"A Drive Through Vatican City" Vatican City Travelogue by mccalpin

Vatican City Travel Guide: 1,329 reviews and 4,129 photos


In 1976-1977, I worked for the University of Dallas. The University is a Catholic school, and having a campus in Rome was natural (and a great idea!).

But an advantage of being Catholic was that the school had a bank account in L'Instituto per le Opere di Religione (the Institute for Religious Works), or, as you know it, the Vatican Bank.

So, armed with a pass, once a week I went inside the Vatican to do business at the Bank, just as if I were going to my local bank or credit union.

This travelogue shows you some of the pictures I took while inside the parts of the Vatican that most people never get to see.

The Physical Layout of Vatican City

Vatican City is surrounded by a high wall. This picture was taken on the north side a turn or two away from the entrance to the Vatican Museums.

This wall surrounds the City on 3 1/2 sides - the north, the west, the south, and part of the east. The only really open area is the Piazza di San Pietro on the east side.

This means that access to the interior of Vatican City is controlled. There is the entrance on the north side into the Vatican Museums. There is Porta Sant'Anna on the north-east side. There are entrances on either side of St. Peter's where you see the colorfully dressed Swiss Guards, and there is an entrance (above street-level, I think) on the south side where the railroad tracks enter from the direction of Stazione San Pietro.

The car in the picture is a Fiat 500, borrowed from the Dean of Students that day. It's a two cylinder job that looks like someone shrunk an old Volkswagen Beetle. The car was legendary among Italians because it was so small that two men can move it out of the way when necessary (Rome's streets can be very narrow), and it allegedly would accept substitutes such as sour milk in place of crankcase oil (I never tried that). You could always find a parking space, however, because the length of the car was not much more than the width of other cars, so you could park head-on where other cars had parallel-parked.

Back to the wall...you see that they don't appreciate casual tourists strolling through one of the world's smallest citystates.

The interior of the Vatican is a series of streets, piazze, and buildings, some of which is visible from the Vatican Museums. For many people, it's an ordinary workplace...in a country separate from Italy.

Entering Vatican City

The business entrance for Vatican City is through Porta Sant'Anna - St. Anne's Gate. Yes, there are other entrances, but I think that most of the outside workers come through this gate.

I drove through the gate just as you see the car doing here. There were always two or more Swiss Guards at the gate. Here they are dressed in the royal blue uniforms - the more colorful uniforms are reserved for special occasions and for the tourists in Piazza di San Pietro.

Not far inside the gate, there is a stairway on the left that leads up to the Bank, but I never took it. Instead, I drove through the bulk of Vatican City and parked as far away as I could, then walked back to the Bank...just because I could.

The guards don't appear to carry weapons (even medieval ones), but I have no doubt that there is a room full of televisions and young men with automatic weapons near this gate - there is a lot of money in the Bank and this is the closest exit.

Note that sometimes people who speak very good Italian can talk their way past the guards because there is a Vatican post office just up the street on the right. If you are obviously a tourist, the guards would direct you along the wall to the left (where the white car is going), where the external post office in the Piazza di San Pietro is; but if you appeared to be familiar with the interior of the Vatican (and for heaven's sakes not carrying a camera!), they might let you in...and watch you to make sure that's where you went.

Streets Inside Vatican City

As I noted, the look and feel inside Vatican City is very similar to the Roman neighborhood outside Vatican City. The scene here is - as best I remember - the street that runs through Porta Sant'Anna, but now you are inside the Vatican looking back to the gate (in the center distance). Gee, what do you see - cars parked wherever they can.

The post office I referred to earlier is on the left here.

More Streets Inside the Vatican

Once inside the Vatican, I drove through several streets, through a piazza, into a ramp that went up hill but was the ground floor of a building (see the next photo), then into an area behind St. Peter's.

This is a shot of a street in the Vatican through an arch, although I no longer have any idea exactly where this was in the city...you'd think I'd remember...it's not like the Vatican was that big...

"The Parking Lot"

Halfway through my short drive inside Vatican City, I came into a piazza that was surrounded on all four sides by office buildings (probably some of them part of the Vatican Museums). In the center of the piazza was this fountain.

The piazza was packed with cars, and you had to drive carefully through the piazza to get the the ramp on the other side. The cars belonged to all the employees in the Vatican who lived in Rome and "commuted".

Note that when I refer to courtyards in this Traveloge, they looked like this - 4 or 5 story buildings holding offices or the Vatican Museums, surrounding a piazza covered with cobblestones.

The dark archways on the right are actually open on to a ramp under the building. This ramp ascends (this whole photo is actually facing somewhat uphill), and in the corner, you pass to the right under the building and out into the Piazza del Forno (see next).

The Piazza del Forno

Finally, I got as far back as I could go (all this time I had been traveling more or less west from the Porta Sant'Anna on the north east side of Vatican City). This little piazza is called Piazza del Forno (Piazza of the Oven). It had two advantages: (1) there was always parking here, and (2) it was far away from the Bank, so that I got to walk through several courtyards as if I owned the place (ha!).

The large building you see is the back of St. Peter's (well, probably the northwest corner, seen from the north). See the little car on the far right? That's my Fiat!

A Walk Through Vatican City

At this point, I had to park my car. Then I walked back east (in the direction of Porta Sant'Anna) through a series of courtyards, each surrounded by office buildings (and the Museums), and joined by arches like this one.

Frequently, there would be a single Swiss Guard, dressed in royal blue, in these archways. At this point, the guards would simply salute me and let me pass - they knew that I wouldn't have gotten this far without belonging here.

I don't seem to have a picture of one of the courtyards, but you saw what the courtyard with the fountain looked like: four long walls of four and five story office buildings (medieval or Renaissance, of course) surrounded a large expense (100-200 meters on a side?) of open, cobblestoned area.

One day as I was walking through, I saw a long, long red carpet rolled out across an otherwise absolutely empty courtyard, with 30 or more Swiss Guards in the colorful Michelangelo uniforms lined up at attention. When I walked through the courtyard into the arch at the far side, I asked the Swiss Guard in the arch what was up - a foreign head of state was coming to visit the Pope, it seems.

What a different world it was then! Here I was, a 24-year-old, long-haired, bearded American nobody standing in the center of the capital of an independent country, watching the military formation to welcome a foreign head of state - and I was able to stand there and watch with one probably unarmed guy next to me!

From here, I went into the Bank, which was off a small courtyard. The lobby was, well, an ordinary bank lobby (I don't remember any spectacular art on the ceilings) - it had teller windows and people waiting in line (many religious organizations had bank accounts there, as you can imagine).

One day, I had apparently stuck my finger in my eye in my sleep at the University campus. Needless to say, this did not go over too well with my contact lenses. By the time I got to the Bank, my right eye was swelling shut and making tears about every 5 minutes. Unfortunately, that was the day that some procedure had changed at the Bank, so my usual teller had to explain it to me at some length. Eventually, my eye started tearing, and I had to hold my handkerchief over my eye while I cried away. I had told the teller what was happening, but I did get a bunch of strange looks from the other people in line who wondered what on earth the teller was telling me that had me in tears.

Oh, well, all in all, an astounding experience for a kid from Texas...

  • Page Updated May 9, 2016
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