Our family was about to discover that visiting the Vatican Museums around Easter is less a culturally enriching experience and more of an exercise in survival. It was lucky we booked a Vatican Tour with Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica with Take Walks. I might not be around to tell this tale if it wasn’t for our excellent guide. One thing we had learned the hard way on another trip was that it’s best to avoid visiting major cities during or around any major public holidays. There are too many people out and about seeing the sights, many of them locals, and too many crowds. In view of this, you might be wondering why we were in Rome at Easter and trying to do a Vatican tour. It’s true that visiting Rome at this time of year initially seemed like a bad idea to us too, until we discovered that most Romans get out of the city to visit family over the Easter break. Our plan was to see the parts of Rome we had missed last time then escape to Tuscany after the Romans returned to the city. Most of the time this worked well, but not today.
One of the must dos in Rome, and one of the things we missed on our last visit, is the Vatican Museums. The Vatican is a country within a country, home to the Pope and the Catholic Church, a city state and also the smallest country on earth. Another interesting thing about the Vatican is that it is self-sufficient with its own government, police, fire brigade, postage service and army known as the Pontifical Swiss Guard. This was my husband and teenage son’s first visit to the Vatican Museums. I had visited them as an 18 year old on my first trip to Europe. Even back then, when I was more interested in the boys on my Contiki tour than Europe’s culture, the Vatican blew me away. My only disappointment was not paying that little bit more to do the guided tour of the museums. Sure, everything I saw was beautiful as I strolled through the corridors, but I found myself yearning to know the history and stories behind all those famous halls, chapels and works of art. This time I wanted to do a Vatican tour.
This time I was older and wiser and had booked a tour with Take Walks, the same company we did a fun food tour with on our last visit to Rome. Our Vatican Tour with Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica started at the designated meeting point near the outer walls of the Vatican in the Piazza del Risorgimento at the Bar L’Ottagono. It’s easy to find and not a bad spot to start, especially if you care for a wine or two beforehand. In hindsight, we wished we’d had a couple of fortifying vinos for reasons that will soon become apparent.
Our group of around 25 tourists gathered in front of our guide Jeb, who was a friendly, efficient and informative guide for our Vatican tour. It was immediately apparent that we were in good hands for today’s tour. Everyone was given a radio headset and we were asked to check they were working. Unfortunately for Take Walks, they have to use the official headsets provided by the Vatican. Make sure yours works before the Vatican tour sets off as they can be temperamental. There are spare headsets available from a Take Walks staff member who joins the guide at Piazza del Risorgimento to help set everyone up. Whatever you do, do not think your headset will fix itself if it is playing up before you even start walking. It won’t. Swap it for another one asap or you will be stuck with it for the entire tour.
“It’s Easter so it’s going to be busy in there,” said Jeb, as we set off. This turned out to be a major understatement. Downright insane would have been more accurate. Almost immediately we came across a huge, snaking line of people. These poor souls hadn’t booked a tour and were waiting to enter the Vatican. Not only did they still have to buy a ticket, after they got the ticket they had to make it inside the Vatican before it closed for the day. Given the length of that queue, it looked unlikely that many of them would make it. The Vatican Museums close for several days during Easter. This meant huge numbers of tourists were trying to cram this iconic site into their itinerary straight after it reopened. Jeb was a consummate pro, leading us through the crowds like a general marshalling the troops. We have done several tours with Take Walks and the guides are always excellent. Jeb was no exception and our family could already tell that we were really going to need him today.
Jeb handed out our tickets and ushered us quickly through the security screening queues. “Wow, it is so busy today. It is just like peak season. Actually, no. It is worse than peak season. In fact, this is the busiest I’ve ever seen it!” he said, then added one very important final tip. “I really need you all to stay with me today. If we lose each other, you probably won’t find me again.” He wasn’t kidding. We were surrounded by a sea of humanity and we weren’t even inside the first museum for our Vatican tour yet.
Our first stop was the Patio de la Pinacoteca, the area which looks out over the Vatican gardens, where Jeb whipped out a folder of photos to bring us up to speed on all things Vatican. He also gave us a handy paper pictorial guide to the Sistine Chapel and told us some of the stories associated with this famous work of art. I won’t share them here as I don’t want to spoil the surprises when you do the tour. Let’s just say that you never want to become the enemy of a famous painter like Michaelangelo!
When we first got inside, the crowds didn’t seem too bad. While it was certainly busy, there were also some spots with not that many people. We started the tour of the museums at the Museo Chiaramont which was filled with statues, sarcophagi, bas-reliefs and other art objects from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. While the main attraction for most people who visit the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel, there were so many other incredible things to see. Jeb, with his trusty blue tasselled antenna held about his head like a talisman, continued leading the way, weaving and ducking through the hordes with continuous commentary. As we passed into the subsequent rooms, William Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth came to mind. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” The crowds were now so thick that it was a struggle to move, let alone keep Jeb’s blue tassled antenna in sight.
We walked through the Gallery of the Candelabra, Gallery of the Maps and Gallery of the Tapestries, Each room had breathtaking art and we had plenty of time to listen to Jeb’s commentary as we shuffled along the crowed passageways and walked up the many, many stairs. If you aren’t good on your feet or comfortable climbing stairs, the Vatican may not be for you. There is a lot of walking and a lot of stairs and not many places to sit down and rest or catch your breath on a Vatican tour.
On our way to the Sistine Chapel we got a welcome break from the crowds in the Raphael Rooms, or Vatican Rooms as they’re commonly known. Even Jeb couldn’t believe our luck. “Wow, these are usually the busiest rooms of all. I can’t believe there’s almost no one here, especially on a day like today!” We couldn’t believe it either. It felt like we had won the lottery to have this beautiful space almost all to ourselves after the overwhelming crowds we had experienced so far on the tour. We were standing in the apartments of Pope Julius II, who did not want to live in the rooms decorated and inhabited by his predecessor Alexander VI. Jeb went on to explain that Pope Alexander VI was not a nice guy. Murder, corruption and wild parties were his trademark. However, despite the many enemies he made, his eventual demise was no one’s fault but his own.
As he was preparing a vial of poison for an adversary, he broke the vial and cut himself. The poison entered his blood stream and the ‘bad pope’, as he became known, was no more. It’s these stories, and the many others our guide regaled us with, which make this tour so good. The four rooms in this section of the Vatican were incredible and painted by Raphael in the early 1500s. Jeb explained that Raphael and Michaelangelo were bitter rivals and both employed to work at the Vatican at the same time, something that was deliberate. The Pope who commissioned both artists wanted them to keep trying to outdo each other and therefore both produce works that were truly extraordinary. It worked but what I found the most interesting during this part of our Vatican tour was that both artists were so different. Raphael was a party animal who loved the ladies, something which ultimately lead to his early demise due to a life threatening STD. By contrast, Michaelangelo was a recluse and workaholic who was often filled with self-doubt about his incredible artistic genius.
Finally we reached the Sistine Chapel where Jeb reminded us about the importance of not taking any photos and being completely silent while we were inside. As there is no talking allowed in the chapel, even from registered guides, he would go around to the exit to wait while we enjoyed the chapel for 15 minutes or so. This might not sound like very long to appreciate one of the world’s greatest artistic wonders but, believe me, given the crowd in there it was more than enough time. Our family lasted 10 minutes which was longer than most of the other people in our group.
Jeb told us before we went into the chapel that Michaelangelo didn’t paint this magnificent work lying on his back but standing up. He suffered fused discs in his spine as a result which never healed. When we finally made it inside to see this incredible work of art on our Vatican tour, we were squished into the chapel like sheep in a pen. It didn’t take long to work out that a lot of our fellow tourists had either been out sightseeing all day or thought personal hygiene was overrated. Every minute or two, a guard’s voice would boom over a powerful loudspeaker like the voice of God from above…
So much for maintaining the serenity of the Sistine Chapel. We slowly made our way through the room while gazing at the ceiling and bracing ourselves for the next booming “Silenzio!” When we got tired of this, we amused ourselves watching the guards bust people trying to take sneaky photos while we waited for Jeb. As if by magic his blue tasseled antenna appeared at the exit to lead us to St Peter’s Basilica. This church is widely regarded as the most important church in Christendom, not only due to its location in the Vatican but also because it is said to be the burial site of St Peter.
The basilica is also the burial site of many popes with over 100 tombs, including one belonging to a Roman emperor. Jeb also took us through the basilica which was good of him. He was only supposed to give us an overview of the Basilica then show us how to get inside using the special skip-the-line access included with our tour ticket. From the front entry point we headed to the Pietà by Michelangelo, a stunning sculpture which captures the virgin Mary holding a Jesus in her arms. It’s at this point you also get to be in awe of St Peter’s Basilica which is a masterpiece in itself. After Jeb walked us through the basilica, he gathered everyone outside overlooking the Vatican square.
“Well done and congratulations on experiencing the Vatican!” We all applauded our courageous guide and gave each other celebratory high fives. Jeb went on to point out where to find the Swiss Guard post and the easiest way to get back to the metro. Overall a tour of the Vatican is best described as an unforgettable experience involving history, art and patience. With so much to see and take in you definitely need a guide to get the most out of your visit. Just don’t come here over Easter.
Disclosure: The writer visited the Vatican just after Easter as a guest of Take Walks and lived to tell the tale. The tour was terrific but doing it at Easter? Not so much!
Are you visiting Rome during Easter or in June, July or August? If so, you should read our tips for visiting Europe in peak season.