vatican tour. It sounds like a long time to be in one place but it was filled with so much interesting history and beautiful artwork that the time just flew by so quickly.
The Vatican is the smallest country in the world, complete with their own services amongst them a Post Office (which is said to be far more reliable than the rest of Italy and possibly the world), medical care and police force. The Pope also has his own force of personal bodyguards, the Pontifical Swiss Guard. The criteria for becoming a Swiss Guard are very strict. They must be Roman Catholic, unmarried Swiss males who have completed training with the Swiss Army. They have to be between the ages of 19 and 30, be at least 5 ft 9 in height, had a record of good behaviour and apparently good looking
The Swiss Guards, don't let the uniform fool you, they are highly trained by the Swiss Army and are also trained in a variety of martial arts.
St Peter's Square
The tour was great as we didn't have to wait in any lines and our guide was fantastic. She have us such a thorough and absorbing account of the history of the Vatican and managed to answer any questions we had. We made our way through the grounds of Vatican City and into the rooms where all the priceless artwork is on display. The artwork throughout was stunning but Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel just blew me away.
Sneaky shots inside the Sistine Chapel, I promise I didn't use my flash
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament in the Raphael Rooms
After the guided part of the tour was completed we had the option to climb to the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica. We cheated a little bit and paid the extra 1 Euro to take the elevator up but we still had to climb the 320 steps to reach the top. I thoroughly recommend taking the elevator, especially in summer. Just the last 320 steps that you have to climb, are enough to take the wind out of you.
Inside St Peter's Basilica
Once you come out of the elevator and before you arrive at the stairs you are given a bird’s eye view of inside St Peter’s Basilica. We were lucky enough to be in there while a mass was being held so we could see the proceedings below. St Peter’s Basilica is the second largest Christian church in the world but it was built to appear smaller so when you were inside it didn’t feel like a huge empty space. When you look down from the height we were at, it was only then you realise how mammoth this building is, the people below looking like tiny ants.
Mass being held in the Basilica. Look how small the people below look! Those letters on the wall are 6ft tall
We kept going until we reached the start of our 320 step climb to the top. In the humid summer heat of Rome the stairs can be quite overwhelming. You are climbing claustrophobic stairs, sometimes only the width of one person. It is also dimly lit on the way up with only intermittent small windows in which you can catch a breath of fresh air and natural daylight. The steady stream of tourists also means there aren’t a lot of opportunities to take a breather.
After our 320 step long and hot climb. A bit sweaty and worse for wear but the view made it all worthwhile
Once you reach the top it is worth every effort you have made, as you are rewarded with the most spectacular views of Rome. You can see such famous landmarks such as the Coliseum, which was a mere speck on the horizon. You also have a view of the Pope’s very lush private gardens and you can see the perfect key shape of the Basilica and the Square.
The Pope's beautiful green gardens
Bernini's St Peter's Baldachin
After snapping some great pictures of the view, we made our way down. We then explored inside the Basilica where we saw more great artworks and sculptures among them St Peter’s Baldachin, a huge bronze canopy by Bernini. We also saw Michelangelo’s Pieta which is now housed behind bulletproof glass, since a mentally disturbed man attacked the sculpture and damaged it in the 1970's. We then ventured underneath the Basilica where we had a few solemn moments as we visited the tombs of past Popes in Vatican Grottoes ending a tour of one of the most fascinating places in the world.
Michelangelo's Pieta, now safely housed behind bulletproof glass