Joining the unholy crush at Vatican City

If you didn’t arrive at the Vatican with faith you certainly wouldn’t leave with any. It must count as one of the least spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Even starting at 8.30 in the morning, even with a nimble private guide trying to avoid the tour groups, the sheer crush of people made it almost impossible to enjoy a walk around the grand palace of the Vatican.

The Vatican City and St. Peter's seen from the River Tiber, Rome, Italy

The Vatican City and St. Peter’s seen from the River Tiber, Rome, Italy

The Raphael Rooms, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

The Raphael Rooms, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Belvedere Torso, Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Belvedere Torso, Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Vatican Palace, Vatican City, Rome, Italy

That’s not even to mention the diabolical experience of the Sistine Chapel, which has just prompted me to invent a ‘Top ten most dystopian tourism experiences known to humankind’ list. A list on which it now claims top spot. The whole thing is ridiculous and unpleasant.

What should be a magical visit to one of the great artworks of the western world, by one of the world’s greatest artists, is blighted by the overwhelming number of people trying to do just that. Don’t even get me started on the security guards shouting at everyone every few seconds. “Silencio, Silence. No Photos. No Videos. Madam NO PHOTOS. Sir NO VIDEO.” On and on it goes, while all around people chat and take photos and videos.

I know it’s not in the nature of the Catholic Church to compromise with the modern world (contraception, anyone?), but they might want to consider giving up on what is clearly a losing battle against both human nature and modern technology. Either that, or they might consider that everyone’s lives would be improved if they restricted the number of people allowed to cram into the Sistine Chapel at any one time.

On the plus side, the Church authorities have left no stone unturned when it comes to capitalising on the experience commercially. Whatever the current Pope might preach about the evils of excessive wealth, his message has clearly not reached his employees in the Vatican. Capitalism is booming and, with more than 5.8 million visitors expected this year, shares in Vatican Inc. are surely a wise choice for investors.

That, I’m unhappy to say, is just about the most benevolent I can be about a trip around the Vatican. There are absolutely delightful sculptures and paintings on display almost everywhere you look, underlining the acquisitiveness of Popes past; but in such an unrelaxed environment there’s no time or space to enjoy them. At least they’ve had the common sense to ban the use of selfie sticks, but that is small consolation.

The wealth (of art) of the Church is on full display throughout the palace. Leaving one to wonder why, with all this wealth at their fingertips, more isn’t being done to address the causes and consequences of poverty in large parts of the world.

The four rooms painted by Raphael are exquisite, but you spend most of your time being jostled and having your toes stepped on; the 120 metre-long Gallery of Maps is extraordinary, less for the maps than for its fantastic ceiling; the Borgia apartments are fascinating for the salacious history of the Borgia Popes. It’s claimed that numerous illegitimate children were conceived in these rooms, and at least one murder was committed here.

Once we’d been expelled from the crush of the Sistine Chapel, we made our way with the crowds to the Basilica di San Pietro and the Piazza San Pietro. I know people wax lyrical about St. Peter’s, but I honestly thought some of the smaller churches we’d seen in Rome were far more wondrous. The crowds at least thinned out a bit in St. Peter’s, but the size and imposing grandeur left me cold.

Pope versus Gladiators in the battle of the souvenirs, Rome, Italy

Pope versus Gladiators in the battle of the souvenirs, Rome, Italy

Pope postcards, Rome, Italy

Pope postcards, Rome, Italy

This experience was made all the more poignant by my memories of visiting the Vatican in 1989 when, as far as I recall, there were no crowds. I was glad to get back out into the warmth of the Roman sun, and to be heading away from Vatican City madness. I doubt I’ll ever go back.