I'm writing this the day after our VIP tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. My head still feels like sensory overload. It was brilliant. But a bit more about where I'm coming from so you'll know why I was so blown away by this tour.
This is my 11th trip to Rome. I come almost every year, for a week, just to walk around and take pictures and sit in cafes and to disconnect from everything. I love this city. I've been to the Vatican Museum 3 times in the past, and honestly, each time felt like torture. God help you if you're trying to get into that museum between March and November: prepare for 2-hour lines and thousands of people. And when you finally get to the Sistine Chapel at the end of your visit, you will be herded in along with the 400, 500, 600 other people in there that are shuffling about shoulder-to-shoulder, while guards hiss "Silencio!" and "No Photos!" I remember my first time in there: I was expecting this miraculous, overwhelming, powerful moment -- and instead I was overcome by a feeling of "oh my god I have to get out of here." I say all of this so you can get a grasp of how special this VIP tour was that my mom and I were on yesterday.
Here's what the website promised: a private tour of secret, closed-to-the-public rooms of the Vatican Museum, ending with 30 minutes spent in the Sistine Chapel, completely alone: just your group of a max of 10 people. And you know what? They delivered, tenfold. It was SPECTACULAR. So, the details:
Our guide Shannon was wonderful. She is an American transplant in Italy and had her degree in art history so she knew this stuff inside out, but her presentation was friendly and informative and never dry or boring: it was the insider scoop. It wasn't "and then Raphael painted this painting in the year ___" -- no, it was the backstory about the rivalries between these famous artists, how they lived, what influenced them -- it was the stuff that you never hear about in stuffy, stodgy old history books. And we had a guard who accompanied us on the tour, unlocking secret rooms along the way, like the Bramante Staircase and one of the pope's private chapels. The tour started around 3:15 as the museum was already emptying out, and by partway through the tour you noticed that the place was empty except for the cleaning people and the guards locking things up. You hit a few of the major attractions in the museum that are open to the public, but by the time you get to them they're empty. The Raphael Rooms? Empty. It was breathtaking. We were literally walking down empty corridors, and if you've ever been to this museum before, you know that it sees a good 15,000 people per day. The other thing I liked: the Vatican Museum is 9 miles of museum. It's filled with amazing things, but not all of these amazing things are significant. Sure, that statue might be 2000 years old and it might be pretty, but it's not "important" -- and you could spend days in this museum -- so Shannon took us to the major things worth seeing, so you know that you leave the VM having seen what you should've seen.
As we approached the finish line - the Sistine Chapel - Shannon told us what to expect: she said there was another private tour group ahead of us but that they would be ushered out as we entered, and then we'd have 30 minutes alone in the chapel. Just our group of 10. If you've been to the Sistine Chapel before, you know what it's like to enter it: it's like Grand Central at rush hour, but worse. So bad, in fact, that when friends have visited Rome and asked if they should see the Vatican Museum, I normally tell them "don't do it, you'll regret it." So I want you to imagine what we saw: we entered a quiet, empty room with a little group standing in the middle chatting as they walked out. There was silence, and the room was empty. THE SISTINE CHAPEL WAS EMPTY. Our guard closed and locked the front door and exit, and it was just us and our tour guide. A completely empty Sistine Chapel. I looked around at our group and we were all staring, slack-jawed, at what was around us. Shannon gave us a few minutes to just sit and take it all in before she started the tour-guide portion of the details of the chapel (which is another great thing, because tour guides aren't allowed to talk in the chapel, but on this VIP tour, they ARE allowed to talk -- and you'll learn more info in this 30 minutes than you will in any history class.) I can't stress enough how amazing a moment that 30 minutes was: that alone was worth the cost of the ticket. For people who appreciate art or beautiful things, this actually delivers that "oh my god" moment that you hope to experience when you see something as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel. As we entered, I think I heard 9 other audible gasps.
So let me just say that if you've never seen the Vatican Museums before -- or even if you have, but were frustrated by the experience -- this is worth the price of admission. SO worth it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience that so few people ever get to have. We were all giddy by the time we left: it felt like we had just shared something really special. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 20 and that's not hyperbole: it was A-MA-ZING. Already looking forward to my next Rome trip so I can do it again!!!
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