Hands down, the best time to visit St. Peter’s Basilica is when it opens at 7am. Especially these days, when the tourist crowds are overwhelming (I’ve never seen the likes of the crowds I saw this trip, except maybe during Holy Week and Easter), the earlier you go to the Basilica the better chance you have to actually pray.
Armed with a good night’s sleep, we headed out to St. Peter’s bright and early Thursday morning, hoping Father was able to secure an altar for us. As we approached the sacristy, we saw him waiting for us, fully vested in Sts. Cosmas and Damian red, with a server waiting by his side.
The server led us to the first free altar, the altar of St. Wenceslaus (whose feast we’d celebrate a few days later).
Once again, it was moving to experience this through the eyes of the pilgrims. Morning Mass at St. Peter’s is not exactly a new experience for me. But experiencing it with the pilgrims reminded me how incredible it is — to be at a small, intimate Mass in such a grand, beautiful, immense place — to hear the dozens of other Masses taking place simultaneously — to hear the different languages, witnessing the universality of the Church … Yes, 7am Mass at St. Peter’s is a morning Mass like no other.
I knew that since there was so much to point out in the Basilica, just giving the highlights while outside wouldn’t suffice. Yet I wanted them to have the chance to really take in the Basilica before getting a nitty-gritty tour. So after Mass I gave them all an hour and a half of free time to pray and wander around, taking advantage of the calm before the tourist storm. After that, we left the Basilica and headed to get coffee, then got back in the now very long line to return to the Basilica.
The line was long (and it was only 10am!) but while we waited I gave a overview of the history of the basilica, pointed out things in the piazza, etc, and it timed perfectly — when I was finished with the “exterior of St Peter’s” tour note cards, we were heading into security and ready to go inside.
Tour groups are required to use whisper mics now, which is actually really nice– tour guides just whisper into their own little microphone and their groups can wander around more freely. It was fun to use them — it made me feel important, and it was nice to be able to talk without worrying if everyone could hear me.
It definitely means less noise, and even traffic jams are somewhat lessened, since tour groups don’t need to stick together as closely. There are simply so many tourists these days, though, the basilica is still very, very crowded and hard to maneuver.
We worked our way around clockwise, starting at the baptismal font and ending at the Pieta. There is so much to point out in the basilica — from the tombs of Popes Pius X, John XXXIII, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, John Paul II, not to mention Sts. Simon and Jude, to the works of Bernini, to the history (“that’s where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor…”) to the the fun statistics (“you could comfortably fit the space shuttle, with all its external rockets and fuel tank, in the space under the dome…). There are also plenty of fun stories, like the one about the tomb of Pope Gregory XIV. Supposedly the Pope ingested gold dust and ground gems to cure his stomach maladies. As a result, there was nothing left in the papal coffers to build him a proper tomb…
In order to compare, you can see the tomb of Gregory XIII opposite it, in all its glory (namesake of the Gregorian calendar, the commencement of which is depicted on his tomb).
I don’t know if it’s true, but it sure makes a good story.
The tomb of John Paul II is still roped off so only people who want to pray can linger.
After battling the crowds, we deserved every bit of our lunch.
After a morning at St. Peters, it only seemed fitting to spend the afternoon with St. Paul. I gave them the highlights while we stood in the beautiful courtyard out front, then we headed in to look around, pray Vespers, etc. They were having a large multi-lingual Mass imminently, so we spent about forty five minutes in the basilica and then left to hit up the gift shop as Mass was starting.
We took the bus back (I avoid the B Metro line) and, as usual, they were great sports while we sought out the best bust stop and waited for the bus to come. Twice in the trip we took the wrong bus (or at least the bus didn’t go where I thought it was going to go…) but everyone was pretty easygoing about it.
For dinner, a group of us went to a place called Trattoria der Pallaro. It’s near Campo di Fiori, so we had nice night walks to bookend our meal. The secret of der Pallaro is to go for the experience. It is a tiny kingdom run by a queen named Paola. What she says, goes. Don’t come looking for menus — your five course meal is going to be whatever Paola made that night.
Paola loves nuns and priests, so we had it made. She was constantly hugging and blowing kisses at the Sisters, and she gave Father an enormous bowl of pasta. We laughed all night — whether it was Paola’s cat that sat at the table next to us (that’s pretty Roman, so that didn’t faze me much) or Paola ordering a Dutch priest to come speak with us (it actually turned out really neat, because he knew a priest the Sisters knew — but it was so random… Paola just told him he had to go talk to us), we definitely just rolled with the punches.
Five courses, all pretty typical Roman. A mix of antipasti including lentils and yummy fried rice balls, two types of pasta, a secondo course that included two types of pork and fresh mozzarella, and a nice cake and fruit juice to finish it all off.
Paola misses Pope Benedict, just like I do. In fact, she started crying as she talked and talked and talked about him (all in Italian, so I don’t really know what she said). It was really nice to talk to an Italian who loved him, because you only hear about people who didn’t. Although maybe this slightly-crazy woman shouldn’t be my consolation. Hm.
It was good we had a nice walk back home, because we were pretty stuffed. If I’m staying remotely close to St. Peter’s, I try to visit it every night. My favorite approach is across the Bridge of the Angels and up Via Conciliazione. So that’s exactly what we did. Rick captured this shot — just incredible.
All in all, a good day.