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How I Found Out About the Secret Tunnel of the Sistine Chapel

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Eternal City

Travel is always an adventure! And my first attempt to experience Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica was truly an adventure!

Did you know that within the Sistine Chapel, there is a secret tunnel? Well, read on, and I'll tell you how I found out about it and my experience inside that hidden passageway! Buckle up because you are in for a story!

Visiting Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica

After a beautiful Mediterranean Cruise, we were to spend three days in Rome. The Port of Civitavecchia is about an hour and 20 minutes from the city of Rome. (For all you newbie cruisers—you need to make sure you plan for this as you arrange transportation to the city.)

Our first day in Rome was a Friday, and we basically walked about, got the lay of the land, had coffee, and ate some fabulous food. I had been on this extended Mediterranean cruise, which had been booked several months in advance. Even walking the city that day, we were all clueless as to what was about to happen. And here's where it gets crazy . . .

Inside St. Peters Basilica

Inside St. Peters Basilica

Visiting the Vatican

As part of our cruise package, the trip to the Vatican was included and billed as an "exclusive, private tour." Included in this package were skip-the-line tickets, all the entrance fees, and lunch within the Vatican, as well as St. Peters Basilica, the Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel. Our appointment for entry was at 9:30 a.m.

One "small but intricate" detail was overlooked—not only by us but by the cruise line and the tour operator as well. It was Easter weekend! Easter weekend in the Vatican! Are you kidding me? Have I set the stage enough already? The masses of people are indescribable. On a normal day, we were told there are up to ten thousand people who visit the Vatican. It is estimated that on Easter weekend, the daily count is up to 120 thousand people!

Again, our appointment for entry was at 9:30 a.m., but in the end, we didn't actually get into the basilica until after 1 p.m. Remember, I said we had "skip the line" tickets? Basically, we skipped the line just to wait with all the others skipping the line!

Inside the Basilica

We were shoulder to shoulder, crammed in like sardines. The crowd seemed to move through as one entity, as a glob of people. At one point, it ceased to be about enjoying the antiquities and became about getting through and just surviving. Oh, I forgot to mention one important detail—I'm claustrophobic!

Four hours later, we finally made it to the museum. Some space and air to breathe—finally. After missing our lunch reservation, we gazed at the now-closed restaurant like starving animals. So, instead of enjoying what I assumed was going to be a fabulous lunch, we grabbed a snack from one of the vendors and strolled through the gardens until it was time to visit the Sistine Chapel.

Onto the Sistine Chapel

Arriving at the meeting point for the coup de gras, the Sistine Chapel, it was apparent that we would view Michelangelo's ceiling, his absolute masterpiece, as a globby mass of pushing, shoving people.

Upon arriving at the entry door, we were given instructions:

  1. No talking
  2. No pictures
  3. Shoulders must be covered
  4. Not following these rules would result in immediate removal

Finally, we were in—jackpot! We were inside the Sistine Chapel. And then, it happened! The no-talking rule clearly was NOT being observed. The loud voices of massive amounts of people were more than I could take. I could feel it coming on, yet was helpless to stop it. I had gotten separated from my traveling companion, and then the blur, the perspiration, the inability to feel like I could get air, the panic.

I found myself in the middle of a full-blown panic attack in the Sistine Chapel! My God, I waited my whole life to be there! A person from our small group recognized my distress and found my companion, who summoned a Vatican guard for assistance.

The Secret Tunnels

If you have ever suffered from a panic attack, you know that as the event unfolds things become fuzzy. Real-time seems to fade away for a few minutes. Are you still attached to your body, or are you floating overhead watching the bizarre event unfold? The next thing I clearly remember was a Vatican guard had me in a fireman's carry, and he was running. I can hear my companion yelling, "Where are you taking her? Is she ok?" I realized I'm in a dimly lit space. What's happening? Where am I? I'll tell you where I was—in the coveted secret tunnel of the Sistine Chapel!

The guard got me to the medics' office. Yes, I was fine, and I lived to tell you about it. But I missed the Sistine Chapel, and it took me years to get back and see it. After my initial experience, I had the pleasure of visiting Rome several more times but didn't have the opportunity to get to Vatican City. In fact, it took me ten years to get back to the Vatican. When I finally got back to the chapel, there were only about six other people in there, and I finally got my private tour!

Secret Tunnel, Passetto di Borgo

Secret Tunnel, Passetto di Borgo

Let's Talk About The Tunnel

The construction of the secret tunnel, Passetto di Borgo (small passage), began in the year 850 A.D. but wasn't completed for hundreds of years—until 1277. Finishing touches were completed in 1492. The length is about 2600 feet. The original purpose of the tunnel was conceived as an emergency escape for popes. It was used twice—by Pope Alexander VI (1494) and Pope Clement VII (1527)—both of who were in imminent danger during an invasion.

Around the 16th century, the tunnel was closed because it had begun to crumble and was deemed unsafe. In the year 2000, it was renovated for the celebration of the Great Jubilee. Since then, in summers only, it is open to a limited amount of tourists.

Even though I got to experience the tunnel, the moral of the story from my perspective is: don't visit the Vatican during a major Christian holiday!

Little Known Fun Facts About Vatican City

As a result of the Lateran Treaty in 1929, Vatican City was separated from Rome and became its own sovereign city-state. At about 121 acres and a population of only about 625. It's the smallest state in the world, not only by size but by population as well.

Located across the Tiber River from Rome, Vatican City is economically independent. It is wholly supported by donations from people of faith, souvenirs, entrance fees, concession fees, and publications. This unique concept of financial independence has worked well since its inception.

Again, if you have read my previous articles, you know I love to determine the origin of destination names. Vatican City is named after the location on which it sits—Vatican Hill, which, by the way, is not one of the Seven Hills of Rome. The name Vatican Hill comes from the previous Etruscan settlement, Vatica. The formal name in Italian is Stato della Città del Vaticano which translates to Vatican City-State.

The Popes' Residence

For over a thousand years, the Popes were, more or less, governors and did not reside in Vatican City. Instead, the Lateran Palace was their home. As a result of the treaty and the separation of Vatican City, it was decided that the Popes should reside within its district.

World War II

During this horrific war, Vatican City held a position of neutrality. It was because of this position that all parties involved in the conflict respected the sovereignty of the state and kept their word of not bombing or invading this holy area. The Vatican's position of neutrality was so strong that even when a few propaganda leaflets landed within the walls, actions were taken to prevent future "violations."

Until next time friends, remember, "To Travel is to Live!"

© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin