For a while, I considered skipping Vatican City (aka The Holy See) altogether. It’s the only one among the seven smallest European microstates I have visited before (more than once). But when it became clear we had to go through Rome to fly to Malta, I rethought our plan. How could we ignore this enclave that’s not just the smallest of the smallest countries in Europe, but smallest in all the whole world? When we learned that our old friend Megan (whom I met as a freshman in high school) coincidentally would be in Rome at the same time we would, the stop was irresistible.
It was Megan who suggested we visit the Vatican gardens. I never knew you could. But she secured tickets online and on a sunny morning, we headed for St. Peter’s. Around the back of the cathedral, inside the entrance to the Vatican Museums, we gathered with a group of maybe 15 people. An ebullient Polish-Canadian art historian named Kinga led us outside and down a wooded path.
I took no notes; it was too pleasant simply to stroll through the dappled light and note the horticultural variety as we passed from section to section.Some formal, most less so. We ambled by some flowers, but more of the ornamentation was watery or sculptural or redolent of the distant past.
What tickled me most were the private views; sides of things I’d seen before but never from these angles: a glimpse of that ultra-famous dome……the stark simplicity of the outside of the Sistine Chapel……or the homely building where the former Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Benedict, the recent pontiff who retired) is living out his final years.
I asked Kinga if Pope Francis often ventures into his back yard, but she didn’t seem to know how often that happens. If it did, she assured us, all the garden tours could be canceled to accommodate him. “We must remember, it’s his home!”
After we left the gardens, our tickets also permitted us to enter the museums, so of course we couldn’t resist dashing through the endless halls to pay a quick visit to the Sistine Chapel. After that, we walked outside and around the walls of the city state to enter St. Peter’s Square. The line to get into the church was daunting. We had to check out of our Airbnb flat and move on, so we settled for just a photo in front of the grand edifice. That was good enough. The gardens had shown us a place where at least a handful of humans (the Pope and a few hundred others) actually live. It felt a bit more like a real country.