Like all the other hawkers, this one wore a tour company t-shirt and a helpful expression. He put on his shiniest smile to lie to us. “My friends, you can’t get into the Vatican without a ticket.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” I was inadvertently apt in my frustration. “Will you guys knock it off already?”
Border crossings are always a hassle, and Vatican City was no exception. Tour flunkies covered the perimeter, letting no one pass unhindered. Hey, you’re going the wrong way! Don’t you want to see the Sistine Chapel? Hey man, don’t be rude. I’m just trying to help you out!
We weren’t impressed; Southeast Asia blunted all subsequent hustling experiences. The lies were slimy, but also pointless. St. Peter’s Basilica was right in front of us. We could literally see we didn't need a ticket to enter - we just needed to cross a street.
Vatican City is more of a village, and at half a square kilometer, remains the smallest nation on Earth. It's got a post office, a pharmacy, a nice church. No pub (though I didn't get to investigate too thoroughly). As of 2012 it had 451 residents, but they must have been hiding out somewhere. I didn't blame them - on any given day there were 55 tourists for every local.
Though Vatican City is unquestionably ancient, it has only been an autonomous country for less than a century. And it's not just the center of the Roman Catholic Church, but a treasure house of art and architecture. Millions pilgrimage to its basilica and museum.
We stepped across the border and into the Piazza San Pietro. A dazzling winter sun backlit the famously pilfered Egyptian obelisk, as well as the workmen taking down the pope’s Christmas tree. Beyond it stood St. Peter's. Up close the dome was obscured by its stern, columned entrance. The flawless sky looked even bluer against all the white marble.
While we didn't need tickets to enter St. Peter’s, we did have to pass through security. We joined the queue, moving sluggishly toward the X-ray machines. I didn’t remember this from my last visit ten years ago. But then, today's Italy was a bit on edge.
The country boosted security after the Berlin Christmas market attack last December. Every major piazza and landmark sported an armored car and a clump of soldiers. Between their enormous guns and their camo uniforms, they were trying very hard not to blend in.
Not everyone was reassured. Venders in the markets told us business was down; people were shying away from public places.
This didn't deter the crowds at St. Peter's. We waited 15 minutes. But once scanned and cleared, we were free to wander the basilica as long as we wanted.
Say what you will about the Catholic Church, it doesn’t skimp on the décor. The interior was all pink and yellow marble, snowy statues, and soaring arches. It would have been gaudy in a smaller or less perfect building. But in St. Peter's, it just awed.
Craftsmen spent a hundred years working to build the basilica, and the design necessarily passed from architect to architect (Rafael and Michelangelo among them). Despite this, the building exists as a beautiful whole, even with the dark baldachin standing confusedly at the center like a gazebo in a stadium.
Michelangelo's Pietà rested in a corner shrine: the famous statue of Mary cradling Christ after the crucifixion. Nearby, a bronze St. Peter sat against a pillar, his feet worn from the touch of centuries of pilgrims. And just beyond, the tomb of the first Pope. A few steps carried us through thousands of years of history.
We stayed longer than we meant to. There was something mesmerizing about actually seeing much of the art and splendor that formed the backbone of the Renaissance. We visited the Sistine Chapel, the museum, and walked the Piazza some more. It was mid afternoon when we finally returned to Rome.
Across the border, the hawkers were still at it. Some literally waited at the fence line, calling to the pilgrims leaving the Piazza.
"You want to see the Sistine Chapel? You can't get in without a ticket!"
"I know. I was just there."
A long pause. "Maybe you want to go again?"
* The hawkers' endgame is to funnel people into Vatican Museum tours. The more honest ones are up front about the fact that this is an extra service. The museum does require a ticket, but even a five year-old could purchase one unassisted by simply following the signs marked “Vatican Museum.” And the museum has a perfectly serviceable audio tour, for anyone interested in learning more of its history.