The end of our Italian adventure finally came to an end and thankfully we had a lovely day planned to go out with a bang—a tour of the Catacombs and Vatican City. We wanted to walk to the meeting point for our morning tour so got up early and made the 45 minute walk to the Southern edge of the city.
We met Debora, our dinner host from Saturday, and two other groups from the States for our morning Air BNB Experience. The group started off at a coffee shop for some local pastries and coffee before making our entry into a church that was made to honor Pancrazio. The church, albeit reconstructed and built up since the beginning, was built in the 500s after Pancrazio who was killed around 300. The story is that Pancrazio was a 13-year old boy who wanted to convert to Christianity after his father passed away. The family was well connected and wealthy and when in Rome, and trying to convert to Christianity, upset the Emperor and was sentenced to death by the Emperor.
The church, and the catacombs under them, were built as his death prompted him to be a martyr for the Christian cause and is now the scene for prayer and has been for hundreds of years. The catacombs under this church apparently go for over 4 levels and stretch 20+ miles sitting just outside the Roman wall.
The catacombs concept started because there was limited space for burial of the citizens of the areas and although it ended up being a primary Christian burial site, in the beginning, there were several burial sites in the catacombs for Jewish and Pagan believers as well. The catacombs that we were able to visit had several large rooms for very wealthy families as well as tons of corridors for many others. It was interesting learning about the arches above the “tombs” representing wealthy families and those that didn’t want others buried above them.
Post tour, we learned that all Catholic churches in Rome, and the catacombs, are controlled by the Vatican and that there used to be bones remaining in the catacombs up until a few years ago but that rule has since changed. We made our way back to Debora’s house for an old-school Roman lunch, full of soups and a meat/cheese plate.
The time had finally come for a visit to the Vatican, one of the highlights from my prior trip to Europe seven years ago. My mom had a contact for a private tour and unfortunately we waited too late to connect with her, but she did connect us to one of her friends and were able to get that set-up.
We met Pina just outside the Vatican Museum and sat down upstairs to get oriented to the tour as well as the Sistine Chapel. Pina walked through the various components of the paintings since you can’t really chat inside the Chapel and it was helpful to have a little history education before we went inside.
The Vatican, as a country, was established in 1929 after an agreement between the Pope and Benito Mussolini. As the smallest country in the world, it was fascinating at how “easy” it was to cross from one border into the other. We went to the new entry-point, built in 2000, and were able to walk right across the line. We made our way through the complex, overlooking the Gardens before passing through the main path of the Museums.
There are so many items that you could look at within the museums and you could likely stay there for days looking at the items. We enjoyed walking through the three main corridors from the museum to the Sistine Chapel—through the candlestick room, tapestry room, and the geographical map room. The most fascinating feature of the museums was the fresco ceilings- the precision and beauty never ceases to amaze.
We made our way to the Sistine Chapel and aside from the incessant yelling of no-photos from the guards, the beauty certainly hasn’t dissipated since the last time I’d been inside. It’s crazy to think that someone hundreds of years ago could paint something so fascinating, nearly by themselves, over YEARS of hard work and effort. We stood inside for about 30 minutes getting various view-points from different corners of the room before making our way over to St. Peter’s Basilica.
If you weren’t already impressed with what you’d seen in the Vatican, then the Basilica will certainly push you over the edge. As the largest Church in the world able to hold 55,000 chairs, the complex has 40+ different alters and so many other religious spots to pray. While there are four doors, one is only used by the Pope, the other two are used for entry and exit, and the final is the “Holy Door” that is really only opened during the Holy Years of the quarter-century pilgrimages. Unlike the Sistine Chapel, everything inside is made from marble so there weren’t any restrictions on photos unless you were in the catacombs.
The church was built in 1626 after taking over 100 years to build and was built upon the prior St. Peter’s Basilica church (from 400) which was built on-top of the believed spot to where St. Peter was buried. You can actually go under the main alter in the church to see the tomb of St. Peter which is only one of two things that are blocked off by fancy glass (that and Michelangelo’s first work—a statue of Mary holding Jesus). We walked around seeing the various components of the Church before saying goodbye to Pina and deciding to climb the to the top of the Dome.
It was about 550 stairs to get up but we only had to navigate 300+ since we cheated and took the elevator for the first 200. The final set of stairs were very treacherous and were easily some of the most narrow and steep I’ve encountered. The view from the two observation points was great—the first was the upper ring of the dome in the Basilica and the second was an exterior viewpoint to see all around Rome in 360 degrees (and this was the tallest building in the city).
We were now getting hungry so made an afternoon field trip back to Bonci Pizza (a spot from the food-tour) and ended up at the hotel resting before dinner. For our final meal, we took a recommendation from Pina that didn’t disappoint, the only issue with the restaurant was that we over-ordered given our late afternoon pizza snack (and likely would’ve over-ordered even without it).
Even with too much food in our hands, we navigated the rain and made our way to our final gelato stop en route back to the hotel before closing out our Italian and Roman adventure. All in all, a great 10+ days in Italy and we can’t wait to be back.
(pictures uploaded via mobile, sorry for the formatting)