We had spent three days in Barcelona, and then joined the small cruise ship the Renaissance VII for a marvelous trip along the French and Italian Rivieras, before ending our vacation in Rome. We had seen the sights and eaten more than we should. Luckily, the weather was perfect all three days in Rome, which made walking and sightseeing all the more enjoyable.
We spent our first day walking the old city. Our second day, which happened to be the Thursday before Easter, we rode the first shuttle from our airport hotel into the center of Rome. We then struck out on foot across the Tiber River towards St. Peter's Square. We walked through the square and along the walls of Vatican City up to the museum. We were astonished to find no line at the entrance, and we paid our 18,000 lira (about $11 per person) entrance fee and entered the museum. The magnificent spiral walkway up to the entrance was a fitting promise of the masterpieces to come.
Although there are colored-coded, self-guided tours through the many galleries and palaces of the museum, many pieces are not labeled. We took along a guidebook, but you can also purchase a good detailed one at the Vatican Tourist Office on St. Peter's Square. Some people might enjoy a guided tour from their cruise ship or from the many vendors selling a tour of the museum. We chose to go at our own pace and enjoy the artwork and feeling of the rooms. You can pick and choose among the self-guided tours, depending on your interest and time. You could probably spend hundreds of hours in this museum. All walking tours end at the Sistine Chapel. We wandered the museum for a few hours, soaking up the wonders of the masterpieces. The Catholic Church has been collecting artwork and adding to the museum since the thirteenth century. The presentation and galleries were spectacular and gripped our interest. At the end of our tour, we entered the Sistine Chapel.
The frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are Michelangelo's most famous works. He would probably find this fact humorous since he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter. While in his 30's, Michelangelo was ordered by Pope Julius II to decorate this chapel, and it took the master four years to complete. Because of Michelangelo's sculpting skills, the details of the bodies adorning the ceiling are phenomenal. The work was so physically taxing on Michelangelo that it ruined his eyesight. It really helps to have a guidebook to interpret the paintings; otherwise, the view is overwhelming. When he was in his 60's, Michelangelo painted his view of the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the chapel. The side walls of the chapel were done by other Renaissance masters. They are beautiful, but they are really overpowered by Michelangelo's frescoes. One tip is to carry small binoculars into the Sistine Chapel. They will help you see the details of the paintings.
We reluctantly left the Vatican Museum and grabbed a quick lunch before heading back along the wall of Vatican City to see St. Peter's Church. This major cathedral is impressive to travelers of all religions, not just Catholicism or Christianity. Since 2000 was a Jubilee Year, the Sacred Portal entrance was open to visitors, and we were able to enter St. Peter's through it. This entrance is only open about one year out of each quarter-century. I had visited St. Peter's years before, but the size and majesty of the church still takes your breath away. Be sure to go downstairs in St. Peter's to see the ancient tombs of the popes. This should be your last stop since they will not allow you back upstairs into the main cathedral after seeing the tombs downstairs.
Our day in Vatican City could have easily stretched into several. But, all good things, including vacations, must come to an end. Lucky for me, I didn't have to wait 15 more years before returning to Rome and Vatican City. I've been back there several more times this century, and each time have found something new and exciting to see in the city.