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When in Rome…

A night in a convent will save a few Euros when visiting the world’s most famous church

Dusk was fast approaching and we had not yet found the convent. The straps of my hefty backpack pressed heavily into my shoulders as we climbed. The street did not look promising. Its winding cobblestones seemed to be taking us deeper into residential Rome and farther from the masses of tourists that flock to the ancient city. All this to save a few Euros!

In Rome, the cheap accommodation fills up fast and booking a room in a convent is a relatively inexpensive alternative to busy hostels and guesthouses. They can, however, be tricky to find!

Darkness was almost complete when we stopped on a narrow side street of a dubious location.

“You ask them,” I encouraged my traveling partner, gesturing toward the cluster of questionable characters drinking oversized bottles of beer on the corner. “We need directions!”

I was growing weary, and in a most unproductive manner, beginning to express my doubts as to the existence of Suore Teatine Casa Mater Ecclesiae, the inexpensive convent my partner had booked online from the comfort of her couch. The Italian drinkers squinted at our crisp, new map and pointed uphill; the cobblestones wound their way farther up into the darkness.

Finally, and much to my surprise, we found ourselves presented at a heavy locked door whose small plaque seemed to match the wordy name on our booking confirmation sheet. Still skeptical, I rang the bell.

I’m still not sure what I expected; lofty church spires, a cavernous, candlelit interior, nuns in dark habits…. We were admitted promptly into a sparkling foyer and greeted warmly by a small, dark woman whose English was as limited as our Italian. Save for a few religious icons hanging on the wall, nothing gave away its status as a convent. Trading a considerable stack of bills for our key, we were shown to our room.

In the light of the following day we were rewarded for our efforts when we stepped from our room onto a small balcony. Early morning sunlight bathed the city before us in a warm, pinkish hue, and climbing up the hillside were boxy homes painted in soft peach and topped with roofs of red brick, not a colour scheme I would select at home, but here it just seemed to fit. Emerging from the mist beyond, lofty church spires pointed skyward, inviting an ambitious exploration of the city’s over 900 churches. Dressing modestly in concurrence with the strict dress code that is enforced at Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, we set off early to visit the most famous one.

Vatican City is an independent, sovereign state within the city of Rome. Ruled by the pope, it is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and, at approximately 110 acres in size, is considered to be the smallest country in the world. The Vatican, or Holy See, has its own constitution, postal system, seal and flag, as well as an army numbering close to 100 Swiss Guards. Except for the massive and bustling Saint Peter’s Square, it is entirely enclosed by walls.

Why is there a tiny, independent nation within the city of Rome? I pondered as we approached the mammoth square that is Saint Peter’s. Above the colonnade that flanks the plaza, 140 elaborate statues of various saints somberly gazed upon the gathering crowd. Well, simply put, it was Mussolini’s doing.

In February of 1861 the first Italian parliament assembled in Turin, and the following month, Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed king and Rome the new capital of Italy. Thus began a political dispute between the Italian government and the Papacy known as the ‘Roman Question’ that was to remain unresolved until Mussolini’s dictatorship almost 70 years hence.

Placing our bags in a security screening device similar to those used at an airport we were finally admitted into Saint Peter’s, whose famous dome, designed by Michelangelo, towered above. A hushed crowd was gathering in its cavernous interior, reverently admiring elaborate mosaics, statues of gilded bronze and towering marble columns. Awestruck by its vast, opulent interior, we simply strolled about, taking it all in.

The first church built on Vatican Hill was completed in 349 AD at the burial site of Saint Peter, who is thought to be the first pope. By the 15 th century, the original building was falling to ruin and Pope Julius II laid the first stone of a new basilica, what was to become the largest in the world. No visit is complete without climbing the narrow spiral staircase that winds its way up to the very top.

The Roman Question was finally resolved in 1929 with the creation of the Lateran Treaty, a pact between Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. From the year 756 to 1870, large territories in Italy known as the Papal States were ruled by popes, however with the country’s unification in 1861, these states were seized by the Kingdom. Their land gone, the popes considered themselves to be “prisoners in the Vatican”, unwilling to cede the last of the Papal States to the new government, nor to accept their proposal of an annual sum of 3,250,000 lire as well as use of the Vatican as compensation for the loss of their territory. The church desired independence, free from political power.

The Lateran Treaty guaranteed the Roman Catholic Church sovereignty over the Vatican, declared Catholicism the official religion of Italy and granted the pope neutrality in internal relations. Thus, the smallest nation on earth came into being.

From the world’s smallest nation, atop its grandest church, the ancient city of Rome spread out before us. Dotted liberally with church spires and greenery, the stately old buildings commanded respect while vying for space among the new construction. Below, a long line of tourists snaked its way around the expansive plaza, waiting for admittance into the basilica.

Just one stop of many on Rome’s extensive tourist circuit, the Vatican tells an interesting story. However outside the borders of this tiny, sovereign state lie many more of Italy’s crumbling treasures with their own tales from the past, right in the heart of this ancient, yet modern city.