A couple of weeks ago I did a bit of research about the major attractions in Rome. Almost every description said these places are packed every day of the year, and so it’s best to either buy tickets ahead of time, or pay for a guided tour. The worst in every account was the Vatican, and in particular the Museums. I started by contacting a guide recommended by some friends, but never heard back so I went with the former and started looking for places that offered tickets.
Which led me down some blind alleys. It seems that scalpers can buy tickets in bulk, set up an official looking web site and then sell them at a profit. Wading through all the fakeness took some time, but eventually I found my way to the office site for the Musei Vaticani and their on-line ticket store.
Now I am no neophyte when it comes to ticket shopping on-line, I’ve done all kinds and I’ve had a host of problems. Train tickets often don’t pop up when they should, or the credit card gets continuously declined, even when the card company says everything is okay. So, I was surprised when this purchase went straight through and I was presented with a reservation number and a note that said my voucher would appear within the next hour.
Well, I was still waiting 24 hours later. I poked around on the site, found a “sort of” email address and sent a message describing the problem in English and Italian. When I still did not have them the next day, I asked my AirBnB host if he had any suggestions and he presented me with an e-mail address alternative to the one on the site. Again with the English and Italian messages. Again nothing.
On the third day, I rolled out of bed and lo – there as a voucher email waiting for me along with a second message. I thanked them. And hour later, a second voucher and second message from a second person, I thanked them too.
I had chosen an 8:30 AM entry time and as I mentioned we had done a walk a couple of days ago to scope out the place and the time it would take to get there. Every single travel site said the museum becomes very crowded as the day wears on so I opted for a time that was moderately reasonable.
Google Maps told us it was a 23-minute walk and it was close to that, counting the 5 minutes (!) advantage the traffic gets at one busy crossing. We started dealing with crowds along the south wall of Vatican City, the place where the tour buses drop everyone off. The sidewalks were nearly full of tourists standing in circles getting that cigarette they couldn’t get on the bus. We threaded our way through that and turned the corner for the final climb up to the door. The sidewalk here is divided down the middle by steel crowd control barriers, 2/3 to the left, 1/3 to the right. We kept getting queried by what seemed like a never-ending gauntlet of tour group salesmen, “You have tickets? Go here. You have tickets? Go there.” We ended up on the skinny side, and at the end the fat side held perhaps 50 people. A guard asked to see our voucher, she scanned it and pointed us to an empty entrance – our planning had paid off. From there, through an airport-style bag scanner, a ticket window, up some stairs and through a turnstile – we were inside, early against our appointed time!
I won’t go into the history this time, but I will echo what all the guidebooks say – it’s the richest museum on earth, it’s crowded beyond belief (mostly due to endlessly roaming tour groups,) it’s poorly marked and provides almost no information about what you’re looking at. But besides all that, it is extraordinary!
We chose the “long tour” and started outside looking at an oddball collection of sculpture and a beautiful view of St. Peter’s off in the distance. 

Back inside, we entered a long hallway with perhaps 10,000 individual pieces of Roman statuary. The Popes had a habit throughout history of acquiring the remnants of the Roman Empire (among other things) and a lot of it ended up in this wing. One piece caught my eye, the upper body of a Dacian prisoner done in white and purple marble. MLW pointed it out and once I read the card, I realized I had just read it about that specific piece in the book I’m reading, Rory Stewart’s travel tale of walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. This statue is the only known depiction of a Dacian, a people that lived long ago in the area north of Greece and into Romania. We know almost nothing about them aside from this piece and the chronicles of their wars with the Romans.
There was a second sub-wing off the main wing with even more statuary, mostly big, high quality full body statues of famous Romans and gods. The marble floor had original Roman mosaics dropped in here and there. 

Following statue overload it was a long and arduous trek in and out of galleries looking at more and more statues, although in each one the ceilings were the true showpieces. Beautiful frescoes and carvings. We went through a long, darkened corridor dedicated to 15th century tapestries and the exited into what I had been looking forward to, the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, the Hall of Maps. 

The ceiling here was unbelievable (see following photo and as always, click to enlarge.) Frescoes and paintings and sculptures narrowing off into infinity. The walls were composed of frescoed maps of Italy depicting provinces and cities. It was just extraordinary.

More rooms and more art, including a very uninspiring section devoted to the Vatican’s modern collection, and some intriguing rooms which, judging from the wear and tear and materials, must have been in a very old part of the building. Finally, after a lot of staircases we emerged into the expected highlight of the visit, the Sistine Chapel.
I’m going to swim against the tide here and say while it is amazing, it came up short to the hype. First, I think the tour route ought to start here and end at the statues. At least that way you have a mind fresh enough to be amazed. Secondly, the room is lined with benches and the benches are covered with tired and bored tourists, none of whom are looking up. After standing up and spinning around in circles looking overhead for a few minutes, we joined the sitting horde and spent a bit more time looking at specific pieces and parts.
It’s amazing that Michelangelo did this thing at all, much of it lying on a scaffold way up there in the thin air. Many of his individual elements are extraordinary, like God giving life to Adam. In some cases, he did some amazing tricks with color and perspective and shadows that render the flat figures emerging from the walls. One a pair of feet high overhead that you’d swear you could hang from. But, the expansive nature of the place made it hard for me to appreciate and after a bit we got tired to the people and the guards constantly reminding them that photographs are prohibited as is talking loudly so we moved on, stopping for a very good and reasonably priced Americano in the museum coffee shop.
MLW read the details about the museum while we regrouped and we realized we’d missed the Pinacoteca – the painting gallery. It took a bit of back-tracking but we found it and in my opinion it was the best part of the museum, holding masterpieces by Raphael, Da Vinci, Murillo, Caravaggio and Titian. Less crowded, well lit, well documented, it was a nice end to the tour.

Except it wasn’t the end because we couldn’t find our way out. We ended up in another extensive collection of ancient Christian cenotaphs and burial crypts before escaping there and retracing our steps to another purported exit. This one through the gift shop (of course.) The actual way out was a 5-story circular ramp that was almost impossible to walk down.
Back out on the street, the fat side of the sidewalk held perhaps a thousand people waiting to get in. People who didn’t know that the smart bet was buying tickets on-line, ahead of time.

On the way home, we stopped into a little neighborhood bakery for some slices of pizza (a very common and easy way to do lunch here.) Today we ordered a caprese and one with rosemary and thin slices of potatoes. I had a nice chat with the woman who served us about Rome and English speaking and how easy it is to travel here (she was surprised I’d say that.) One more chance for my trans-cultural education.