The awesomeness and largesse of this city is really what impresses most. That and the ancient ruins that surprise you at every corner. We only had three days and I didn't want to spend them running from tourist trap to tourist trap. The only thing that was an absolute must on my list was The Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo's famous painting therein. So, on the second day we cabbed it across the river to Vatican City, stopping on the way to see the Spanish Steps (unimpressive) and the Trevia Fountain (lavish beauty).
Needless to say, the Vatican has never been on my number one list of things to visit. The Pope and all that he encompasses has always seemed like some kind of grand charade to me. Somewhat akin to a parade or a carnival. I was raised Roman Catholic, yet still somehow in my mind I've always seen Vatican City as a myth of something greater, a romantic idea of how it should work, but never could.
So we step through the grand columns of the entrance to the city and head towards St. Peter's Basilica. My compatriot (the one who never asks for directions) is positive that the Sistine Chapel is inside. While I usually question his every move, I decide to give him a break and trust his instincts.
There is a massive line awaiting entrance to the Basilica and it is raining. We trudge along silently, avoiding the furtive jabs of wayward teenage umbrellas. I must admit, my curiosity is peaked surrounding the interior of this lavish cathedral. Will it be magical? Holy? A discussion of holy places ensues. My sister and I both agree that Chichen It'za in Mexico had a holy feeling. She also discourses on the spiritual nature of Macchu Picchu, Peru. In Sri Lanka my most favorite of holy places is Dambulla, an ancient buddhist site. Every time I venture there, I feel lifted off my feet, as though I am floating instead of walking.
As we walk through the doors of the Basilica, I anxiously await a seraphic experience. EPIC FAIL. What I encounter instead is extravagance upon heady extravagance building up to an anti-climactic almost-sighting of The Pope. It's not like I was dying to see The Pope anyway, rather I think I got caught up in the hysterical throng that was pushing and jostling behind a velvet rope.
In fact, I was quite disgusted by the hedonistic display of wealth inside this church. Giant paintings, tapestries and statues of massive proportions were in every corner. It was a pure display of wealth, and nothing more. I found myself questioning why a religion needs to have such affluence? Give me a tree on a hill and I will be happy to show you the path to God.
Anyway, it turns out that the Sistine Chapel was nowhere to be found. My compatriot (who still never asks for directions) was mislead, yet again. We spent the entire afternoon wandering around a farce of virtuosity and I still hadn't seen Michaelangelo's famous painting.
The next day we returned and found The Sistine Chapel inside of the Vatican Museum. Again we had to traipse through room after room of the "treasures" of the Vatican. It all made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Looking at icons from Egypt, Greece and beyond, which I knew had been stolen or pillaged in the name of Christianity. My sister wondered aloud why the Catholic Church has so many religious icons from so-called "pagan" times. An apt point, I thought.
The Sistine Chapel was, as promised ethereal. Supreme beauty. As though The Archangels themselves resided upon it's very walls. There were no pictures allowed, as well as no talking, eating, coughing or staying too long. Of course I expected nothing less from a the spiritual travesty that is called The Vatican . Afterwards we visited the beautiful little village of Trastevere, not far from the Vatican City. It was all narrow alleyways and hidden shops. Stopping for some brilliant pizza, I wished that we had spent the whole day in this gem of a place.
On our last day, I glanced out the window and noticed a stunningly beautiful artifact of religious history directly across the Piazza. It had been calling out to me the whole time, yet amidst the chaos I had barely noticed it. I begged my sister for us to take a detour on our way to our morning pastry shop. She relented, and we entered.
Our quest for spiritual purity was abated. It was a supremely holy space. As we entered, I felt a hush in my heart. I did not want to speak, or even whisper. A few people were praying, others were wandering about in peaceful contemplation. It felt ancient, as though the land itself were responsible for such messianic vibrations.
Lesson learned. Why journey to the divinity of the masses when you can discover individual piety on your doorstep?