Having finished our visit of the museums, along with lunch, we headed out through St. Peter’s Square to the gateway entrance for our scavi tour. The Swiss Guards were very friendly and helpful in showing us where we needed to go and what we needed to do. Plus, those guys have awesome uniforms.
We headed through the gate and back towards the Vatican’s scavi offices. There we met up with our tour guide and about 8 other people, including a particularly jolly and rotund priest from Germany? Our guide led us down into the crypt area of St. Peter’s Basilica filling us in on the history of the site dating back thousands of years to when it was a circus area dedicated to chariot races for the Romans. St. Peter was eventually martyred in the circus and buried nearby. His burial spot would become the altar space for a a new church once Christianity became the accepted religion of the region. Over the centuries, this church was added upon and grew. Eventually it would become the largest church is Christendom, the Basilica that stands today.
As part of the tour, you get to visit the old pagan necropolis and see many of the early tombs. You can still see the decor of statuary and paintings that adorned many of the family niches. You also see the sarcophagi of many who were buried in the area and walk along what were once the streets around the necropolis, examining how the ancient Romans decorated their tombs to resemble houses. Our guide was very informative regarding the history of both pagan rituals and early Christians during the eras of the necropolis. Continuing the tour, you wind up in areas that were populated by early Christians and then come to the spot where St. Peter was believed to have been originally buried. The actual bones of Peter were moved a couple of centuries ago (and you see those a few steps later after a turning a corner) because one of the Popes had the bones removed from their sacred resting spot in order to have them adorn his private chapel for his own worship. Later the bones were re-interred as close to the original spot as possible and that is the last place you visit on the tour. Once everyone had a chance to view what is visible of the remains and burial place of St. Peter, our friendly neighborhood tourmate, the Priest, led everyone in a prayer and we exited the underbelly of the Basilica by walking (briskly) through some of the Popes’ private chapels and past many (dead) previous popes in repose in the modern-day necropolis, or crypt. For anyone planning a trip to Rome in the near future, I highly recommend the tour. It’s insightful, interesting, and one of the best things we did during our time in Italy.
Exiting the crypt, we found ourselves around the corner from the portico that fronts St. Peter’s. One of the many nice things about the scavi tour was that it lets you out right at the church’s entrances so there’s no need to go back through the very long security lines for St. Peter’s. We walked into the church and began exploring the basilica. I opted to listen to Rick Steve’s audioguide while we walked around, but in the end, it wasn’t that informative and some of his side commentary is just annoying. So I recommend just carrying a good guidebook with you!
Now, my unsolicited opinion on St. Peter’s Basilica is that it is completely underwhelming. Of all the grand churches I’ve seen so far in my life, this one was just kind of a let down. Perhaps it’s because it was so built-up in my head, I don’t know, but I was slightly disappointed by it’s lack of “exquisiteness.” Yes, it’s big. Yes, it has fine artwork. But it just lacks a little something. The guidebooks say that the architects of the building wanted to scale everything so that the whole space was NOT immense, but rather seemed attainable to the common man coming to worship here. I can say that they successfully achieved that mission! That said, it was still pretty cool to walk around.
Down the middle of the nave was one of my favorite parts. There are floorplates inscribed with the names of different churches based on how large they are. So you could, in theory, walk from the front of St. Peter’s straight down the nave and walk the length of say, Chartres Cathedral in France, and when you reach what would be the entrance door in Chartres, there is a plaque showing you where that would be so you can better understand just how much larger St. Peter’s is than all of those other churches. I know I’m probably explaining that poorly, but it was nifty. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to visit the altar or apse of the church because they were closed of for a group of special pilgrims (who we did get to see make quite an entrance through the special front doors that no one else gets to open and chanting down the length of the church). This was unfortunate as apparently a full third of the church is behind the Bernini altar that you’ll see in some of the pics. Plus, we had really hoped to do the crypt tour to see more of that area, but that is only accessible from the front of the church near the altar– meaning we could get there. Ah well.
After spending some time visiting the basilica, we headed up to climb the cupola of the church. There are two different tickets you can get to do this- you can climb stairs all the way to the top or you can take an elevator up to the roof and then climb another 323 steps to the top of the dome. We took the elevator! This part of the trip was more for the Husband than me, but I did appreciate being able to see how much larger the church was from inside the dome.
Ready for some pics??
the outside of the scavi office (No pictures allowed on the tour.)
the ceiling on the portico going into the church
the right side of the nave
looking up towards the cupola
some lovely painting going on up there
Bernini’s 7-story bronze canopy over the altar
If memory serves, this is the tomb of Pope John XXIII.
a close-up of the altar
looking through the altar to the apse of the church
looking down one of the transepts
the Pieta’s chapel
the current resting place of Pope John Paul II
the ceiling down the nave
another chapel, another pope
another ceiling picture
the Holy Door that only opens every 25 years
taken from the roof St. Peter’s behind Jesus and his Disciples
the dome, from the roof
the dome we were about to climb
looking down on the space BEHIND the altar (near the apse)– This perspective is what really amazed me about the church. You just had no idea of the immense size until you saw that you fit an entire church and congregation between the apse and altar. This view was worth the dome climb.
the mosaic work of the cupola
part of the stairs one had to climb to get to the top of the dome
looking out onto St. Peter’s Square from the top of the dome
looking out at Rome
Can you spot the Colosseum??
Aside from the hoards of people, we did enjoy our visit to see the basilica. After having climbed the dome and educating a slightly ignorant American couple about some of Roman history, we headed out to do a little souvenir shopping and then headed back to the hotel to rest. For our final dinner in Rome, we headed back to the Taverna de Coppelle with its liters of wine, delicious fritto misto, and scrumptious pizzas. I don’t remember what the Husband had but my final Italian meal consisted of the fried zucchini flowers and a pizza Margherita. And it was wonderful! Of course, after dinner we grabbed our last gelato and found seats at the fountain in front of the Pantheon to just sit, gaze, wonder, and enjoy. We both hated to leave but agreed that we would come back soon. Having sat and soaked in the night for as long as we could, we finally headed back to the hotel to figure out how the heck to re-pack our suitcases and get ready for flying home the next day. After a light breakfast the following morning (we had a really early flight), we headed out to the airport.
I can honestly say that I loved every minute of our Italian vacation and I CANNOT WAIT to go back! We had so many great experiences, saw so many wonderful things, and ate unbelievably well. We enjoyed the company of our travel companions in Naples and had a blast getting lost in Rome on our own. We already have a list going on what else we need to see on our next visit, along with places we saw that needed more time, and where we don’t feel the need to go back. We have thousands more pics (some of which I need to get around to printing so we can have an actual album of the trip… soon!) and a few trinkets to remind us of our travels. Our world is so fascinating that I’m glad that the Husband and I do what we can to get out there and experience some of it. I’m not sure to where the next trip will be yet, but there are always plans for another trip, and there will also now be plans for a return trip to Italy someday as well!
Our flights home were uneventful and as always is was good to get back to our bed, our house, our space. However, we both immediately missed Italy and are looking forward to our next visit. For now though, Arrivederci Italia!