“Skip the line, skip the line” come the shouts from up and down the sidewalk. It’s about 80° out, the sun shining brightly down on the seemingly endless stream of people in front of me, and the €33 prices being quoted to get into the Musei Vaticani – the Vatican Museums – are sounding better by the minute. I’ve been standing here, waiting, for over an hour now. I’ve shuffled forward maybe 30 feet. According to a loud-voiced fellow American somewhere behind me in the line who ran to check how far it extends around the corner, we have a solid three hours left, at least.
After staving off water sellers (Cold! One euro! One euro!), umbrella sellers (Block the sun!), rosary sellers (well, it is the Vatican, after all), and the ubiquitous “skip the line” tour guides for nearly an hour, my willpower is wavering. It is possible to buy tickets in advance, but I frugally refused to pay four extra euros on top of the already steep sixteen euro price to enter the Vatican Museums, which include the famed Sistine Chapel. Now, I’m questioning that decision. The last entrances are early, around 12:30, and the museums close completely by 4 pm. I check the time on my cell phone: 10:13. By the time I get through this line, I may as well not have bothered.
With a fortuitously timed sales pitch made to the two Scottish ladies immediately behind me, I change my mind about the extra cost. I picked a lucky place – the middle-aged, hat wearing women are just gullible enough to try and politely talk to the tour sellers each and every time one passes them, allowing me to hear all of the options available without getting sucked into a sale. For whatever reason, this particular man in his mid-20s, guide badge around his neck, says his company will sell an entrance – no tour, but just a group to skip to the front of the line with – for €27, €6 less than any other guide I’d heard yet. Then, the American from LA and her boyfriend get in on the deal. They ask about a student price: €20, comes the answer. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have their student IDs on them. Fortunately for me, I do. €20 not being any more than the original online ticket price, I acquiesce, turning around to get in on the conversation myself. A few minutes later, I’m traipsing past person after person, turn the corner, and realize that I hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way through the line.
Later that afternoon, sun still brightly shining overhead, I’m waiting in line once more, this time to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. There’s no entrance fee, just a line of metal detectors that have to be passed before one can enter, so the line moves quickly, even from all the way across St. Peter’s Square. I pass through the massive doors, rendered speechless by the sheer wealth of what I’m seeing around me. Everything in sight is covered in either gold or detailed murals, sculptures line the walls, and even the ceiling, rising over 400 feet, is intricately ornamented. Ahead, at one of the few simple wooden altars scattered throughout the Basilica, I see a woman kneeling in prayer, hands together, head bowed. I wonder how anybody could pray in here. This place that was built to be a church no longer feels like it, with it’s explanatory signs, roped off areas, metal detectors, guards, and suffocating crowds. Then I see her friend in front of her, camera in hand, getting ready to shoot; she isn’t praying, it’s simply a photo op. Walking in a daze, I find my way around the tour groups of visiting nuns to the stairs leading down to the Vatican Grotto, the final resting place of many Popes, and according to the Church, of St. Peter himself. The area immediately above his tomb is now lavishly decorated, and barred from public entrance. The rest of the floor contains sarcophagi of various Popes from throughout history, and even the occasional non-Papal authority, such as Queen Cristina of Sweden.
Walking through, in awe of the history of the people laying around me, I’m brought back into the real world when I climb back up the stairs, through the exit, and find myself face to face with a souvenir shop. Without having done any research to back this up, I’m thoroughly convinced that at least half of the businesses in Vatican City must be souvenir shops. At least. Every church or museum I’ve walked through so far ends in such a place, and in the case of the Vatican Museums, they don’t even wait until the end. They’re just scattered throughout the labyrinth of exhibits, displaying their shockingly expensive rosaries in glass cases alongside bookmarks adorned with pictures of the pope and thin pocket-sized notebooks stamped with the “Musei Vaticani” logo for €9 apiece.
In the Vatican, it’s hard to tell where the church ends, and the business begins. Because that’s what it feels like: a business. And a good one at that. In peak season, an average of 20,000 people make their way through the museums and connected Sistine Chapel each day. For the only remaining Papal state, Vatican City hardly feels more like a religious site to me than any of the other local attractions I’ve visited. The Pope might live there, but unless he’s out on the balcony giving an address, everywhere you turn it’s the same ticket booths and audio guides that you find at the Colosseum. The streets leading up to St. Peter’s Square are lined with places advertising €6 pizza and coke or 50¢ postcards. The only thing that makes the Vatican feel any different than the sprawling, slightly dirty city of Rome itself is the undeniable wealth. It’s everywhere, in all the buildings, in the towering marble pillars, topped with their numerous statues. It’s in the glimmering crosses, and the valuable artwork. It makes me wonder when it will be enough.