I got up early this morning for my first tour in Rome. My guide Christina took me to The Vatican at 7:15 am and I thought we were going a little early. When we arrived at the Vatican Museum at 8 am, I couldn't believe the number of people who were already there. We jumped in with another group, and I found out that all the people who were there were part of a tour group; they can get in before the general public at 8:45, and that line was already stretching as far as I could see.
Once inside, we made our way through three sections. The first was mostly statues from ancient Rome; the second was a room of magnificent tapestries that had been given to the Pope over time, most of which had hung in the Sistine Chapel. The third was the hall of maps, made up of frescoes (pictures painted onto plaster--I didn't know that) that depicted all kinds of map scenes from Italy. It may not sound like much, but the work was spectacular.
From there, we went into the Sistine Chapel, all the while moving with a sea of people, shoulder to shoulder. I asked my guide, "Is it always like this?" She answered, "Like this or worse, every day all year round!" At 15 Euros a person, you see that The Vatican has quite a revenue stream.
The Sistine was amazing, with magnificent frescoes painted by famous artists. Everyone is there to see Michelangelo's work on the ceiling and far wall. Michelangelo took four years to paint the ceiling and he didn't do it on his back. That's a fable! What's not a fable is that the Pope then didn't pay him for his work, and it was 23 years before he came back to paint The Last Judgment on the side wall. He got paid in advance for that work.
Then you walk out and go through the lower section under St. Peter's Basilica. There 146 of the 250 popes are buried, including the latest, John Paul II. There is a mass of people around his tomb, many of which were on their knees praying. I guess it's only a matter of time before he is Saint John Paul II.
From there we walked outside and into the famous church itself, finished almost 500 years ago. It was massive! When you walk in, the first thing you see is Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the dead Jesus. I didn't know that Michelangelo was only 23 when he did that work. The rest of the huge building (no Catholic church is ever permitted to be larger than St. Peter's) is filled with monuments and funeral memorials to past popes, and statues to many saints.
One of the weirder things is that there were the actual bodies of a few dead popes underneath certain altars. These popes have been canonized and miracles are attributed to their intervention. When that happens, they take their bodies out of their tombs and put them under those altars with a "desk mask" and papal robes.
From there, I decided to pay seven Euros extra and go up to the top of St. Peter's dome. You take an elevator halfway up and then walk 320 steps to the top. If you're not dead by then, you get a great view of St. Peter's Square, which is where I headed when I came down. I sent a couple of post cards from the Vatican post office and then had lunch near St. Peter's. What did I have? Pizza, salad, wine and sparkling water, what else?
Tomorrow I'm back in the city for a tour of ancient Rome. I wonder if that tour will be as interesting as the one today was?