A 110 acre city state that has fewer than 1000 citizens is also one of the most powerful (not militarily, obviously) independent states in the world. It houses some of the most beautiful works of art in existence. For anyone visiting Italy, Vatican city is a must see sight. Our day started at the Piazza San Pietro, which is a delightful place to indulge in people watching and photographing pigeons. I sent home a postcard from the Vatican post office van parked in the Square, which funnily enough arrived in India after I did :).
After a quick lunch at one of the many small cafes on the street leading to Saint Peter's Square, we made our way to Musei Vaticani. The art I had seen so far had been amazing, but this place is a treasure-house of incredible magnitude. It can take days to fully experience the several museums that are part of the Vatican Museums complex but you can cover the major highlights in an afternoon (Tip: Afternoon is a good time to visit since its less crowded and you escape the harsh sunlight outside). There were three major highlights for me: Cappella Sistina, Gallery of Maps and the Cortile del Belvedere.
Cappella Sistina is a special place for Roman Catholicism, it is the site of the Papal conclave. For art lovers, The Last Judgement a fresco on the altar wall by Michelangelo will stun you into silence. Another fresco The Creation of Adam is stunning not only for the detail and artistry but also because it is on the ceiling. Now its hard enough to paint something that you know is going to be hung on a wall. To imagine what it should look like to people looking up at the ceiling in an age where simulation and imagination were one and the same, is the work of a genius.
The Gallery of Maps are perhaps not on most people's list of highlights in the Vatican museums. For me, it was an amazing experience looking at maps created as frescoes are incredibly detailed and cover the entire Italian Peninsula in an age before flight, satellites or photography had been imagined. Do not miss the ceiling of this gallery that is dotted with carvings that clearly display the affluence of the Vatican.
The Cortile del Belvedere is an open courtyard within the grounds of the museum. It is a great place to rest your feet and let the Vatican experience sink in. It also marked the end of my first trip to Vatican city.
I hadn't visited the most famous church in the world, on my first trip to the Vatican city because the queues were too long. I hatched what I thought, was a clever plan to reach the entrance early on a Sunday morning so I could be one of the first in line to enter Basilica Sancti Petri. I was shocked to see over 10000 people already in Saint Peter's Square when I got there at 7:00 AM. As it turns out, I had chosen Palm Sunday, and the people were there to attend a service conducted by the Pope. I had unwittingly experienced something many Christians travel long distances to see.
After the service ended, I did manage make my way into Saint Peter's Basilica. There isn't a single inch of space that isn't covered in artwork (or my brain chose to ignore those inches). Though most people may not notice, even the flooring has artwork on it. I am not going to even try and explain the beauty of the art contained in this place, it can only be experienced by seeing it for yourself. There is an entrance to the first level of the Vatican Necropolis which is home to the remains of many Popes and other high ranking roman Catholics who wished to be buried close to what is suspected as Saint Peter's tomb. Its a little chilling and sobering to visit this level, but it displays a part of Christian tradition that is worth seeing, along with the historical significance of the place. I did not make the long climb to the top of Michelangelo's dome, but for those who want to see a landscape where modern buildings co-exist beautifully with ancient buildings (and ruins), the photos suggest it would be a feast for the eyes.
There is a lot more to explore in the Vatican, especially the Vatican gardens, but that was all I could manage during this trip.
You can find my full photo album on Google+ : Vatican City