It’s a familiar dilemma: you want to see some of the world’s most famous artworks but so do hundreds of other people. Do you wait patiently to go through security so that you can get into another queue before you finally get to join the jostling crowds inside? Or do you walk away and do something different? We chose the latter when faced with the endless queues for the Sistine Chapel while visiting Rome, and opted for an unusual – and quiet – walk outside the walls of the Vatican City instead.
The Vatican City Walls
It was a particularly busy morning. Apart from the museum-goers, crowds had gathered in St Peter’s Square to listen to the Pope. A loud speaker had been set up and the speech was being translated into English – we stopped in our tracks when we heard the Pope welcoming “our visitors from Yorkshire” but quickly concluded that he wasn’t talking about us!
We decided to keep the Sistine Chapel for another day and went back out of the gate to walk around the outside of the Vatican City walls. After all, we thought, there is something quite cool about the idea of walking around an entire country before lunchtime.
A Walled State Within Rome
Building the walls of the Vatican City began in the 9thcentury but most of today’s walls (3.2 km in total) date from the 1800s. As you walk around you gradually move away from the crowds and into quiet residential areas, but the walls are so high that you rarely get a glimpse of what is behind them. But you are frequently reminded that you are on the edge of an unusual country by the appearance of the coats of arms of former popes set into the walls themselves.
About half way round we were surprised by the sight of a train line leading right into the city, and a goods train waiting to be let into the locked gate. It was a reminder that this is a place where people live and work. I found out later that the line is a spur from San Pietro station, used mainly to carry freight into the Vatican. This is said to be the shortest national railway in the world, with just one station, called – naturally – Stazione Vaticana.
Back to the beginning, the crowds were still milling about. We hadn’t seen Michelangelo’s famous ceiling but we had gained a different perspective on the Vatican City.