Road trip update: An abbreviated tour of the Vatican

I didn’t think it was possible to see the Vatican in half a day. But after hitting the highlights of Rome in just seven hours yesterday, I shouldn’t have been so skeptical.

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Yes, it can be done.

If you arrive early enough (before 8 a.m., which for a busload of jetlagging Americans was not easy) and enter the Vatican Museum, cut through the exhibits to the Sistine Chapel, and then hit St. Peter’s via a shortcut used only by Vatican insiders and tour groups with special permission, thereby avoiding a long line, it’s possible.

Should you do it? Maybe.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I’ve tried to keep this site as religion-free as possible. I have a personal reason for doing that. I come from a religious home, and over time have come to believe that arguments about matters of faith are counter-productive and ultimately, unwinnable.

But the Vatican happens to be one of the most sacred sites on the planet, so it’s hard to keep the religion out of it. I’ll try to remain as neutral as possible.

The Vatican Museum contains some of the most impressive works of art and artifacts anywhere. If you go, spend at least a day to admire its treasures. Sadly for me, we only had a few minutes to see some statues and tapestries. (Our kids were delighted – you’ve seen one marble bust, you’ve seen ‘em all, according to them.)

I have mixed feelings about the Sistine Chapel. Were it not for the remarkable painted frescoes, it would be an ordinary chapel. But Michelangelo’s paintings make the walls come alive with scenes from the Bible. The kids wanted to point and talk about what they saw (“Where’s God?” Iden asked).

The guards, who walked around hushing everyone up, and their silly “no photographs” policy, really put a damper on what would have otherwise been an amazing, if not spiritual experience. How about a little understanding for the littlest patrons who are seeing one of the world’s greatest works of art?

Since we were visiting the Holy See on a Saturday, St. Peters was crowded to capacity. Everything in the world’s first megachurch is larger than life, from its statues to its altar. It is an altogether mindblowing experience, even when you’re sharing it with thousands of others.

The most emotional moment came when we passed the tomb of John Paul II, who was recently beatified. Many had come to pray in front of the tomb, and you could tell this pontiff was still missed by many in the church.

I liked the level just below the church – the catacombs – the best. Many of the popes are buried here, and next to St. Peter’s tomb, there’s a simply altar and a few wooden pews. Although I am not Catholic, and would never be mistaken for a saint, this is where I came closest to having a religious experience.

“What did you like best about the Vatican?” I asked my youngest daughter afterwards.

“The chapel,” she said, without hesitating.

“Shhhhhhhh!” she added, imitating the guards that tried to quiet an exuberant four-year-old from admiring Michelangelo.

Oh well. Maybe next time we’ll come here in the winter – and take our time.

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