The Vatican

  
  - darkometer rating:  2 -
 
The world's smallest country, just a complex of grand buildings and gardens located as a walled enclave within the city of Rome, the capital of Italy. But officially and politically the Vatican is regarded as an independent sovereign city state. 
  
For the dark tourist there isn't much to see here that is overtly dark – but the darker sides of the place lie lurking below the surface, as it were ...  
More background info: The Vatican is the smallest “nation” on Earth, a city state, hence officially called “Citta del Vaticano”, 'Vatican City'. 
  
It is, as everybody knows, the seat of the "Holy See" of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus the official home of the Pope (although the current one, Francis, prefers to actually live outside the Vatican's palaces).
  
It may be the tiniest “country” on the planet, but it's a huge heavyweight in terms of history … 
  
And it is also a superpower in terms of tourism. The millions of visitors going there each year (not just tourists, of course, also "pilgrims") actually provide a massive proportion of the city state's revenue, through entrance fees to the museums or through the sale of souvenirs and postage stamps!  
  
The history and religious significance of the Vatican is the subject of whole libraries full of resources. This can hardly be represented here in adequate detail and I will not even attempt to give a short summary. 
  
I presume the question most readers of this website will be asking themselves is this: can the Vatican be regarded as a dark tourism destination?!? Surely I must be joking. But no, I'm not. 
 
Obviously I am aware that it is not a prototypical dark-tourism site, nor does it really offer anything specific to see that is in itself in any way dark. At least not in the strict understanding of the concept of dark tourism as one of modernity and related to death and disaster. 
  
Within the Vatican itself such themes are only hinted at in some of the artwork, i.e. in a more abstract format. 
  
The site also serves as a cemetery. There are tombs underneath the Basilica, including those of numerous Popes. Especially prominent is that of John Paul II.  
  
And of course this is also the supposed location of the grave of the Apostle St Peter, founder of the church and the very first Pope, so to speak. This is the reason why the Vatican's architectural centrepiece, the Basilica di San Pietro (St Peter's in English) bears this name and is located where it is. As such it is one of the world's most significant pilgrimage sites.
  
Most of all, however, I decided to include the Vatican on these dark-tourism pages for very different reasons: 
  
Firstly, the sheer weight of history of the enormous power that has emanated from this place for the best part of the last two millennia – which brought war and devastation to countless places around the world, in particular Europe and the Middle East … even though none of that is visible or indeed even hinted at within the Vatican itself.   
  
Secondly, there's a political reason: the Catholic Church, through its official head, the Pope in the Vatican, staunchly (stubbornly!) clings to banning the use of any birth control by its worldwide flock … other than the most unrealistic one, namely sexual abstinence. But "artificial" contraception largely remains a no-no. Naturally, not all Catholics actually observe this grotesquely outdated ruling, but too many do. 
  
So the fact that realistic measures of birth control are decreed "sinful" has without doubt contributed massively to overpopulation, which is the planet's most serious problem and the principal root cause of climate change. This is endangering the continued existence of civilization, even humankind and along with it much of the Earth's current biosphere at large. 
  
Contemplate this when wandering about the architectural splendour of the Vatican and it suddenly does become a very dark place indeed. But do this quietly. Think but don't speak out loudly. Bringing up the politics behind all the grandeur is not advisable here. Remember that for a large proportion of visitors this place is amongst the very holiest sites in the world.
 
      
What there is to see: Many tourist visitors to the Vatican want to see the lot, i.e. including the world-famous Vatican Museums and the celebrated Sistine Chapel. But  the crowds and the costs deterred me from doing this. So I only visited the Basilica, including the dome, and the open-air parts that are freely accessible. So I won't comment on the other parts here. 
    
You can freely wander into St Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro) and look around. A large part of the open space of the square was covered with plastic chairs, presumably for Sunday Mass or such events. You can walk through the colonnades and up to some barriers to get closer to the heart of the Vatican, St Peter's Basilica. 
  
But to get inside the Basilica, you have to either queue up to pass through the security gates on the northern side of the square, or be on one of the many “skip-the-line” guided tours on offer (cf. Colosseum). 
  
As these are expensive and cover more than I was interested in, I simply joined the regular queue when I was there at the end of November 2014. At the time I arrived the line reached about halfway round the Piazza. But it was moving fairly steadily and so it took less than half an hour to get to the gate (not the two hours as was claimed by some of the touts trying to get tourists on their guided tours!). 
    
At the security gate there are metal detectors to pass through and your bags may be searched, but it's no more hassle than when boarding a plane. You are then free to proceed to the Basilica.
  
Entering the cavernous interior of this most massive church in the world for the very first time is indeed impressive. Here size does matter. Irrespective of how many photos you may have seen (or see here in the gallery below), experiencing the real thing is still awe-inspiring – even if you are (like me) not religious. 
  
You can walk around most areas freely, only some parts are cordoned off for normal mortals. This includes the area around the holiest of holies within the church: the altar with the Bernini baldachin. The latter's enormous bronze columns and roof are probably the most recognizable icon of all Papal pomp – and seeing it in the “flesh”, as it were, is indeed impressive as well. 
  
From near the baldachin you can descend some stairs to the Vatican Grotto one level below. As this is regarded as a holy shrine and cemetery, photography is forbidden down here. Amongst the graves on this level, the one most prominently presented is that of the late Pope John Paul II who died in 2005 – the latest to be buried here. 
  
Underneath this level is the ancient Vatican Necropolis dating back to antiquity and the very earliest Christianity. In particular it includes the supposed grave of St Peter himself – which is why the Vatican and the Basilica are at this very location. To see the necropolis, however, you have to sign up for a special guided tour, for which participant numbers are severely limited. I did not even attempt to get on one. 
  
Apart from the tombs, virtually all you see is of course Roman Catholic grandeur and pomp. Religion and religious works of art are the focus here. And it is celebratory. The darker aspects of the political background of all this are naturally not visible in any form. You have to use your imagination (quietly) – see above.    
  
Occasionally, however, you do find images of death and cruelty. Skulls as part of some of the statuary, for instance. And when passing through the main doors do take note of the metalwork on it: there are some stunning depictions of “martyrdom”, i.e. torture and violent death. The row of Popes that are also part of this appear to be looking on as if with glee … but I know I am over-interpreting here and none of this is really meant that way. 
  
Apart from going inside the Basilica the only other thing I did in the Vatican was to go up onto the roof and to the top of the Basilica's giant dome. There's the option of using a lift for an extra fee that gets you to the roof level. But to get to the very top of the dome you have to negotiate hundreds of stairs. I found it worth the effort, though.
  
In fact the climb up has its weird entertainment value in itself, as you proceed through increasingly tilting passageways and up narrow spiral staircases. The shiny yellow tiles on the walls add an almost surreal element to this as well. 
  
Once at the top, the views over Rome from the gallery around the centre of the dome are of course magnificent. You can virtually see all of the city from up here. And closer by you can also peek down into those parts of the Vatican that can't be visited freely by tourists, such as the gardens. 
  
You can also spot the Vatican's own radio station and its train station. To the south the strange-looking large edifice covered completely by solar panels (who would have thought the Vatican would be that modern!) is the Audience Aula. The small green patch between the aula and the church is the Campo Santo Teutonico, i.e. the “German cemetery”. 
  
Buried in this small graveyard are indeed Germans, artists, archaeologists and pilgrims who never left. You can in theory get there for a look up close, by asking the Swiss guards standing at the gate to this part of the complex to be let past to have a look. I didn't. 
  
The Swiss guards, by the way, are also a sight to behold. Their brightly coloured stripy outfits and strange helmets add yet another weird and almost surreal element to the whole experience.  
  
When walking around the areas of Rome around the Vatican, keep your eyes open for all the businesses catering for the Holy See clientele! Seeing cardinal robes and such outfits in shop windows or at dry-cleaners' is also something you'll hardly be able to spot elsewhere. 
  
  
Location: in the north-western part of Italy's capital city Rome, just west of the Castel Sant'Angelo (Hadrian's mausoleum) by the Tiber River at the far end of the Via della Conciliazione. 
  
Google maps locator:  [41.902,12.457]
  
  
Access and costs: quite easy to get to, St Peter's Square and the Basilica can be visited for free, but security checks are in place. For other parts of the Vatican admission fees are charged. Guided tours can be very expensive.  
  
Details: To get to the Vatican City, you first have to get to Rome, Italy. The Vatican is in the north-west of the city centre on the left bank of the Tiber River. 
  
From the historical centre of Rome you can walk it – head north-west past the Piazza Navona and to the Castel Sant'Angelo and then along Via della Conciliazione and Piazza Pio XII, which opens into Piazza San Pietro or St Peter's Square. St Peter's Basilica, the very heart of the Vatican, is visible from far away (it's the world's largest church, after all) and an unmissable landmark. 
  
There are also a number of bus lines that go right to the edge of the Vatican, tram line 19 terminates at the north-eastern corner of it, and the nearest metro station (Ottaviano, San Pietro – line A) is just over half a mile (800m) to the north of St Peter's Square. 
  
Entering the Vatican's territory as such is free and no hassle. There are no border controls or visa requirements or the like – but: be prepared for daunting throngs of people. 
  
You can just walk around the huge oval open space of St Peter's Square, but to get to the Basilica you have to queue up for the compulsory security checks. At peak times the queue can be heart-sinkingly long. And if it goes round all the way to the southern half of the colonnades be prepared for a long, long wait. If it's hot and sunny, make sure you bring some water and sun protection! But at least admission to the Basilica is also free of charge.  
  
Opening times of the Basilica: from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (only to 6 p.m. between October and March). 
  
The Dome can be visited between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. (5 p.m. in winter) and an admission fee of 5 EUR is charged. Using the lift to get to the roof level (saving you about half the steps), costs an extra 2 EUR.
  
For a regular visit, i.e. for just looking around, it's best to avoid times when Mass/Papal audiences or special events are going on, such as at Easter (unless that's exactly what you want to see, of course). 
  
Note also that a dress code applies that requires that knees and shoulders be covered, so no shorts, miniskirts or skimpy beach attire, even if it's hot! This rule is strictly enforced.
  
Admission to the Museums and Sistine Chapel costs an entry fee: regular ticket ca. 16 EUR, reduced 8 EUR. Hiring an audio guide costs an extra 7 EUR (but is optional). You can book tickets online for an additional fee of 4 EUR (all early 2015 prices – check details at: biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/). 
  
Note that the entrance to the Vatican Museums is at a different location, not on St Peter's Square but on the northern Vatican walls on Viale Vaticano. The museums open at 10 a.m.; closing times vary between 1:45 and 4:45 p.m. (check on vaticanstate.va).    
  
Guided tours: there is a huge, even bewildering plethora of options. Mostly these have the added bonus that you get access without having to queue – skipping the line, they call it. 
  
There are dozens of different packages, some do the full monty, with the museums, treasury, Sistine Chapel and the Basilica, some concentrate on only some elements. 
  
As with the Colosseum, prices for the private tours offered by countless tour operators in Rome vary greatly, as does what is included and what not. You have to do your homework in advance! Prices for simpler tours start at around 40 EUR, the most exclusive tours can cost ten times that!  
  
  
Time required: between a couple of hours (if the queues aren't too long) and a whole day or two, if you also want to see all the museums, etc. 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Rome
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Naturally, the Vatican's many attractions for tourists and pilgrims are not perceived as dark. And mostly they are not. The architecture is as grand as it gets. And the Vatican Museums are amongst the world's greatest collections of art. If you come for these things, then you will need time and stamina – and if you want the services of a guide: money. It might help, though, to have somebody at hand to channel the overwhelming extent of what there is to see into something digestible. See under access for some practical info. 
  
Outside of the Vatican awaits yet more of what counts amongst the world's prime tourist attractions, namely those of Italy's capital city Rome. 
  
  
 
  • Vatican 01 - Piazza San PietroVatican 01 - Piazza San Pietro
  • Vatican 02 - long queue to get inVatican 02 - long queue to get in
  • Vatican 03 - holy who-is-who on the roofVatican 03 - holy who-is-who on the roof
  • Vatican 04 - well-prepared pilgrimsVatican 04 - well-prepared pilgrims
  • Vatican 05 - inside Basilica di San PietroVatican 05 - inside Basilica di San Pietro
  • Vatican 06 - roof and domeVatican 06 - roof and dome
  • Vatican 07 - Bernini baldachinVatican 07 - Bernini baldachin
  • Vatican 08 - apparently these days confessions are made by smartphoneVatican 08 - apparently these days confessions are made by smartphone
  • Vatican 09 - old-style confessionalVatican 09 - old-style confessional
  • Vatican 10 - main dome from belowVatican 10 - main dome from below
  • Vatican 11 - view down from the domeVatican 11 - view down from the dome
  • Vatican 12 - stairs up inside the domeVatican 12 - stairs up inside the dome
  • Vatican 13 - view from the topVatican 13 - view from the top
  • Vatican 14 - Papal train station, radio and gardensVatican 14 - Papal train station, radio and gardens
  • Vatican 15 - museum roofs and gardensVatican 15 - museum roofs and gardens
  • Vatican 16 - Aula and Camposanto TeutonicoVatican 16 - Aula and Camposanto Teutonico
  • Vatican 17 - view over Piazza San PietroVatican 17 - view over Piazza San Pietro
  • Vatican 18 - going back downVatican 18 - going back down
  • Vatican 19 - on the roofVatican 19 - on the roof
  • Vatican 20 - back inside the BasilicaVatican 20 - back inside the Basilica
  • Vatican 21 - illusion of peaceVatican 21 - illusion of peace
  • Vatican 22 - but death is lurking just beneath the surfaceVatican 22 - but death is lurking just beneath the surface
  • Vatican 23 - Catholic crueltyVatican 23 - Catholic cruelty
  • Vatican 24 - Papal delightVatican 24 - Papal delight
  • Vatican 25 - Papal homeVatican 25 - Papal home
  • Vatican 26 - Swiss GuardsVatican 26 - Swiss Guards
  • Vatican 27 - plenty of chairs for a big Sunday audienceVatican 27 - plenty of chairs for a big Sunday audience
  • Vatican 28 - colonnadesVatican 28 - colonnades
  • Vatican 29 - Popes behind barsVatican 29 - Popes behind bars
  • Vatican 30 - Papal outfittersVatican 30 - Papal outfitters
  • Vatican 31 - Papal dry-cleanersVatican 31 - Papal dry-cleaners
    
    
  

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