I hate crowds and overly touristy attractions. Eifel Tower? Meh. I’ll look at it if I’m passing by, but I’m not planning a day around it and I’m sure as hell not standing in line all day to climb it. And that picture where you make it look like you’re holding it between your fingers? Well done. You win Instagram.
Then again, there are some places where you have to suck it up and just go. You know it’s touristy, but it’s touristy because it’s special, unique, historically important, or perhaps all of the above.
That’s the Vatican.
Skip The Vatican?
At first, I said I’d skip the Vatican.
“It’ll be loaded with tourists,” I told myself. “Pass.”
My plan was to stick to what I knew I liked, mainly strolling through neighborhoods and getting away from the crowds as much as possible. But a quote I read from a Roman tour guide convinced me to suck it up and get my ass to the Vatican.
“The only sight people shouldn’t miss is the Vatican. Everything here starts and ends with the Vatican; the way that our city was built and developed to the way our culture is shaped today, the Vatican still has an extremely important influence on being Italian. The popes have influenced our society for generations and that is definitely something that you can only come to understand at the Vatican.”
Last year I met Rachel of LivItaly Tours whose enthusiasm for all things Italy stuck with me when I started planning my trip. She suggested their early morning Vatican tour where the group is no larger than six people and you’re more likely to beat the crowds. But as I’d found out, beating the crowds at the Vatican is impossible, same as it is for any major Roman or Italian destination.
Groups were already gathering outside of the Vatican entrance by seven in the morning. Some seemed to be collecting into modestly-sized groups, but the overwhelming majority were lining up behind those horrific colored flags, the kind used to flock larger than necessary tour groups and usher them around like livestock. Most, I noticed, had headphones so they could hear their guide 50-some feet away.
Indeed, my group was limited to six people, and our guide Dante was friendly and personable, doing all that he could to entertain two young girls with their museum-loving parents from London. He at least managed to crack a smile out of the youngest, which I surmised was a mountain of a task.
Being a guide, I imagine, takes a bit of showmanship. The best seem as excited as ever to be experiencing the moment with you even though they’ve likely done it hundreds of times. By that measure, Dante was a master, sprinkling his encyclopedic knowledge of the Vatican throughout the day, pointing out the tiny details a novice (such as myself) would easily miss, and cracking the occasional joke. When I thought I had his act down, he gave an operatic, “Andiamo,” leaving me to wonder if all Italians have a bit of Pavarotti in them. In all, we couldn’t have asked for a better host.
(I changed his name in this piece, but feel free to ask and I can probably connect you if you want him as your guide.)
Scratching The Surface
The Vatican can be polarizing. Not just because of what it stands for, which I admit is something I personally struggled with at first. (Organized religion is not exactly my jam, to put it lightly, especially one as historically scandal-ridden as the Catholicism, not to mention even the most ardent of Catholics would admit that there’s a healthy helping of irony in building a church on such wealth based on the teachings of a poor carpenter. And we can’t forget the church’s bloody history, but I’ll let Mel Brooks take it from here.)
The other polarizing aspect is, well, it’s simply not for everyone. Do you really get off on museums? Then the Vatican is absolutely for you. We walked for something like four hours, almost always faced with some priceless artifact, a game-changing piece of art, or a statue that inspired some of the greatest artists history has ever known. Even so, we barely scratched the surface.
Me? I’m not a museum guy, at least not for as long as I was in the Vatican with crowds that brought back memories of skirting through a college bar crowd to get a drink. Now lest I sound like a Luddite, allow me to explain that there are some museums that have really left a mark with me. The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, El Centro de Arte para La Paz in El Salvador, and the Olympic Museum in Lausanne come to mind. The Vatican just wasn’t one of them.
That said, I’m glad I did it and especially so with LivItaly. The icing on the cake was the opportunity to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with only a handful of other tourists. The light, echoing murmur had turned into a cacophony of whispers and coughs accented by Vatican guards shouting, “Shh!” and “No photos!” by the time we walked through a second time a couple of hours later. And the Vatican is an important place to see, whether some guy from Cleveland likes its history or not.
Besides, not all travel experiences need to be explicitly enjoyable. A visit to Auschwitz is an example of the extreme end of the spectrum. We do it anyway because some places are important to see regardless of how you personally feel about it.
Now I can say I’ve been to where some of the most influential men (and apparently only men forever and ever) are given their power. And if nothing else, next time all of the cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope, I can say, “Hey! I heard a tourist get yelled at for taking pictures in there!”
Disclaimer: I was invited to join LivItaly Tours’ early morning Vatican tour. As always, all opinions are my own.