Friday 22 September 2017

God's enclave – where a brew costs €4

It starts the millisecond you arrive on street level having exited Ottaviano metro station. You climb the steps out of the semi-darkness, see the sunlight . . . as well as the smiling face of an attractive local tour guide.

"American? English? Irish? I can bring you everywhere inside the Vatican, show you the museums, shrines, basilicas . . ." and then she tails off.

She spots that I'm on my own and throws me back into the water. Not enough money to be made from Billy-no-mates here.

This week, of course, the eyes of the world were on the Vatican City. Nuns, priests, bishops and brothers – they were all fair game for the encamped media who wanted to know what the newly crowned Pope Francis must do to breathe new life back into the church.

But on the five-minute walk from the nearest Metro stop, to the pillars which surround Basilica di San Pietro, you see a side to this most curious of enclaves which somehow escapes the glare of the media.

Vendors selling sunglasses, bags, T-shirts, cigarettes, watches, statues, roasted nuts, ice cream and umbrellas meander up and down the main drag.

Stylish Italians sip their cappuccinos (at €4 a cup) while others hover around a TV showing the latest Seria A football clash involving their beloved Roma. At the same time the cardinals gathered just a few hundred yards away in the Sistine Chapel to elect the new papa.

A man without arms sits with a polystyrene cup begging for loose change; he is one of many beggars on the cusp of the city within a city.

As I near the Vatican, I hear voices from every corner of the globe. Most wander on to the cobbled piazza in front of the famous basilica not knowing what to expect.

You don't have to be religious to enjoy the Vatican City – but it certainly helps. I struggle with the opulence on display; the grandeur and riches seem so at odds with the poverty being experienced by the very people the church says it represents.

But as a campus of historical artefacts, stunning frescos, timeless works of art, statues and simply jaw-dropping Renaissance architecture – the Vatican is unparalleled.

Inside St Peter's Basilica the remains of 91 former popes are located. Some, including that of Pope John XXIII, are embalmed and on display.

Said to be the burial site of the first pope, St Peter, the basilica can hold more than 80,000 people at one time.

You could spend a month in here and still have only learned about a tiny percentage of the building's contents. It's overwhelming. Its awesome size, glittering interior, strong symbolism and long history combine to make it a spiritual retreat for some – but for others it signifies a wealthy church out of touch with reality.

Inside a couple kiss, a lady reads her novel, others check their Twitter accounts, babies wail and cameras flash. Back outside, serious-looking Swiss Guards are making sure wandering tourists do not stray. In their multi-coloured uniforms you can't help but think they must feel a bit silly getting ready for work every morning.

Queues line up for the Vatican museum where the church's vast collection of paintings, statues, ceramics and tapestries dazzle. The tour also includes the Sistine Chapel but this week its doors are firmly locked.

In the souvenir shops you can get a papal blessing for a bargain €28.

A collection of Vatican-minted euro coins from 2004 with the image of Pope John Paul II on the back can be yours for €800 – the real value of the coins should they be used in a shop is €3.88. Oh yes, €3.88 – barely enough to buy you a hot brew in God's enclave.

Across the road from Ottaviano, a bar is all decked out with green and gold balloons and huge shamrock cut-outs ahead of St Patrick's Day.

They really do love to honour their holy men in this, strange but intriguing, part of the Eternal City.

Irish Independent

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