Vatican City once site of Nero's Circus with an obelisk in the centre used for crucifying Christians.

The Miracle of Vatican City

It was a miracle that we were here, I thought to myself as we waited with our “City Wonders” Tour guide to begin a three-hour tour that would take us into one of the holiest sites in the world. Whether you are Catholic or agnostic, Vatican City should be on your must-see list.

Holy door, St Peter's basilica, Vatican
Adriane in front of the Holy Door, It is opened once every 25 years by the Pope to pilgrims. It will open 2025 again.

We were here not only to marvel at one of the finest art collections in the world, housed in one of the holiest sites on the planet but to get some Holy Water.

This was an important step in our travel adventures as we followed the story of Marco Polo and the Polo brothers.

Indeed, we had travelled to Rome with just this purpose but Rome would quickly seduce us and we would find ourselves straying as we fell headlong in love with the city, its foods and wines.

St Peter's Basilica, Vatican
Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica with canopy by Bernini

Here we were following Marco Polo’s footsteps and had almost not made it! That morning we left our room with lots of time to spare and a well-mapped route to get us to the entrance of the Vatican for a tour we had booked.

But an uncooperative taxi driver who would not budge on his over-inflated fare meant we were heading for the public metro. Rome has amazing transportation but we had forgotten one thing. It was rush-hour and the Italians while friendly and accommodating are cut-throat when it comes to trains and buses. You gotta PUSH.

After we had been left on the platform for the third time it was time to go native and when in Rome… As a wave of humanity pushed forward I grabbed Adriane with both hands – this is where my extra pounds come in handy – and using my elbows as a pair of dagger-axes I heaved our way aboard. It didn’t matter that there was no room, I had learned that flesh is pliable, and with a final pull landed Adriane next to me. I think I saw admiration in my fellow passengers’ eyes. I had become a Roman.

Adriane and Marina, Polo sisters

We located our group and the guide from City Wonders Tour feeling we had accomplished a miracle in a place where miracles could occur.

St Peter's Basilica
Marina rubbing statue of St. Peter’s foot for good luck.

We are not big on tours, preferring to do it ourselves, however all our reading strongly advised getting a tour as the Vatican is so busy, and it is well worth it to get to the front of the line as we watched long crowds waiting outside. Our guide was worth every Euro as she pointed out highlights that we would likely have missed.

It may be the smallest state in the world at just 110 acres but there is history in every marble nook and cranny.

This is truly one of the most amazing museums in the world.

There are more then 19 Vatican Museums inside the Vatican

I have friends who would’ve swooned over the Gallery of Tapestry a 250 feet long hall decorated with wall-hangings from the 15th century portraying scenes from Christ’s childhood to crucifixion. The richly detailed wall hangings are impossibly beautiful and filled with detail.

Vatican Museum
Flemish tapestries from the 15th century in the Gallery of Tapestries

The most famous one is Christ’s Resurrection. Here the artist had created the optical illusion that Christ’s eyes are following you as you move around the room.

This was followed by my favourite, the Gallery of Maps.

The 40 maps represent the Italian regions and the papal properties and were painted between 1580 and 1585 on drawings by Ignazio Danti, a famous geographer of the time. 

Vatican Museum
Ceiling of Gallery of Maps

I thought of Marco Polo and wondered what kind of maps they used in the 13th century. These ancient maps would have been 200 years ahead of his time. Today, we rely on smartphones and GPS. Map reading is a dying skill. Something we discovered personally when our phone took us on many wrong paths. It was back to street maps for us.

Regretfully we didn’t have more time and we would have loved to have stayed longer (an extra day or two) to see more of the collections – in total there are 19 collections or museums that make up the Vatican Museums. You could easily spend a week here and not see it all.

Sistine Chapel with ceiling by Michelangelo.

Seeing the Sistine Chapel was another one off my bucket list. I had read and admired artist Michelangelo as a teenager and to see the chapel ceiling that he had painted was a highlight of my trip to Vatican City.

Alas our time there in the chapel was short and marred by security guards who kept telling the hushed crowd to “get back”, “keep moving” and “stay inside the lines”. It happened so quickly that it was impossible to reflect on the influence this art has brought to our civilization.

Chairs waiting for Pope address.

Free tickets to attend the Pope’s weekly mass are available online but make sure you get yours in advance. We missed the day so never did get a chance to see Pope Francis but wandered around the courtyards and grounds where once Nero’s Circus reigned. In the centre stands an obelisk that Emperor Caligula brought back as booty from Egypt. This would be the site of many Christian crucifixions including that of St. Peter who was crucified upside down and whose remains are under the buildings.

St Peter's Basilica
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

Our tour ended at St. Peter’s Basilica, and if we had thought we had seen wonders, the Basilica had more in store leaving us to regret once more not having more time to wander through Saint Peter’s. The mother of all churches can host 20,000 people. It is 190 m long, and is filled with the most famous artworks from all over the world as well as Michelangelo’s Pieta.

The Pieta – a marble sculpture of Mary holding the body of her dead son Jesus, became famous and launched Michelangelo’s career. This would be the only art that Michelangelo ever signed his name to.

Vatican City
Michelangelo’s Pieta, St. Peter’s Basilica

As I stood in front of the sorrowful and graceful Pieta I recalled 35 years earlier standing next to my parents in St Peter & Paul Church in San Francisco. We had sailed here with my mom on our 58′ ketch the Rhapsodia. My parents were following their dream of sailing around the world and this would be our first port since leaving Vancouver. There we stood together in front of the Pieta replica, my father pointing out the masterful proportions and the folds of the cloth. “This,” said my father, “is the most beautiful sculpture ever created.”

Little did I know that many years later I would find myself standing in front of the original Pieta and marvelling once again at its beauty as well as the family ties that connect us when our parents can no longer stand with us.

The Polo brothers had been asked by Kublai Khan to bring him holy oil. Holy water is what we had come for but we had found so much more.

Whatever your religion, belief or non-belief, Vatican City is a life-changing experience – if you let it be.