The first time I went to Vatican City, it was Good Friday in 2000, 16 long years ago. At the time, it was only my second trip overseas, I was accompanied by some of my best friends, and every moment was new and exciting. Plus, let me just tell you, if there’s a time to visit the smallest state—and holiest city—on Earth, it’s during Easter Week.
The second time I visited was the heat of the summer in 2014 with my family. Let me just tell you if there is a time NOT to visit the walled enclave deep within Rome, it’s on any day of the week in July. Or June. Or August.
We were on the final day of our two-week vacation in Italy and the Mediterranean and felt we simply couldn’t be in the Italian capital without dropping by to see the Pope and his fancy digs. So we booked a tour with Viator (side note: you have to book a tour guide in order to visit certain parts of the complex—and it’s often recommended you don’t go through the official Vatican website).
Before I tell you how awful our guide was, I’ll just say this: a tour booking agency like Viator partners with local tour companies all over the world. So while we had a beyond amazing experience with them in the Amalfi Coast (seriously, our guide was lovely), the company used for Vatican tours was less than stellar.
Our tour guide yelled at us if we dared to look off at one of the intricate sculptures lining the edifice while she talked. She briskly walked over and shooed us back in line if I deigned to try to take more photos than her brief stops allowed. She had zero bedside manner and was making me hate the entire experience.
At least I’d been before when I was a less jaded 17 year old, armed with a gaggle of friends.
Then there was the matter of crowds, which just escalated my feeling about the whole day. Here’s the thing: I’ll probably never go back to the Vatican again. Not because of this particularly negative experience with a rogue guide and not because the buildings themselves aren’t spectacular, but the heat, the throngs of sweaty tourists, the tight, crowded corridors, the fact that you can’t walk around without a tour guide watching you like a hawk?—as an extreme claustrophobe, it is, quite simply, my version of Hell.
I’m not going to sugar-coat things: I was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack for much of the afternoon. Uh, why did we PAY to do this again? I felt like Katniss Everdeen in the final installment of Hunger Games when the crush of bodies rushes at the Capitol, leaving human carnage in their wake.
To make matters worse, we were there on SVV’s 40th birthday—a Fourth of July baby—and that’s how
we I chose to spend his big day. I’m sorry, SVV. I promise to make it up to you every birthday for the rest of your life.
And while perhaps it was his big day, we mainly went for my mom. She’s a huge history buff who studied European history when at Vanderbilt, and she could legitimately spend an entire day in a museum.
You’re welcome, Mom.
I, on the other hand, have an hour shelf life, max, inside a museum of any sort, so I clearly did not inherit that trait of hers.
At least in the Vatican, as opposed to other historic structures of similar age, you can take pictures. I spent three hours clicking away on the shutter to distract me from the fact that I felt as if I was slowly being suffocated as the bodies closed in around me. I looked for an emergency exit on more than one occasion; weird how they didn’t readily install those back in ancient Rome.
Still, the Vatican is one of the most iconic complexes in the world. Should you go see it at some point in your life? Absolutely. Just do better research on your tour options than I did—or get personal recommendations for a qualified guide who’s not going to slap your hand if you want to pause a long moment to admire your surrounds—and go armed with a healthy supply of Xanax.
And maybe eventually they’ll do a better job with crowd control. Then again, maybe not.