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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel after hours: the only way to go

If you've visited the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in Rome, then you probably did so with thousands of other people - or, to be more precise, tens of thousands. The attraction is a magnet for a mindbogglingly 25,000 people a day. The hours of waiting in the inconceivably long line that stretches around the huge block that's home to the Vatican and St Peter's Basilica, all the way to the square itself, is a major deterrence for many. It was for us on our first trip to Rome ten years ago. And even if you're smart enough to book tickets in advance, or desperate enough to join a tour group, once inside the experience can be tremendously disappointing. You're swept up in a sea of sweaty people and the feeling is akin to drowning. There's little room to move to stop to appreciate something that might catch your eye. You can't hear yourself think to even begin to reflect upon the exquisite art for the constant hum of thousands of voices and the interminable irritating lectures shouted out by guides to their groups in an attempt to be heard above the drone. The hundreds of little flags in the air waved about by guides so they don't lose any sheep from the flock obstructs your vision. Movement through the galleries is at a snail's pace simply because there is nowhere to move so everyone shuffles slowly along. Descending the stairs was a suffocating experience, and not one for claustrophobics. Once inside the Sistine Chapel, where entry is measured and numbers restricted, we were whisked through so swiftly (so the other 24,998 people could have their turn!) that there was little time to enjoy what must be at one and the same time the world's most sublime religious monument and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful art galleries on the planet. My memory of the chapel as a result was hazy, so when Viator, whom we occasionally write for (see our Top things to do in Dubai and our Dubai Guide: Top 10 off the beaten path experiences), invited us to join a private after hours tour we jumped at the chance. The experience was the complete opposite of that first visit four years ago. The corridors were so quiet you could hear a pin drop on the marble floor. Our expert guide - an art historian with a PhD who spent 3 years in the Vatican libraries researching her thesis! - was able to take her time pointing out important works, and she explained them with an infectious enthusiasm and such passion that she had tears in her eyes at times. We got to dawdle through the galleries and stop wherever we wanted to admire the work. And as for our visit to the Sistine Chapel itself, we had so much time to take in the sublime space that each painting is so firmly imprinted in my mind that if I was an artist I could sketch out the entire interior for you. A private tour is the only way to go. And if you don't believe me, do it both ways and then let me know what you think. I'll let you know when our post about the experience is up on the Viator blog.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you about that crowded feeling which I felt almost everywhere on our recent trip to Rome.

We ran out of time to go to the Sistine Chapel but I'd certainly consider a tour if I went again.

The only thing is that I read that the pretty short opening hours for the general public 10-4ish are so that they can make more money from these tours - so your enjoyment of the Sistine Chapel without the crowds, was at the expense of the rest of the visitors who have to cram their visitors into a shorter time frame, creating more crowds.

I know it's the centre of Catholicism but I can't believe that such a major tourist attraction doesn't open on Sundays.

Anonymous said...

Wow - what an opportunity! For the rest of us folks who don't have an "in" like that, consider hiring a private guide (through your hotel's concierge). They can get you in, out, and around the Vatican and its sights pretty smoothly. Avoid the group guides, though! I pity the huge groups walking around with a guide holding an umbrella (or flag) -- talk about herded cattle. --

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Heather, thanks for your comments - appreciated as always - but the Vatican Museum has *always* been horribly crowded. Long before they started the private tours. I first tried to go ten years ago (long before they started the private offerings and after-hour tours) and the lines then extended right around that mammoth block to the square. And my description of the crowds was also from a few years ago, again before they started the after-hour tours. So the change in hours hasn't caused this, it's simply provided alternatives for people who don't want to feel like a sardine and can obviously afford to do them.

Hi Familytravelgirl, thanks for your feedback also, although you don't have to have an 'in' to do these tours. Just check out the Viator and Context websites for starters. A number of companies run the after-hour tours but these are the only ones I can recommend, because obviously I haven't done tours with others and I won't recommend things I haven't tried myself. It's easy to buy tickets online and prices vary, which I think depends on group sizes and the quality of the guides.

I personally wouldn't hire a guide through a hotel unless I knew people who'd used that guide and trusted their opinions but then I have had several dreadful guiding experiences and absolutely hated guides until I tried Context and Viator. And every day I do research in cities around the world, I witness so many appalling guides in action - guides giving people bad advice, telling them stories that are incorrect, and generally getting in the way of them having a good experience. So I think people really need to be cautious when hiring guides through hotels. Thanks again! I'm going to have to check out your site now!