I know. I'm a heathen. I've only been to the Vatican once before. It was early. It was the last Sunday of the month (so it was free!), and I was hungover. Heathen. I rushed through the museums to the Sistine Chapel, loved the Last Judgement, and then wandered through the Basilica feeling smug that I'd beaten the crowds, and indeed, missed everything on the way. So when Through Eternity tours offered us a guided tour of the Vatican and the Vatican museums, I figured I should atone for the error of my ways. Add into this mix of contrition and youthful ignorance the fact that Mrs LazioExplorer, despite being a local, has never seen the Sistine Chapel and you can see it was time to do things properly. Time to put things right. How about a 5 hour guided tour of the museums and Basilica?
Thanks to Through Eternity Tours, and their 5 hour tour option costing 67 euros, we found ourselves skipping past the queue trailing around the walls of the Vatican (and out of sight) to pick up our audio packs. With earphone in ear we ghosted past further queues and on to the gardens behind the basilica. Our guide, the ever knowledgeable Cinzia, introduced herself and explained the schedule of the tour. Going back in time from 1931 to antiquity, we were to be guided through the museum, taking in a Giotto, numerous Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo pieces, all with Cinzia explaining the symbolism and impact of each piece through our earphones. St. Peter is always with a golden key, Doubting Thomas is with a belt (from Mary), Hercules with a club and loin cloth, and so on. She opened our (in my case admittedly naive) eyes and enabled our group to enjoy the museum, rather than be overwhelmed by it. Thanks to the earphones, we could listen to the stories while wandering away from Cinzia to take photos or simply to have a sit down.
In addition to taking us through the paintings and sculptures, Cinzia used the tour to tell us about the Sistine Chapel and the journey Michelangelo made through the pieces in the museum, and how they informed his own work. Interlaced with the art history were stories of popes, subterfuge and scandal. As you can tell, we were enjoying it. After a brief pausa for lunch (either bring your own or buy a reasonably-priced but not too tasty panino/pizza/pasta meal from the cafeteria), we took on the oldest sculptures in the collection, including a wonderful Greek Apollo, the basis for the face (and hair!) of Jesus in Michelangelo's The Last Judgement.
|Apollo, oblivious to the crowds and his nakedness. We've all been there.|
After about 3.5hrs, we reached the Sistine Chapel. With no tour guides allowed to 'guide' in the chapel, and the officious guards shushing everyone VERY LOUDLY (oh the irony), we were squeezed into the chapel for 20 minutes. Taking in the ceiling, and remembering everything Cinzia told us of the design issues and quarrels surrounding both the ceiling and The Last Judgement, we felt like we'd come full circle. Learned a lot, seen a lot, and indeed, understood a great deal.
There was more. After the epiphany of the Sistine Chapel, we moved onto the Basilica itself. Once again, we skipped the line and walked straight in. Cinzia continued where she'd left off. Every question answered, every item explained with patience and to the right level. The tour finished after just over 5 hours. 5 hours! We felt like we could have gone on. If you had told me I would want to know more after a 5 hour tour, I would have said you were crazy. The thing is, and it's a very obvious thing, the Vatican and the Vatican museum are massive. Far too much to do in a day, let alone 5 hours. That's where the tour gives value for money. Cinzia picked out the must-sees, explained them and linked them together, giving the tour a narrative. In addition, as our group was limited to 12 people, Cinzia was always available, the group was small enough for everyone to get to know each other a little, and it was easy to keep up.
|The School of Athens from Raphael. Being an attention seeker, he painted himself into the picture. Can you spot him?|
Overall then, we can wholeheartedly recommend taking this tour of the Vatican. I know 5 hours sounds a lot, and I know it's not cheap, but we really think it's worth it.
Having taken the tour, do I feel I've now done the Vatican properly? Yes. Well, kind of. Like the best things in life, the more I've learned about it, the more I realize there is more to learn. I certainly feel like I've learned far more by taking the tour than by simply walking around myself, even if I took an automated audioguide. Having a real person there explaining everything to you does make a difference, if only because they can tell when you're switching off! Having taken the tour, I feel enlightened, knowledgeable, almost cultured, even if I still get hangovers...
* While we were guests of Through Eternity Tours, our opinions are our own. If we don't like something, we'll tell you. If you'd like to go on the tour we did, here's the link.
All text and photos copyright www.lazioexplorer.com 2013.