Christmas Eve, the Cupola & St. Peter’s Square

Over our seven days in Rome, we visited the Vatican City three times.  We never meant to visit it three times.  But then again, we didn’t go to Rome with much of a plan either.

As I mentioned in a previous post, we went to the Vatican City on Christmas Eve for a guided tour.  We arrived very early, and took a 3 hour tour, that wrapped up just before lunch.  We spent this entire time inside the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s.  But of course, that’s just part of the Vatican experience.

After we finished our time inside of St. Peter’s Basilica, we left and entered the main square.  Security is tight at St. Peter’s, so once you leave, you have to stand in a long line to get back in – sometimes up to three hours long.  So when we left, we knew it was it for the day.  We visited the post office, to send some postcards to friends and family back home, and then took in the view.  St. Peter’s feels regal, and majestic, and cozy, and inviting all at once.  An Egyptian obelisk, nativity and large Christmas tree were in the centre of the square. There were fountains to the left and the right, and two statues in the square – Peter and Paul, each hidden slightly behind/above two large televisions – set for broadcasting events from inside the Basilica – and on this day – ready for Christmas Eve midnight mass.  When you get back far enough you can take in the entire scene – the chairs filling the square for later in the evening, the red velvet curtains hanging from the Balcony above the doors, the sculptures of the apostles lining the top of the building.  I found myself online, trying to make sense of everything I was seeing.  By now of course we were starving, and so we left St. Peter’s – walking freely over the country limits back into Italy, marked only by a change in the colour of stone on the ground.  During special events this is blocked off and people are forced through security, but early in the afternoon entry to the square was easy.

After walking the 40 minutes back home, we were thinking of where to have dinner, and having an early night.  We were unable to get tickets in advance to midnight mass, and I was exhausted, until a short google search showed that midnight mass was going to be at  9:30 PM.  We had seen the chairs in the square.  I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience something really special in Rome, and it was worth the effort.  This meant visit number two to Vatican City.  We walked 40 minutes in the cold and wind back to St. Peter’s Square, in hopes of getting a seat for mass.  When we got there we saw that the square had been closed for entry, and everyone was going through security and scanners to get into the square.  30 minute wait in line got us into the square and into a seat.  Too early in fact.  We had an hour more to wait.  The temperature dropped to about 4 degrees Celsius, and we were freezing, despite glovers, toques, scarves, boots and winter jackets.  Shortly after we sat down they brought out books that translated everything and explained what was happening – but we didn’t find out about these until 3/4 the way through the service – so we were left trying to guesstimate our best Italian-English translations.  The service was beautiful, and we enjoyed it in the square with 20-30,000 other people (plus another 15,000 inside where it warm).  There were songs we recognized, and sun along in English – beautiful hymns sung by beautiful choirs.  Near the end, just before communion, they stopped to sing Silent Night.  Silent Night, in the cold crisp air, echoing off the marble of St. Peter’s Square, was one of the most beautiful things I can remember of my time in Rome.  Something about the song brings unity among strangers.  And with that, we walked back home, ready for a good nights sleep in a warm bed.

On Christmas morning we slept in.  We thought about getting up early and going back to St. Peter’s though.  Christmas Day at noon is one of the two times a year the Pope speaks from the balcony above the entrance to St. Peter’s (this is called Urbi et Orbi).  Going would have meant seeing the Pope LIVE and in the flesh.  Seemed like an amazing opportunity.  But it was still cold – and the 40 minute walk each way was a deterrent for my already sore feet (cobblestone ain’t easy to walk on all day!)  So we slept in.  Christmas morning we woke up, stayed in our warm bed, made some espresso, and turned on the TV just in time to see the Pope on his balcony, delivering his speech (I wish it had subtitles!) to a jam packed crowd in St. Peter’s Square.  Both the cold, the walk, and now looking at the crowd, I was twice as happy about my decision to stay in bed.  Instead we went on a search for a traditional Italian Christmas meal – ending up at what is the WORST RESTAURANT WE HAVE EVER EATEN IN EVER.  A little place called Habana around the corner from the Pantheon.  I won’t tell you about it, because I’ll just get angry all over again.  Needless to say – NEVER eat at an Italian restaurant who pays a guy to convince you to eat at the restaurant.  Just don’t.  Good restaurants don’t need a guy.  Lesson learned.

I digress.

As I was trying to find information online about the Urbi et Orbi, I found these cool pictures of the square.  Pictures that appeared to come from the TOP of St. Peter’s.  Apparently, in my lack of research, and lack of paying attention on my first time through, I found out there was stairs to the top of the cupola.  We had missed out.  And the photographer just had to go.  We already had plans for Boxing day, so on the next available day (December 27) we got up in the morning and walked back to the Vatican. We arrived there to security lines, which seemed unusual, but we went with it.  When we got inside we saw that the entrance to St. Peter’s and the dome was closed, and the square was full of people, just standing there.  So, I did what any confused tourist would do – googled it.  This thing happens in vacation mode – something you forget the day of the week.  And today….was Sunday.  Apparently at noon on Sunday the Pope heads up to his apartment, opens the window, and prays a blessing on those in the square.  And here we were, with tens of thousands of others – waiting for a blessing.  So for 45 minutes we stood there, listening to a children’s choir sing in the background and balloons fly off into the blue sky above, until the Pope opened the window, and prayed for the families and the children (I know this because I recorded it and translated it at a later date).  So though we skipped the Christmas day crowds, we still managed to get in our real life Pope sighting – completely by accident.

Following our blessing by the Pope, we were able to push and shove our way into the line up and get tickets for the cupola.  There are two ways up – elevator + stairs or stairs + stairs.  The elevator saves you 230 steps, but at the rate Raymond runs – apparently no time.  He took the stairs, my sore feet took the elevator, and we met at the base of the dome.  You exit outside on the roof, and then enter into the dome.  The view down into the sanctuary from the top is beautiful, as is the mosaic tiles on the wall.  After that 231 more steps to get to the top.  Once you begin the ascent it gets a little claustrophobic.  The walls are angled and walkways narrow.  I’m not very tall, but even I had to crank my neck to the right to avoid hitting my dome on the dome.  Once we reached the outside we were able to take in the view – that made it worth the climb (though only by a narrow margin – my claustrophobia was starting to get the better of me at one point).  Then it was 551 steps back down to the base, one final walk through the crypts and sanctuary, and a final farewell to the Vatican.  This time for good.  While we never intended to visit as often as we did, we definitly feel like we got to experience so many aspects to what Vatican City has  to offer in a short period of time.  While our experiences at the Vatican were more happenstance than planned, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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