Underneath the Vatican

The theme for this year’s visit to Roma was twofold: Underground Rome and Nazi Rome. This would satisfy our fascination with archaeology and World War II history.

Months prior to the trip I had made reservations for the Scavi Tour — a walk through the excavations beneath St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

It was a glorious, blue-skied morning and we were ecstatic after days of gray and drizzle in Ireland. After a stop at a corner cafe for cappuccini and cornetti, we made a beeline for the Vatican, following the very specific instructions to arrive at the very specific tour entrance.

Swiss Guards at the Vatican -- it's a serious job

Two Swiss guards stood at the entrance we had been directed to in my print-out. Since we were early (yes, it’s a sickness), they instructed us to wait until closer to the tour’s start time and then return to be admitted. We wandered through Piazza San Pietro, soaking up the warm morning air and snapping pictures. At the appointed time, the guards waved us through the side entrance of the Vatican where we presented our reservation slip at the office of the Scavi. A small group assembled as we all waited for our guide to emerge.

Entrance to the Scavi Tour -- around the side of the Vatican

Hip and well-spoken, a young woman led us down into the bowels of the Basilica, beneath the trampling feet of hundreds of visitors on the hallowed floor above us. It was humid and warm as we listened to her fascinating descriptions of this underground world which approximately 1900 years ago had once been street level. This was the Roman Necropolis, the City of the Dead.

In the narrow confines of the underground stone trails, we followed our guide from level to level, passing numerous pagan tombs that now lay below the basilica overhead. The air was slightly sultry and not at all cold like many caves I’ve been in. The grand finale was a peek into a niche containing a plexi-glass box holding the (supposed) bones of St. Peter. The spectacular altar (the Baldochino) in the most famous church in Christiandom was built directly over his tomb, straight up from where we now stood.

At the end of the tour, our guide set us free to walk against the tide of tourists shuffling downwards towards us, having come from the the basilica above. The crowd was here to file through the crypt one level below the church where they could view the decorated tombs of dead popes. But the main event for everyone coming towards us was the tomb of John Paul II. You could easily spot it. A large crowd swelled before it — not only of tourists, but nuns and friars in rough robes, paying homage to this most revered and beloved pope.

We emerged into the Basilica and, never-ceasing to marvel at its wonders, pushed out into the sunshine to continue our day.

A gloriously warm Roman morning in front of St. Peter's Basilica

Our next destination: Via Rasella and the Historic Museum of the Liberation of Rome (Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma) on Via Tasso. Leaving Christianity behind, we pecked our way to Via Rasella and the world of Nazis.

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