Vatican City is the crumb left over once the pope’s earthly domain was reduced to a couple of blocks in Rome following Italian unification. The pope at the time (Pius IX) was very unhappy about this abrogation of his temporal power (free access heaven is apparently no substitute for an earthly kingdom, despite what the gospels say) and until Paul VI, the popes, in a bout of ecclesiastical pouting that was to last for a century, considered themselves exiled in their own country, which is the size of a large bath towel.
Vatican City consists primarily of the basilica of Saint Peter, who was the first pope and is buried under a very impressive altar in the middle of the basilica. You can visit his grave (and the graves of most of the popes) by standing in a long line and shuffling through a series of marble hallways while guards say “shush”. There will be a traffic jam at the grave of John Paul II, where you can either be pushed along with the crowd or step behind the special contemplation ropes to contemplate and look way more devout than the tourists who get pushed past wondering what “Joannes Paulus PP. II” means.
The basilica itself bears no description from me, as it is widely and thoroughly described elsewhere by people who are either far more awed or far more cynical (choose according to your degree of belief / gullibility) than am I. Suffice it to say that you are allowed to kneel in prayer in front of the perfectly conserved body of pope John XXIII, who looks a whole lot like he’s made of wax, which is apparently a miracle of some sort but which seemed kind of creepy to me and my family.
If immaculately preserved dead bodies (note that his is an immaculately preserved canonized dead body) don’t do it for you, then you can always gawk at the Swiss guards, who are among the most gawkable uniformed personnel in the Western world.
To understand the Swiss guards, you have to understand something about post-renaissance Italy. Post-renaissance Italy was a political mess (so was pre-renaissance Italy. Renaissance Italy was a mess too. For that matter, so is modern-day Italy, but I digress). A plethora of city-states were constantly at war with each other and since they were low on population but high on cash, they tended to fight their wars with mercenaries. Among the most sought-after mercenaries were the Swiss. This is understandable; after all, who attacks Switzerland? If you’re a soldier, you’re not going to get much exercise serving in the wars of conquest carried out by the Helvetian Confederation … better to sell your services to needy princelings (and in secular Italian political matters, the pope was a needy princeling). Furthermore, the Swiss were good with very long pointy things like pikes and halberds. The pope therefore made a point of having only Swiss as his personal guards, and only the best of the Swiss.
This tradition has remained until the present day. The Swiss guard currently number about a hundred. They are all really Swiss, they all must have served in the Swiss army, they must be Catholic, and they must be willing to wear a renaissance uniform designed by Michelangelo (apparently just after he invented a costume for Florentine clowns) without feeling ashamed or pointing at each other and giggling. They are also trained in the use of their ceremonial halberds, a weapon that is unbeatable when it comes to unhorsing a medieval knight but has its limitations when facing down anyone bearing a weapon conceived after the invention of gunpowder. I’ve heard that the Swiss Guard also carry discrete sidearms under their brightly-striped suits and perhaps the sheer ignominy of being gunned down by clown bearing a poleax dissuades would-be terrorists.
Not that the Swiss guard is alone in assuring the security of the Vatican. There is also the Saints Peter and Paul Society. This hallowed organization is the successor of the Palatine Guard, a group of civilians who traditionally swore to protect the Popes, but which was disbanded in 1970 by Pope Paul VI, who decided that a bunch of middle-aged Italians pretending to be a holy militia was more perilous in itself than anything they could conceivably defend him against. Since then, they made themselves more formally into a kind of club and took to wearing blue blazers and shushing tourists.
I asked one of them what it took to become a member.
“A catholic sentiment,” he responded, and then explained the lengthy initiation process to me, which I pretended to note down.
The third leg of the fearsome Vatican security triad consists of the Vatican Gendarmerie. I wanted to interview a Gendarme, but they were far too scary. Although they don’t carry axes on sticks, they do carry clearly visible sidearms and they have that squinty look that is often sported by Italians with guns (except for those who also sport the uniform of the Italian army, who have a tendency to look more bored than anything else). I hung out by one who was closely guarding one of the entrances to the basilica. He was a young swarthy man sucking discretely on a cigarette, which I assume is generally discouraged at the entrance to Saint Peter’s basilica. Then again, I noticed that there were five cigarette butts on the ground at his feet. He appeared to be studying the passers-by closely (although I had been studying him for several minutes without him noticing) and he sprung into action as soon as a situation arose … the situation being a very attractive young French woman who had apparently left her cell phone in the Vatican treasure museum (interesting little place that displays reliquaries housing chunks of dead saints, as well as other priceless items). The Gendarme disappeared with the attractive French woman, coaching her in Italian, leaving the entrance to the basilica unguarded but hey, you might call it the Vatican, this is still Rome.
It does have a different postal system, though, and the Vatican post office is busy as hell (note the irony). They seem to specialize in two things: sending postcards with a Vatican postmark to the rest of the world, and selling Vatican City stamps to collectors.
There are two outlets of the Vatican City post office easily accessible to visitors: one on the right of the basilica and one on the left. Just look hard enough and you’ll find them. Inside the larger, more visible of them (left) you’ll find a table where any number of people will be sitting writing postcards. The center of the table is littered with the blank strips you tear off when you buy a sheet of stamps (kind of like stamp bones, I suppose) and the edges of the table are occupied by people furiously scribbling on postcards that absolutely must be sent before the country closes, at six.
I went to talk to one of the employees, the lady behind the information desk. I wondered what type of information one could ask for from the Vatican post office.
“Mostly directions,” she said.
“Is it so difficult to find your way in a country this small?”
She thought about it. “Well I do get a lot of stupid requests,” she replied. “Some people ask me where Saint Peter’s is.” She glanced out the window at the towering dome beyond. “Mostly, though, they ask me where the Sistine chapel is. You’d be surprised, though, at how many ask me where the seventeenth chapel is. I think they get confused.”
All in all, it wasn’t very astounding and it must be said that there wasn’t much in the Vatican that astounded me. A little bit of confusion in terms of security forces, a weird post office, dead popes under glass … your usual tourist attractions. Of course, the basilica itself is astounding (very big, lots of gold—it’s the largest church in Christendom, after all) and the Sistine chapel is even better than the fifteenth, but I confess a certain lack of oomph. As we left the country I thought I’d check out the newsstand. On top of the ubiquitous sets of rosary beads (rosary beads must account for the third most successful industry of the country, after postcards and stamps) the newsstand also sells magazines and I leafed through them for signs of hypocrisy. True, there was a scantily clad woman on the cover of one, but it was more a gossip rag than porn. I asked the tattooed man behind the counter if the powers-that-be put any pressure on him with respect to his choice of wares.
“No,” he replied, as he discretely slid the cover with a buxom woman behind a crossword magazine. “Of course, we pay attention—we only sell things that could be read by both children and Monsignor, but they have never put any pressure on us. Why do you ask?”
When it comes down to it, Vatican City is essentially a pretend country stuffed with magnificent works of art. Something like 30% of the country is taken up by a church and the rest is taken up by bureaucracy, the entirety guarded by swarthy chain-smoking cops, sixteenth-century halberd-toting Swiss and white-haired Italian men who regret the time when they were a real militia (i.e. 1720). If you’re a very devout catholic then I’m sure you’ll be thrilled by all this, but if you are not, I strongly suggest going to check out the basilica and, of course, the Sistine chapel, but then step across the white line that serves as the frontier and have yourself a real good time in Rome.