A Visit to the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica



We were up early this morning as we had booked an Earlybird tour to see the Vatican and St Peter’s and we had to meet our guide at 0730 at a coffee bar near St Peter’s.  We set off and got the metro from the stop about 10 minutes walk from our apartment.  It was about 7 stops to Ottaviano where we got out.  We were hoping for coffee and pastries at the café but we got lost.  I am not the best with a paper map.  It was 732 as we rolled up, so goodbye to breakfast.

In fact we’d paid for a small group tour but we were the only ones in the party so in effect it was a private tour.  We used Real Rome Tours and I’ve booked with them before and found them excellent.

Today was no exception.,  Our guide was an art historian and he knew his stuff.  He lead us through the major galleries of the Vatican museums for about 2 and a half hours, ending in the Sistine Chapel.  The treasures of the Vatican museum are beyond description especially to someone like me who has a strong interest in the ancient world.  Just unbelievable!  Great porphyry baths and sarcophagi, beautiful mosaic floors, statuary….   Then there are the Raphael rooms all painted by that master, and of course culminating in the Sistine Chapel and the masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci.
I have visited the museums before but today was the least crowded I have seen, probably because we were early.  It was definitely worth getting up for.

At the end the guide led us into the Basilica, the largest Roman Catholic church in the world.  It is a marvel of marble, gold leaf and art works.  The central dais is made of bronze melted down from bronzes found in the Pantheon (sob) and reformed.  The scale is enormous.  Everything is magnified to the nth degree.   It is beyond words.

We tottered out at about 1130 and it must be said we were starving and thirsty.  We found a nice café just behind the basilica and sat on the pavement to have lunch.  I had tomato bruschetta with fresh mozzarella, others had caprese salads and pasta.  Some nice white wine.  It was about 20e per head with service.  Not cheap but ok for a prime location in tourist central.

We went back at 1pm as we had a booking for a private tour of the Vatican Scavi, the excavations deep beneath St Peter’s that take you firstly to the 3rd century Constantine church and then down to a 1st century necropolis which contains the tomb of St Peter.  It has always been known that the first church was built over his tomb with the altar above, and then that the current St Peter’s was built over it with the altar in the same place.  So when excavations began in the 1950s, they knew where to look.  What they didn’t expect to find was a large pagan necropolis from the 1st – 3rd centuries built there too.  It is a very rich find and most interesting and to go down deep beneath the church and actually walk down the original paths between the Roman mausoleums is mindblowing.  You actually see the original tomb of St Peter which is not in the least ornate but above which you can see the ruins of the 3rd century markers.  Also someone had written This is Peter, Peter is here, in Latin and there is a dense cluster of graves around his grave showing that people wanted to be buried near him.   It was extremely hot and humid down there.  Everyone was melting, dripping by the end.

We exited up a level through the areas where the Popes have been buried through history.  Some impressive mausoleums here.

Outside we walked back to our apartment, some 2 miles.  We passed Hadrian’s Tomb – now Castel San Angelo – then crossed the Tiber and wended our way through the streets to the Piazza Venezia and then along the route of the Imperial Forums, past the Colosseum and back.  To say I had sore feet and was very tired would be very true.  A warm shower, some back pain gel and getting my feet up was in order.

Tonight we cabbed out to the area just north of the Pantheon for dinner.  I’ve stayed around here a lot and know this bit quite well.  We went to one of my favourite restaurants Il Bocaro, a romantic little place in a vine strewn lane where you sit outside and it feels a million miles away from being in the capital city of Italy.  I also love El Duello which is in the same area but that’s closed on a Tuesday.

They served us a complimentary prosecco and dips as we studied the menu.  I started with beef carpaccio and parmesan that was generous and very good and came with a side of porcini mushrooms.  It was a popular choice although others had the home made ravioli.  For main, I had tube pasta with a carbonara sauce and covered in black truffle.  It was so rich and absolutely divine.  You’d have to love truffle, there was a lot of it.  But I do, so for me it was perfect.  Others had veal  and also beef fillet with spinach.  Randy had tiramisu.  We had a great bottle of Sicilian red and another of white.  Out most expensive meal at around 40 euro each but we had a lot of food.

After dinner we walked back to the apartment – probably about 30 minutes, past the Pantheon, the Lagos Argentina, the forums, the Colosseum, all illuminated.  They have started projecting images on the forum in places, people walking, slightly ghostly shapes moving through the ruins.

Must have walked a good 8+ miles today.  So much to see and do here.