I'VE been lucky enough to get into parts of the Vatican that most people don't get to see and to meet two different Popes. There is an excitement about getting inside, being ushered past the Swiss Guards while tourists stare.
We're all fascinated with the Vatican -- author Dan Brown managed to make himself rich out of it -- the enigmatic city in the middle of the city of Rome.
Images abound in our minds of a place stocked to the ceilings with fantastic treasures and rare collections, intrigue and politicking with greedy Cardinals and scheming Archbishops, a dogmatic Pope ruling like a medieval King.
And, of course, entry restrictions add to this fantastic and mysterious idea of the Vatican.
So is any of it true? The answer is a little bit of yes but mostly no. The Vatican is a bureaucracy hosted in beautiful surrounds with very ordinary people working there, even if some of them wear strange clothes.
Yes, of course, the Vatican appears opulent, especially as it is adorned with great art.
Imagine having candlelit dinner in a 16th century room surrounded by the paintings of Caravaggio followed by a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and other 'off limits' areas?
It happens but only for the select few private donors. You won't see Cardinals doing it -- that's not to say they didn't in the past.
I did have dinner in the Casina of Pius IV, a 16th Century Papal Villa in the Vatican Gardens. It has an oval courtyard set in marble paving and is richly decorated with fountains and statues.
It was like being back in ancient Rome. Yet for the full picture, it is only fair to say that this is a historic building which actually holds the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and behind all the fancy mosaics and statues are ordinary offices.
The Vatican (the world's smallest state almost half of which is gardens) has no real income as a state, so allowing big donors to have a few dinners in some of the most treasured parts of it seems a small price to pay for much needed patronage.
Going to see the Pope in private audience is a great way to see the inside of the Vatican. As you stand facing St Peter's, the Apostolic Residence is on the right; the Pope lives on the third floor and the other floors are made up of offices.
On one occasion, I was part of a group who went up through the bronze door which joins the colonnade on the right hand side of St Peter's to the Pope's palace. It is an extraordinary moment as you are greeted by the Swiss Guards in their yellow, blue and red uniforms designed by Michelangelo.
After a security check, we were then asked to follow one of the Guards up a long corridor and up the royal staircase. This leads up to a hall called the Sala Clementina, rich in frescos. It was here that I met Pope John Paul II.
Another way to enter the Vatican is to be driven into the Courtyard of San Damaso which was finished by Raphael.
Here the dignitaries are greeted by Guards and by members of the Papal Household, all dressed up in their tuxedos. I once saw a picture of Winston Churchill standing in that exact spot realised that nothing changes in the Vatican.
They lead you into the apostolic palace and the entourage -- I was there as part of President McAleese's press corps -- wait in the nearby rooms while the VIP is meeting with the Pope, usually in his study.
This is the third floor of the Pope's palace, where his living quarters are. Most of these rooms have marble floors and beautiful frescos but are not overly elaborate.
When the official meeting is over, the rest of the entourage is invited into the Pope's study, a large room with a desk and book cases and the Pope, dressed in white with his signature red Prada shoes, gives a short address which is responded to by the VIP. If there is time the Pope will greet all the delegation.
Meeting the Pope the first time was a real buzz but many in the delegation didn't know whether or not to kiss his ring.
When I met Pope John Paul, I knelt as he was in a chair and it was all very brief. When I met Pope Benedict in his study he was standing and I got to say a few words to him in Italian to which he replied in English.
The Vatican Gardens are off limits but I once got permission to bring some friends there. The gardens were landscaped by Pope Nicholas in the 1200s. In the gardens are the Pope's train station, a heliport and a convent.
The gardens themselves are filled with plants and trees given to Popes down the years by visiting dignitaries -- and there's even a large piece of the former Berlin Wall which was given to Pope John Paul.
There is another part of the Vatican which is equally wonderful and it is open to the public. Since the 1940s, excavations (known as Scavi) have cleared out a large portion under the hill on which the Renaissance St Peter's Basilica now sits and those tombs can be clearly seen and visited.
Also the remains of St Peter himself and his last resting place can be observed. Reservations can be only made in writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For all the mystery and artwork, people I know who work in the Vatican describe it as a 'Golden Cage'. When this Pope was a Cardinal he was looking forward to going home to Bavaria and teaching theology and being with his cats.
As Pope, that's not going to happen, and he can't even have his cats in the Papal household; he can't go to the shop for cigarettes (yes, he smokes) and there's no such thing as 'popping out' for a walk when you are Pope.
The best way to think of the Vatican now is to think of a huge museum, held in trust for the world, and run by a bureaucracy mainly made up of priests who lead ordinary daily lives.
They might have a Michelangelo on their Vatican office ceiling but like the rest of us, they still have to get on with the daily grind and earn their pay packet. That said, I wouldn't mind a visit to the Pope's roof garden for a quick look around.
Garry O'Sullivan is editor of The Irish Catholic and worked for Vatican Radio in 2000