There’s an odd hush in the Sistine Chapel. Normally, this place is swarming, with up to 25,000 people visiting every day. But I’m here with just a few dozen others early on a Wednesday morning, before this celebrated holy site is officially open to the masses.
As we crane our necks to admire Michelangelo’s masterpieces on the vaulted ceiling soaring overhead, there’s hardly a sound, save the occasional squeak of tennis shoes on the marble floors and the low voice of a guard reminding snap-happy tourists that photos are forbidden. For those who wish to rest their aching feet, there’s no shortage of seating on the wooden benches lining the walls, and pilgrims who come to kneel before the altar need not jostle for space.
I can even linger in the doorway without fear of being trampled, gazing up at the artist’s portrait of Biagio da Cesena, the Papal official who sneeringly suggested that Michelangelo should be painting brothels rather than churches. Cheeky Mickey had his revenge by portraying his critic as an outcast in hell, wrapped in a serpent’s unyielding embrace.
So how did I beat the crowds? No, I haven’t slipped a slick 100 Euro note to a sentry. I’m insufficiently sneaky and far too cheap for that. Instead, I booked the Sistine Chapel Express and Vatican Museums Entrance tour with City Wonders, allowing me to sidle in ahead of the general public.
Founded by Roman native Simone Gozzi, City Wonders specializes in out-of-the-ordinary experiences around Rome and a host of other European cities. “We try to give you the best experience for the best deal — something that you as an individual could not access, like skipping the line, arriving before everyone else or staying later,” Gozzi says. For example, in addition to offering early access to the Sistine Chapel, City Wonders also arranges atmospheric nighttime tours of the Colosseum in the summer, which allow guests to examine the warren of rooms beneath the gladiators’ stage, where most visitors are not allowed to go.
“Little gestures make people feel special,” Gozzi explains. “Also, some people have never been here before, and they may never be back. We help them maximize their time.”
Over the course of four days, City Wonders’ Rome-based tours whisk me between the most iconic sites of Italy’s capital and the surrounding regions, from the hilltop towns of Tuscany to the ruins of Pompeii and the shop-lined streets of Sorrento, without me having to worrying about the logistics. I prefer this a la carte daily tour option, as opposed to the more rigid schedule of an all-inclusive package tour of Italy, because it not only gives me the freedom to choose my own accommodations, but I have the flexibility to explore on my own when I want to.
Following my visit to the Sistine Chapel, for instance, I have the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon at leisure. As it’s still early, I’m able to whiz through the highlights of the Vatican Museums’ 9 miles of artworks, including the 16th-century Hall of Maps, so empty it echoes, the Raphael Rooms, embellished with frescoes by Raphael and his acolytes, and the Borgia Apartments, inhabited by Pope Alexander VI in the 15th century.
Later, after taking in the famous Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Forum by myself, I meet up with my friends for the City Wonders’ Crypts and Catacombs tour. I’m a sucker for all things weird and eerie, and this tour transports us via a bus to three such extraordinary sites around Rome, with our bubbly guide Rebecca Bright — an expat from Massachusetts — providing informative commentary throughout.
We explore the labyrinthine catacombs just outside the ancient city, where frescoes and paintings from as early as the second century B.C. still adorn some of the now-empty crypts. Then we’re shuttled to the gilded 12th-century Basilica San Clemente, where we “time travel” through several levels of ruins, including a mysterious pagan temple, all the way back to the first century some 60 feet below street level.
“Rome is an architectural lasagna, built layer upon scrumptious layer,” says Bright as she leads us to a fourth-century basilica just beneath the current church. Here, she points out a faded fresco that tells the story of a man named Sisinnius, who tried to capture St. Clement. As his servants drag a stone column, which they think is St. Clement (thanks to a miracle the saint has performed), Sisinnius shouts abuse at them. It’s remarkable not only because it contains a curse word — as part of the church’s decor, mind you — but also because, according to Bright, it’s the first example of written Italian in a fresco.
I’m most intrigued by our final stop, the Capuchin Crypt. It’s known locally as “the Bone Chapel,” and it’s not hard to discern why. Here, the artfully displayed bones of approximately 3,700 monks, dating to between 1528 and 1870, decorate a series of small vaults. There are chandeliers made from arm and leg bones, arches comprised of stacked skulls, a clock made of finger bones and complete skeletons of monks draped in brown cloaks. Despite the age of the skeletons, a few still sport a substantial amount of leathery flesh, including one whose face seems frozen in fear or surprise, like Edvard Munch’s portrait of “The Scream.” “They say that the holier you are, the more slowly you decompose,” Bright explains.
But there’s another way to ensure that you’re well-preserved … or at least, pickled. That’s wine, and Italy has an abundance of it. On my last night in Rome, my friends and I have an opportunity to sample several of its most interesting vintages during City Wonders’ Gourmet Wine Tasting and Food Pairing Class.
“I’m going to teach you how to become a snobbish wine sommelier in two minutes,” says Alessandro Pepe, the irreverent sommelier at Roscioli, by way of introduction. Actually, the class goes on for two hours, but the time flies by as he uncorks bottle after bottle.
“People are scared of wine-tasting, and sommeliers are partially at fault,” Pepe admits. “We behave like priests, dressing in dark clothes and telling you what’s good and bad. But just relax,” he grins. “Try to clear your mind and not think too much.”
Instead of wracking our brains for technical terms, Pepe encourages us to simply let a picture form in our heads. After guiding us through several samples, he puts us to the test, pouring us each a glass of Bressan Schioppettino 2011 and asking us to write down our thoughts. For me, this rich red wine evokes images of my grandmother’s attic, an antiques shop and Istanbul. I doubt my description would earn me a sommelier’s certification, but it’s sufficient to win a jar of fresh Italian pesto — the perfect souvenir to conjure delicious memories of the wonders of Rome long after I’ve returned home.
IF YOU GO
City Wonders Tours: citywonders.com
Stay: Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, situated within a 15-acre park on a hill overlooking Rome, features 345 rooms and 27 suites; six bars and restaurants — most notably, the three-Michelin-star La Pergola; an award-winning spa; four heated outdoor pools and one glass-domed indoor pool; two Davis Cup tennis courts; and a prized private art collection. romecavalieri.com