I hope to return to Rome many times, but I have no desire to revisit the Vatican’s star attraction, the Sistine Chapel. At least, not during regular opening hours. On my last attempt, claustrophobia set in well before I even crossed the threshold of what must be the most crowded church in the world.
But there’s more to the Vatican than the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. This time, I reserved tickets for a guided tour of the Vatican Gardens and the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, neither of which is accessible to the average museumgoer.
The combined tour, with about 20 participants, started in the gardens, which make up the majority of the Vatican’s city-state. We followed paved roads and well-maintained paths, occasionally ascending gentle hills. Our guide showed us the oldest garden, a formal sunken space adjacent to the apostolic palace, as well as the romanticist Fountain of the Eagle, Pope Benedict’s nearby residence, the Vatican’s former railway station and a reproduction of the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in France. Throughout our walk, we had views of the dome of St. Peter’s, framed by ornamental trees and garden sculptures. Headsets ensured that we could hear our guide at all times, whether we stood near her or not.
Past the Galleon Fountain, in which a sailing vessel spouts water from its cannons, we walked along quite unremarkable multilevel parking lots. During the construction of these lots, workers discovered a well-preserved necropolis. The separate excavation sites were joined together between 2009 and 2011, and at the end of 2013, they were opened to small groups of visitors. Now entirely underground, the ancient Roman cemetery can be viewed from metal walkways suspended above the excavations.
The most remarkable thing about this site is that most of the archaeological finds, including skeletons, have been left in situ. But the majority of the deceased were cremated. Clay pipes poking out of the earth above their remains allowed family members to make libations, often of spiced milk, which they poured into the pipe into the vessel containing the ashes. Elsewhere, frescoed above-ground columbaria held multiple clay urns on shelves and in niches. A landslide covered the site at one point, helping it to remain well-preserved over the centuries.
The contrasting tours of the gardens and necropolis were utterly fascinating, and they felt a world away from the jostling crowds in the Vatican Museums. The small size of the group meant that we could actually enjoy what we were seeing.
Advance reservations are required. Those with reservations to see the gardens and/or necropolis (tours of the sites can also be booked separately) can present printouts of their reservations to guards in front of the Vatican Museums’ entrance. Then the actual tickets are obtained up a short flight of stairs at the back of the entry hall.