This post is not going to really be a detailed insight into the many museums of the Vatican, because I only had about two hours to spend there, so the whole thing was pretty rushed. However, there were a few things about my visit I wanted to share, so I’m writing a half-assed post about it anyway. First of all, if you’re going to see St. Peter’s, I don’t think there’s any means of skipping the queue (unless maybe you go with one of those shady and extremely annoying tour guides that hang about the place), but the queue moves fairly quickly – just make sure you have obeyed the dress code! Basically, you must be covered down to your knees, and over your shoulders, and don’t think that wearing a short skirt with tights will do the trick, because my mother got refused entry wearing such a combo a few years back (which was pretty amusing to me, but she was pissed off about it). Really, you can look like a complete slob as long as you’re covered up, which seems kind of wack, but this is the Vatican we’re talking about. However, if you’re planning on visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, there is a very easy way to skip the massive queue. You can book online at this website (which looks a little sketchy, but it is an official website. I used it and didn’t get scammed) and stroll right inside the complex whilst looking down your nose at the plebs lined up outside. It costs an extra 4 euros to use this method, but you’re already paying 16 euros just to get inside, and I think the extra charge was well worth the sense of smug satisfaction I got from bypassing the queue.
I was slightly worried about my outfit, due to the aforementioned dress code, as my skirt just barely covered my knees, and rode well above them when I walked up steps, but there’s no Swiss Guards at the Vatican Museums, and the regular guards didn’t seem that bothered, as I saw a couple women with skirts a few inches shorter than mine. There is still ostensibly an enforced dress code though, so I wouldn’t push your luck by rocking up in a mini skirt or tank top or anything (I do hate that uncomfortable feeling of having men scrutinise your outfit though. I don’t need to be stared at like a piece of meat by men trying to catch a glimpse of my defrauding knees). Anyway, the experience once you’ve entered the complex is ironically, fairly hellish. Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to head straight for the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, to get to it, you need to walk through about 50 rooms, each more elaborately decorated than the last, all whilst following signs that promise the Sistine Chapel is right ahead. It felt like being in a some lame comedy sketch.
Because you’re crammed in with a herd of people (and tour groups, my god the tour groups! I really think they should have set hours when tour groups are allowed in, and then ban them the rest of the time), you can’t linger and look at stuff, so I got no more than a fleeting glance of most of these apartments as I was being shoved along in the crush. The Map Room was notably cool though.
I seriously reckon we must have walked through a set of rooms belonging to every pope ever before even getting close to the Sistine Chapel. It’s like the Church felt the need to impress everybody with how much money they have by making us walk through the maze of rooms before getting to the one thing everybody comes to see. I dunno if Papa Francesco approves of that kind of ostentatiousness.
So, when most of the elderly and infirm had been weeded out through the endless trips up and down staircases, we finally made it to the Sistine Chapel. No photographs are allowed in there, and you have to be silent, which is maintained by a cast of professional “shushers” (what a job! Maybe I should move to Italy!). I hate to say it, but after walking through a gazillion rooms with elaborate paintings on their ceilings, it was pretty anticlimactic. It was neat seeing God and Adam in the centre, but the whole thing was a little underwhelming in light of the splendour I’d already been forced to admire.
After that, you have to walk through a crapload more rooms, most of them with convenient gift shops built in the middle, before you get back to the central area that holds a cafe and large gift shop. The only other thing I felt I NEEDED to see before we left was the Carriage Pavilion, which is home to the former Pope Mobiles. I mean, Renaissance art is all well and good, but I feel kitsch is the modern legacy of the papacy, and it doesn’t get better than the Pope Mobile.
The Carriage Pavilion was pretty good. For starters, you had to walk through a big garden to get there, and it was kind of hidden underground, so I don’t think many people even knew it was there, making it blissfully empty. In addition, they had plenty of signs in English, and the carriages themselves were fabulous.
I hesitate to use the expression “pimped out” to describe a papal carriage, but that’s essentially what they were. There was a level of ostentation that went well beyond what was necessary, which was what I loved about them. I also loved the busts of the popes, with a little description of each one. You hear a lot about medieval and modern popes, but 18th and 19th century ones normally kind of get lost in the shuffle.
And then there were the Pope Mobiles themselves, which is what I really wanted to see. The bubble style Pope Mobile didn’t come into being until after the assassination attempt on John Paul II, so they had the uncovered model he was shot in, as well as a few covered ones from later in his papacy.
Honestly, I prefer the older models, which were “proper lush,” as Tom Kerridge would say, but I guess I can see why they don’t use them anymore. I wouldn’t want to have my face blown off either, but I would probably just modify the cars to have thicker doors and bulletproof glass and such, as some popes have done to more modern cars.
Seeing the Pope Mobiles was probably the highlight of my visit (which again, probably says something about my lack of culture), but I still made a point to stop by the Stamp Museum on the way out. They had a little post office right after it so you could mail a postcard from the Vatican, with several Papa Francesco-based postcard designs to choose from, so I’m sure you can guess that I took full advantage. There were probably about 10 more museums I didn’t even get to peek at, so I’ve no doubt I could have easily spent the entire day there if I didn’t have a flight to catch.
To sum up, I’d say that you should definitely pre-book online if you’re visiting the Vatican Museums, and then laugh in the face of the obnoxious jerks trying to sell you overpriced tours to skip the line, as you’ll have beaten them to it. Seriously, the Vatican is one of the worst places I’ve visited in my life in terms of being pestered to buy crap. Worse than Tijuana even. It really put a damper on the whole experience, as well as the stupidly convoluted route you have to take through the place. Still, it is a piece of history, and they’ve got some cool stuff in there, so it is definitely worth seeing to complete the “Rome experience.” At the very least, it gives you a chance to easily tick another country off the list.