Touring Italy — Teeny Tiny Vatican City

One cannot go to Rome without spending at least one day in Vatican City. The Vatican is small though — like, tiny. With only 110 acres in total land area and a population of 842, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world by both population and size. As a comparison, Monaco, the 2nd smallest country, is over 4 times the size (and I thought that country was puny when I visited)!

I had known about Vatican City since sophomore year in high school as my friends and I browsed through an atlas in the school’s library and came across a section on countries listed by area. We would joke about how offbeat it would be to tour a country where you could see the border walls to the left and right of you. That was naïve me, before I truly understood the importance as to why the Vatican is the way it is. Going to the Vatican debunked many of those early beliefs and fed me with lots of humbling, new knowledge.

It’s a good point to mention that if you’re already in Italy, you don’t need to bring your passport to enter Vatican City. From Rome, you can frolic right on through without anyone questioning you. While technically holding the status of a country, the Vatican feels more like a subdivision of Rome than a typical independent state.

The rows of columns, called colonnades, surround the square and really draws your attention to the basilica and red granite obelisk in the centre. A portion of Vatican City’s border wraps around the colonnades.

Before going straight to the basilica, we would first go to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chappel. The Courtyard of the Pinecone are the grounds of the Museum and make for a gorgeous walk before entering the building. Below you’ll see a statue of a giant pinecone, as the name would indicate, and a giant, bronze sphere.

The bronze ball has a very simple name — “Sphere Within Sphere”. This piece was built in 1990 as the centrepiece of the courtyard and rotates 360 degrees in place.

Curious enough, while entering the Vatican itself was without question, the entrance into the Vatican Museum requires a security check. Yes, the museum is better secured than the country border; that was a first!

While the Vatican Museum originated to display a group of sculptures, the museum has added a plethora of artifacts to their collection over the centuries.

While the artifacts were interesting, for me the real wonder came from the painted frescoes found along the walls and ceilings of the museum. One of the most stunning portions of the tour was the Gallery of Maps that depicts various topographical maps of Italy, including some cities that we previously travelled to such as Rome, Naples and Venice! Did I also mention that it’s extremely crowded?

Enter the Raphael Rooms. These gorgeous reception rooms were painted by the famous Raphael and his workshop; they are nothing short of incredible. The following are some of my favourite frescoes that can be found in these rooms, starting with The Vision of the Cross.

The School of Athens, undoubtedly one of Raphael’s most recognized works depicting the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

Directly across from this is the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, claimed by many to be Raphael’s greatest work.

I’ll wrap up with Fire in the Borgo, which depicts a fire that broke out in a region of Rome.

Of all the places of worship I’ve visited, there is nothing like the Sistine Chapel — it is truly unique. Built in the 1470s under Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it takes its name, the Sistine Chapel is more than just Vatican City’s most popular tourist destination (source). This chapel serves at the gathering place of where the cardinals vote on a new pope. The chimney on the roof of the chapel is where the white or black smoke signals emanate from. The walls were painted by various famed artists and the ceiling was completed by the one and only Michelangelo. For whatever reason, you are not allowed to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, the official Vatican website posts a full, interactive 360° camera view of the Sistine Chapel that I HIGHLY recommend seeing by clicking here. The blue, back wall fresco is The Last Judgement and the middle strip of panels on the ceiling depicts nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, with the centrepiece being The Creation of Adam.

To me, the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum are the epitome of what humanity’s artistic creativity is capable of. While the artists who were commissioned to make these frescoes spent years of their lives creating these works of art, they left us with a true taste of the Renaissance for centuries to come.

Exiting the Sistine Chapel, you’ll see St. Peter’s square the way the Pope does, except without the thousands of people who crowd it during his presence.

From here, you can enter the main doorway of St. Peter’s basilica — the iconic structure of Vatican City. This church is absolutely enormous! There are so many sections to explore in this building, all done with top level craftsmanship.

Here’s a close-up of the altar.

As I mentioned, there are several sections, or wings, to the basilica; certainly more than I originally imagined when I first walked in. If you allow yourself, you can spend a lot of time exploring the inside of this church.

This is the inner view of the top of the dome.

One thing I didn’t know until closing hours was that you can actually climb St. Peter’s basilica to the top of the dome! I heard that it’s one of the greatest views in all of Rome (I’d say in all of Vatican City but that’s a given). It’s a real shame I missed out on it so I’m letting this be a reminder for all future travellers to go climb St. Peter’s basilica FIRST! Preferably in the morning while the lines are short and there’s plenty of daylight remaining.

So for the smallest country in the world, I have to say I’m mighty impressed; a bit humbled really. Vatican City may not be large but it certainly packs a punch. I was left with such a good experience that I’m certain I will one day return. Thanks for reading!

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This blog entry is part of the publication Robert Cekan Travels & was originally written on August 11, 2014

Robert Cekan is a young entrepreneur and proud Hamiltonian. He is the founder of the Hamilton discovery website True Resident, as well as Cekan Group, a property management group. He is also a Hamilton REALTOR® with Ambitious Realty Advisors Inc., Brokerage and an active blogger.

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