Vatican City: country number 31 I’ve visited in my life. That is: from 16 years old on. I’m not counting the countries I’ve been to as a kid or the countries I just spent a few hours for a stopover in a plane. Only when I’ve really been there – on my own, as an adult – I count them. And being in Rome, the Vatican is an easy country to add to my list. It might be small, but you can easily spent a few days there. If you want to go: here are five things to do in Vatican City.
But before I give you them, just a little story about the Vatican. It was independent up until 1870 when the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome and the Vatican. However in 1929 it regained it’s independence when Mussolini, Italians dictator, pop Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty. With less then 1 square meter the Vatican is the smallest sovereign state in the world. However it has it’s own postal service, currency, newspaper, radio station, train station and army: the Swiss Guard.
Walk over Piazza San Pietro
Piazza San Pietro is one of the world’s greatest public spaces; being 340 meters long and 240 meters width It was an still is a place for Christians to gather, as they do at Easter, when the pope addresses his followers and when the pope has died and people gather for the Papal Conclave to see if there is white smoke: a sign the cardinals have elected a new pope.
The square is designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His idea was to create a massive open space as an escape from all the narrow streets tat surrounded the area. Mussolini destroyed that effect by building a long, straight road towards the Piazza; the Via della Conciliazione.
It doesn’t make the square less unique. It’ set up as a giant keyhole: with two semicircular colonnades of four rows of columns. On the square are two points. When you stand on them, you will see all the columns perfectly lined up. In the middle of the square stands a big obelisk. It originates from Egypt, but was brought to Rome from Heliopolis by Gaius ‘Caligula’.
St Peter’s Basilica
The St Peter’s Basilica is regarded as the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture. It is one of the largest churches in the world. The ‘first version’ was built by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, in the 4th century. Time played a hard roll on the basilica and when it couldn’t be repaired anymore Nicholas V gave order to construct a new one, but only years later when Julius II was in charge the looks of today’s St Peter where designed by appointing Donato Bramante as architect. As the story is with most churches – think of Sagrade de Familia in Barcelona – it took 150 years to finish the basilica. The most famous artist who worked on the St Peter was Michelangelo, who designed the dome.
Visit the pope
Believe it or not, but you can visit the pope every Wednesday. That is: if he is in Rome. A visit consists of a small teaching, a greeting, the Papal Blessing and a prayer together with the pope. So if you think your visit to Vatican City isn’t complete without seeing the pope: make sure you are there on a Wednesday
The Vatican museums
You will need days to see everything in the Vatican museums. Julius II (1503-1513) started it all by collecting a group of sculptures. It meant the start of an enormous collection. Popes Clement XIV was the fist one to open the collection to the public. Seeing it as a way to promote knowledge of art history and culture. Part of the museums is the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals are locked in during the papal conclave to elect the next pope. But more than this the Sistine Chapel is known for the Last Judgement and the frescoes (representing nine scenes from the book of Genesis) painted by Michelangelo.
Castel Sant Angelo
Officially in Borgo, just outside of Vatican City, stands Castel Sant Angelo. It use to be the mausoleum of Hadrian, emperor of Rome, but it was converted into a fortress for the popes in the 6th century AD and linked to the Vatican palaces in 1277 by a wall and passageway. It functioned as a escape for the popes in times of threat.
You’ll find the rest of my travel stories on my travel / countries page.