One of the coolest things that a tourist can do is to see an entire foreign country…All of it…From one end of the other.
This is activity that can literally take a lifetime in some cases, and for most of us, that’s just too damn long. So how to choose?
Size matters. It has to be small, real small. So the best place is to start in Rome. The record books state that the City of Rome is home to three countries: Italy, of which it is the capitol, The State of Vatican City, and the embassy of The Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta,
The Knights of Malta’s embassy at Via dei Condotti 68, has official extraterritoriality, which means that, it’s the territory, not of Italy, but of the Knights, which don’t have a country back home like Belize or Monaco and thus, the small palace and it’s courtyard are the whole shebang. They don’t let tourists in, and there’s nothing to actually see except a couple of trees and boring office space.
So that’s why the Vatican’s a must. It’s an official country, and at 0.2 square miles, much of which is dedicated to one of the best museums in the world, is doable, and thanks to the internet, now more than ever.
It used to be that getting a ticket to the garden tour, where you get to hike all the way to the helicopter pad on the western end of the country and back, was impossible. You had to send a fax to some monsignor somewhere, and wait a few weeks, and if the pope decided to take a jog or something, it could be cancelled. Then you’d be stuck.
But today, it’s different. Go to http://www.rome-museum.com/vatican-gardens-booking-step-1.php, apply, then pay the 35€ when they reply, and when the time comes, go. It’s worth the trouble.
The first thing you notice when you get off at the Ottaviano metro station is that the reason the Vatican still exists is that it’s surrounded by a very high and thick wall. Across the street are literally hundreds of souvenir shops, at least on the side close to St. Peter’s basilica, and these sell religious articles and pope stuff, and it’s best to ignore these for now. So look for the huge line and find where it begins. You don’t need to wait because you’ve already got a ticket. You enter the museum entrance and go through customs, which resembles airport security. You will then notices the first of many official souvenir shops, which dot the museum. After presenting you’re ticket to the people at the guided tour they give you a little radio receiver. That way the guide doesn’t have to yell and disturb the priests who hang out in the gardens to shirk their hard spiritual labors.
What’s there is almost unexpected. Aside from the formal gardens, there’s areas of lush subtropical splendor palm trees and banana bushes with parrots screeching from here and there. There’s Pope Pius IV’s pleasure dome, which dates from the early 16th century, which is a sight to behold, a small temple to the Madonna and John Paul II’s jubilee bell from ten years ago.
The priests and Swiss guards don’t like tourists mucking up their private park, and after about two hours of hiking, we’re sent back to the grounds of the museum and relieved of our radios. The tour covers about 75% of the country, and the rest is the museum and the office buildings. While the offices are of no real interest to anybody who doesn’t have business there, the museums are.
The Popes didn’t live in the Vatican until 1870. That’s because they controlled all of central Italy until then, and would only use it as glorified panic room when the Romans would revolt, or the Saracens or Germans for French would invade or something like that, and since these things would happen far more frequently than one might assume, what is now the museum was a rather large palace.
This palace now contains literally centuries of plunder and collections, Rome being almost three thousand years old and all, every time someone found a sculpture, his holiness would get first dibs on it, and if he was generous would actually pay for it.
The amount of ancient Roman sculpture on display is mind boggling there are tens of thousands of busts of anyone and everyone between emperors and slaves, some of which are rather famous, such as Laocoön and his Sons by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus, and the iconic image of the Emperor Augustus.
But the Sistine Chapel beckons, and while the art is spectacular, the place is as crowded as a subway car during rush hour, and the conservators keep the room dark, and it’s difficult to take it in.
Then once you’re finished with that, there’s the long trek back to the exit, and on the way, there’s dozens of official souvenir stands selling Michaelangelo reproductions and Pope stuff. There’s also a pizzaria, which isn’t bad.
Then you have to leave the country, return to Italy, and follow the walls to St. Peter’s basilica, which is a trip in itself. There’s the huge works of art, and at least three dead popes in glass cases (John XXIII, Clement XI, and Pius X) and a souvenir shops in the treasury area and near the statue of Constantine. The huge church is in fact built over a graveyard, and you can see that too, but aside from the graves of the two John Pauls, it’s difficult to find any of the more interesting ones.
The area around the entrance to the basilica has a dozen or so official Tchotchke places, so it qualifies as a tourist trap. It is essential.