The first time I visited Rome I skipped the Vatican Museums, so when it came to my second trip, I was determined to make them a priority. After all, it seems insane to visit Rome and not pay a visit to the Sistine Chapel. Apparently every other tourist in Rome felt the exact same way …
I am generally not an early riser, so it took a considerable amount of drive for me to pull myself out of bed at 6:45 in the morning to ensure I got to the Vatican just after eight before the museum opened at nine. I had attempted to pre-book my ticket online but stupidly did not plan far enough in advance. Instead I was told to arrive very early. Nothing could have prepared me for what followed. I had expected to wait in a line that would possibly be about two hours long. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It took me five hours from the moment I entered the queue to get into the museum. Five hours! As the minutes fell away I kept telling myself it wouldn’t be much longer. After waiting over two hours I hit the point where it would have felt like a complete waste to give up and go home. Somewhere around the three and a half hour mark my sister ordered us pizza to take away from the pizzeria across the road. It was a desperate situation.
All of this might have been bearable and even forgotten were it not for what met us when we finally made it inside. The museum was packed. Not just crowded, but crammed with people like sardines stuffed into a can. What made it worse was that most of the people were in large tour groups either with the museum or through individual companies. The whole museum was a sea of people fitted out with headphones to hear their guide and with flags floating above their heads. One tour group would leave and after about a thirty second pause, another group of about 40 or 50 people would surge forward. It was almost impossible to see anything before being swept away by the crowds.
I have to admit, the museum itself was beautiful. The rooms themselves are on the whole breath taking, particularly the Gallery of Maps. Completed in the late sixteenth century, the gallery is one of the most astounding things to see in the museum. Unfortunately you generally cannot get close to the maps themselves without physically pushing through a bunch of tourists bobbing along like a school of fish behind their guide. The Vatican also has a very impressive collection of statues from Roman and Greek antiquity and some beautiful frescos by Raphael. With so many treasures, there is so much to enjoy in the museum it is a pity that you are almost completely unable to do so. Looking around I was struck by how many tourists with their bright coloured headphones just looked bored and exhausted. I reckon most of them have no recollection of what their guide told them. But I don’t blame them, I would find it impossible to pay attention in the wake of all of that noise and people too.
By the time I reached the Sistine Chapel which is situated towards the end of the museum visit, I was exhausted, stressed and starving – not a good combination. Ushered in by security, I managed to get a seat on one of the sidewalls. There are no photos allowed and noise is prohibited, which is ironic because every few minutes, the booming voice of a security guard tears through the entire chapel shouting ‘no photos, silence please’. Between the noise and the people the chapel feels more like a banquet hall than a holy site. But it must be said, the Sistine Chapel is truly extraordinary. The ceiling hosts a beautiful series of paintings by Michelangelo with the famous ‘Creation of Adam’ among them. Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’ is equally astonishing if not a little unsettling. Lesser-known but almost equally beautiful frescoes cover the upper half of the walls. It is a truly unforgettable experience and, in hindsight, one that I am very glad I was able to have. Would I ever go back to see it again though? Only as a private guest of the Pope when the museum is tourist-free – an unfortunately unlikely scenario. Who else has visited the Vatican?
Top: St Peter's Basilica
Middle: Gallery of Sculptures
Photography by Savannah Hayes