Once I had my tessera, or reader’s card, for the library, the Swiss Guards would wave me through the main gate whenever I arrived at Vatican City and even give me a knowing little salute. I could come and go as I pleased during business hours—and once inside the gates, nobody seemed to care where I wandered. This allowed me to gain odd glimpses of the casual, day-to-day running of the microstate. The Vatican’s Central Post Office seemed a somnolent place, although it delivers more letters per capita than anywhere on earth. The Vatican gas station had no prices on the pumps. The Vatican Pharmacy, run by the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God, offers a dazzling display of high-end perfumes and beauty-care products under a smiling portrait of the pope, as well as prescription medicines that are approved much faster than in the rest of Italy, I was told—although one will look in vain for contraceptives.
But when I tried to get into the Vatican supermarket, a guard blocked my way. “Vatican employees only,” he said flatly. “You need a pass.”
Clearly they were hiding something sinister.
A couple of days later, I tried again. This time, the guard let me walk straight in. It looked like any other Italian supermarket, except that in the aisles, teams of nuns and priests were hastily loading up shopping trolleys with wine and cigarettes. There are no taxes or duties, so prices were one-third cheaper than in the rest of Rome. Nearby priests and nuns make special trips to the Vatican to stock up.
I was half hoping the cashiers would be nuns in wimples, but no such luck; just dour women in blue lab coats.
One day, I stumbled upon an underground warehouse filled with antique pope-mobiles. Officially called the Carriage Pavilion, it’s part of the museum system, but its entrance is so hard to find that the two guards were startled when I walked in. (“We get a few visitors,” one admitted, “but they’re usually lost, looking for the coffee bar.”) Inside sat every papal vehicle since the luxuriant horse saddle of Clement XIV (1769-1774), including a string of Cinderella-like gilded carriages from the 19th century, the first motorized automobile, a Daimler, and a sleek recent Maserati. The only vehicle missing was the one in which Pope John Paul II was shot in by Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981.
The Vatican Excavations Office, meanwhile, offers tours of the dank tunnels beneath St Peter’s Basilica—if you are organized enough to book months in advance. I joined a group of 10 clamoring through the ancient Roman Necropolis that once covered the Vatican Hill, peering at ghostly frescos and loving tomb inscriptions. (One accolade to a deceased relative: “He Never Argued.”) It was in 1968 that Pope Paul VI declared his archaeologists had identified the bones of the Apostle Peter—134 fragments of a man “in his sixties or seventies” wrapped in purple and gold cloth. One by one, we stepped into position to peer through a crack at the reliquary, as the sound of hymns wafted down from above and gentle footsteps passed back and forth. “The pilgrims in St Peter’s have no idea we are down here!” the guide gloated. “The Vatican doesn’t advertise these excavations. They don’t want it to be just another tourist attraction!”
But perhaps the most revealing—and for that matter, delightful—visit was a private tour of the Vatican Gardens, which make up over one-half of the state’s 110-acre area. For decades, this serene netherworld of topiary, pathways, fountains, and sculptures was reserved for the pope’s private meditation, and it has only opened up on a regular basis to outsiders since 2003. “Pope John Paul II did a lot of running and exercise, so access was limited,” my guide, Cynthia Garofalo, told me as we set off along a verdant trail. “But Benedict prefers constitutional walks, and his schedule is more predictable.”
Cynthia was an official Vatican guide, and she didn’t appreciate me musing about, say, the less-than-pious pleasures of the medieval popes, or how Julius II, patron of the Sistine Chapel, was suffering from syphilis. In fact, she covered her ears and started humming loudly. “I’m a Vatican guide, I can’t hear that!” she said. She was also forbidden to talk about Michelangelo’s homosexuality, and in her own life, had to stick to the Vatican’s moral code: Official guides will lose their jobs if they divorce.
Certainly the artistic treasures of the garden were worthy of admiration, but somehow, the more quotidian side of the Vatican kept grabbing my attention. There was a residence for Ethiopian seminarians, a convent where nuns tended the pope’s vegetable plot, the administrative office where cardinals run the state’s bureaucracy, a Vatican train station serving only 60 feet of track, the gauge of which is unique in Rome. But my favorite was the pope’s heliport: When it was installed in the 1980s, Vatican scholars were forced to come up with a Latin term for its official dedication. Today, a stone plaque, looking like a mossy relic from the Middle Ages, reads, “HELICOPTORUM PORTUM.”
* * *
Despite my past as a failed altar boy, I tried to be a good pilgrim and sign up for the papal audience, held every Wednesday and open to anyone who gets a free ticket from the prefecture.
This event is managed like a rock concert—and luckily I arrived early enough to get a spot near the stage. The thousands farther back had to be content with giant video monitors. I sat beside an excited family from Minnesota, who weren’t Catholic but were willing to sit for hours to see a Roman celebrity who was bigger than Berlusconi. After a seemingly endless, tension-building wait, a drum-roll finally split the air. The pontiff arrived in his oversized Mercedes golf cart, flanked by bodyguards, his snow-white hair and robes gleaming in the sunshine as he waving mechanically to the crowd. He drove at a snail’s pace around the square twice, then crawled up a ramp onto the stage.
I could imagine Mick Jagger using the same system one day.
When the service began, I discovered that every line would be repeated in French, Italian, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish. Unable to bear it, I stood up and, to the disapproving glares of 15,000 pilgrims, slipped back out of St Peter’s Square.
Once a lapsed Catholic …