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 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, it would be quite fun to walk around an entire country before lunchtime!
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Why Is There a Wall Around the Vatican?
In the Middle Ages it was common for walls to be built around cities to protect the inhabitants from invaders (and sometimes from wild animals as well). Pope Leo IV built the first wall around the Vatican City in the 9th century as a reaction to the threat posed by Saracen pirates. The fortifications were strengthened in the 16th century – this time to protect the city-state’s growing wealth from the city of Rome, but also as an expression of papal power!
Most of the walls that you see today (3.2 km in total) date from the 1800s. Fortunately pirates are no longer a problem, and tourists can freely enter the Vatican city without questions or passport checks (although you do need to go past the metal detectors).
Walking Around the Vatican Walls
As you walk around the Vatican walls 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.
We were glad we had skipped the queues and discovered something different. You can read how we managed to beat the crowds at the Vatican on another occasion here.