On the morning of August 30, Andrea and I got up early to head to Vatican City. Our guidebook said the the Basilica di San Pietro opened at 7, so our goal was to get there early and avoid the long lines. We didn't make our original goal, getting on the subway at about 7:30 for the 30 minute trip to Vatican City.
When we got to Vatican City, we walked through the colonnade into St. Peter's Square. We spent a while looking through the largely deserted square before heading off to attempt to find the entrance to the basilica. We eventually found a long line on the outside of the left colonnade and assumed that this was the line to get into the basilica.
After about 45 minutes of waiting, we finally passed through the metal detectors and x-ray machines. We're finally going to go into the basilica, but the Swiss Guards were guiding everyone off into a building to the left. We continued to follow the crowd into a large auditorium, and ended up getting seated near the back, still having no idea what was going on. There were television monitors up above, so we assumed that we were going to have to watch some sort of video before we could go inside.
After another 45 minutes of sitting, we were getting a little frustrated and were wondering what was going on. We had figured out that the TV monitors were showing a live feed of the square outside, but no one around us spoke English to fill us in on what we were waiting for. At this point the image on the screen changed to show a limousine and a buzz began to build in the room, although Andrea and I still had no idea what was going on.
Much to our surprise, the next person to enter the auditorium was none other than Pope Benedict XVI. At this point we figured out that we had stumbled into the weekly papal audience. As Pope Benedict walked along the aisles during his entrance, I was about five feet from him at one point. The funniest moment of the entrance was when he went to kiss a baby and scared the poor child half to death.
The audience proceeded with a number of cardinals reading from the Gospel of Matthew in their native languages: French, German, Italian, English, and Spanish. After this, each cardinal introduced the various large groups who had traveled to Rome for this audience that spoke their particular language. Most of these groups responded with a ditty or short song to the pope. Pope Benedict XVI then responded by reading his message in each of the five languages and blessing all of those in attendance and their families. The papal audience was definitely one of the top highlights of the trip.
After the papal audience, we went back out into St. Peter's Square which was now filled with people. We got into the line to go into the basilica and waited for about 30 minutes to go inside, going back through the metal detectors and x-ray machines.
Once we got inside St. Peter's Basilica, we were awed by the sheer size of the building. Looking at the incredibly over the top decoration, I can definitely see where Martin Luther was coming from in his complaints about the cathedral. We spent about two and a half hours touring the cathedral. The highlights of the cathedral were Michelangelo's Pieta, the tombs of the many popes, and the throne of St. Peter, crowned by Bernini's Baldacchino. The basilica is truly impressive and the scale of the building is hard to fathom.
At this point we left the basilica and headed around the Vatican walls towards the Vatican Museums, stopping for lunch along the way. The Vatican Museums are a huge treasure trove of art from over the centuries. We spent about three and a half hours touring the museums. We did not spend much time in the Eygptian and Etruscan collections as we moved through the museum, although we were very impressed with the Gallery of Maps.
We continued on into the papal apartments and into the Raphael Rooms. The Raphael Rooms are a series of incredible frescoes decorating a number of papal apartments. Raphael completed all of these rooms in the mid-1500s and they are widely regarded as the height of the Italian Renaissance.
We then continued into the Sistine Chapel, the only location in all of Vatican City where photos were not allowed. The painting on the roof of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo is one of the most famous in the world. It depicts the story of humanity before the coming of Christ in a series of panels along the length of it. Michelangelo also painted The Last Judgement above the altar of the Sistine Chapel. One of the more humorous aspects of The Last Judgement is that Cardinal Biagio di Cesena criticised the indecent nudes of the painting well before it was complete. Michelangelo, not taking kindly to the criticism, painted Biagio's face with donkey ears in Hell. Biagio pleaded with Pope Paul to have Michelangelo remove it to which the pope replied that he could intercede for those in Purgatory, but had no power over Hell. On the whole we were not nearly as impressed with the Sistine Chapel as we expected to be. The room is not large, and while the paintings are masterful, they are hard to see in the dark.
After leaving the Sistine Chapel, we returned to the basilica to tour the papal tombs. All of the popes that are not buried in the basilica are buried in the grottoes below. Of particular interest to us were the tombs of Pope John Paul II and St. Peter himself. We were truly amazed at the continuing outpouring of emotion at the tomb of John Paul II and all of the people asking the guards to touch their rosary beads to the tomb.
We then went back in to climb to the cupola of the basilica. The climb takes you through the interior of the dome and allows a close up view of the inside of the massive dome as well as a bird's eye view of the throne of St. Peter. The top of St. Peter's has a truly commanding view of the city of Rome. We climbed all the way up to the top of the dome and stayed up there for about 20 minutes before coming back down.
Once we were back down, we went and sat at the base of a couple of columns in the colonnade to write our postcards. We mailed all of the postcards from the Poste Vaticane boxes with special Vatican stamps. During this time the sun was setting, casting an array of shadows across St. Peter's Square.
We then decided to head back toward the hotel for dinner since we didn't want to risk missing the subway closing again and have to walk all the way back from the Vatican. We went and took the subway back to Termini Station and then dropped all of our stuff off in our hotel room before asking for dinner recommendations.
The hotel concierge recommended an excellent restaurant just a block from the hotel. We had a wonderful last dinner in Rome, sitting out on the sidewalk complete with another carafe of wine before heading back to the hotel to call it a night.