Circumnavigating a Country on Foot

My last day in Rome, I start by attending the Papal Audience. This is an event every Wednesday in which the Pope appears, talks to and prays with pilgrims and visitors to Rome. Though free, I had to pick up a ticket the night before, which I got from the fantastic Santa Susanna American Community in Rome which is run by the Paulist Fathers, an American religious order, one of my favorites, as they’re big into education and music, who also ran the church I attended during my years at the University of Minnesota. Because it takes a while to get through security and find a seat, everyone arrives early to St Peter’s Square, and I take an empty seat next to a few people who happen to also be from California. While waiting, speakers in various languages recognize all of the large groups of pilgrims in attendance, mostly in their native languages. When going through the English-speaking groups, I notice almost all are from England, or Scandinavia, just a couple groups from the US. The Pope also arrives early and moves about between the crowds shaking hands, blessing babies, and the like. He passes pretty close to where I am sitting, and it’s neat seeing him in person. I’m glad to see this pope does not feel the need for a bullet-proof Popemobile anymore.

The service is nice, though rather boring – there is a bible reading (repeated in 6 or 7 languages), the Pope offers a short reflection and commentary on this (repeated by various cardinals in 6 or 7 languages), those who can sing the Our Father in Latin (my smartphone provides me the Latin). I’m glad I attended for the experience of seeing the Pope up close though.

Thinking back to my visit inside of St Peter’s a few days earlier, I remember one thing I forgot to write about. In general, in American Catholic churches, when we go to kneel for prayer, the kneelers fold down from the pew in front of us, and they’re usually wooden with a little padding on them. In most of the churches I’ve visited in Italy, the kneelers do not fold down, but are fixed, always attached to the pew in front, but these don’t have any padding, just solid wood, which is a bit painful for my tender knees. On the other hand, the kneelers in the chapel in St Peter’s where I attended mass were perhaps the most comfortable kneelers I’ve ever knelt on, with very thick padding. Maybe it was just because I had been standing so long, but it felt like it was more comfortable to kneel than to sit!

From St Peter’s Square, I walk down the wide boulevard to Castel Sant’Angelo, taking in the great view back towards St Peter’s Basilica. According to what I heard earlier in one of my audio tours, the wide street providing this great view only exists thanks to Mussolini. Even fascists dictators can do some good, I guess.

Castle Sant’Angelo was originally a mausoleum of some Roman emperor (built here, on this side of the Tiber, because no graves of any kind was allowed inside the city limits of Rome). Due to a vision of St Michael the Archangel above it at some point, it was renamed, and has been used by the Vatican through the years as a treasury, prison, and last refuge during the many times in which the city has been under siege. I climb to the top and take in the views.

My Rick Steves guidebook said Castel Sant’Angelo was only worth a short visit, and specifically said to “skip the 82 rooms of the military history museum”, and in this case I think he was absolutely incorrect. Though I only find a handful of rooms (perhaps he was exaggerating, or perhaps one of the inaccessible wings held more – there were a lot of closed areas), they are very interesting. I do, of course, have a fondness for medieval weaponry. I won’t bore you with pictures though. The firearms are also incredibly ornate and interesting.

I wander through one of the “prisons”, a nice 3-room suite covered in frescoes, which was used to imprison some noble (accused for alchemy and freemasonry) for many years. There are other, less dignified, prisons, but they are not accessible. I see the treasury (now empty, presumably they use a Swiss Bank Account or something), and some more fantastic views of Rome. I get a nice view of the bend in the Tiber that cradles ancient Rome.

Wandering through the rest of the place, I see other ornately decorated rooms, as this was sometimes used as reception halls for the Pope when the Vatican was otherwise occupied with barbarian invaders and the like. The historical backup papal apartments here are not as fancy as I imagine rooms in the Vatican proper are.

I walk the battlements, see a little more weaponry, though I suspect the catapult is a replica. From there I can also see the raised passageway a pope had built that connects Castel Sant’Angelo to the papal apartments in the Vatican.

For my final adventure in Rome, I reflect on the fact that I will have very few opportunities to circumnavigate, on foot, an entire country, so I decide to do so. I return to the entrance of St Peter’s Square and proceed to walk around the outside of the entirety of the smallest country in the world – Vatican City. The walk takes me out of range of tourists, I see what appear to only be locals on the back side of the Vatican, however the only entrances through the Vatican’s walls are around St Peter’s, so most of the streets along which I walk are a wall on one side and some small homes on the other. After making it about half way around (and entirely uphill), I stop and sit to rest at a little park for a while. The entire circumnavigation takes less than an hour, and is just a little over 2 miles, so it’s not much, but now I can say I walked around an entire country! Maybe I should stop by Monaco next, it’s only about 4 times as big (so the border should be only 2 times as long), still doable in an afternoon.

And with that, I say goodbye to Rome!

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