The last day of April was another beautiful sunny day, and the temperature crept toward 80° F (it was 26° C about mid-day): A perfect day to scale the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, the highest point in all of Rome. This was my first time to the top, having been to the depths of the Scavi two levels below the Basilica floor when Nancy was in town for Christmas break.
Few great days in Rome start without cappuccino, however, and we made our way to the Antico Caffé della Pace, just a little ways off of Piazza Navona, the quintessence of a Roman street café – shaded tables on a cobblestone pedestrian street in view of a large baroque church. A friend had advised you could get café at the table for the same price as at the bar, but I think the reality is that you get café at the bar for the same price as the table. But it would be worth it to camp out for a few hours and read or people-watch, as we did before heading across the Tiber.
Once at St. Peter’s, a short elevator ride takes you from the ground floor to the basilica roof, the level of the saints’ statues, for €7. It is not a bad view from this level, but with 323 steps to (almost) the top of the dome waiting, we decided to move on. We re-entered the basilica at this level – and thank God for the metal cage installed in addition to the railing! I have never been that fond of heights, but being inside a building this massive, this high up, was enough to remind me what vertigo feels like. Just a little.
Once you adjust to that, or at least confirm the solidity of the security cage, you can appreciate the mosaics up close and read the entire two-meter- tall inscription “Tv es Petrvs et svper hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Tibi dabo claves regni caelorvm” (You are Peter and On this Rock i will build my church… I will give you the keys to heaven). Looking down, if you can handle it, giveds a bird’s eye view of Bernini’s baldachino (with ladder stored on top) and the ant-size people wandering the basilica floor – fifteen stories below.
Then we went up. A gently sloping ramp wide enough for four leads to some normal staircases, then a winding spiral staircase big enough for one (no railing) that ends just about the time you wonder whether it ever will. That brings you to the curving level of the cupola itself, and you can actually see the inward curve, which gets steeper until someone my size has to bend over and lean to the right to get through. One more spiral staircase built for people half my size with tiny feet, and we finally make it out to fresh air.
There really is nothing higher than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even the fabled hills of rome barely rate from this height, though we could see the Lay Centre and some of the other features of Rome – the Altar della Patria, the Pantheon roof, the towers of Santa Maria Maggiore, and a commanding view of the Piazza and Via della Conciliazione out to the Tiber. The viewing platform circles the entire base of the lantern at the top of the dome, so there is a good view of the Vatican Museums and gardens, the various buildings. You can see very well how small the world’s smallest sovereign state really is!
While at the top we found a small office for a couple of the staff of the Fabric of St. Peter’s – responsible for the physical plant – who apparently spend the day in a tiny cubicle at the top of the dome minding the tourists. Nearby we could see through a locked gate the stairs to the very top of the lantern, the base of the cross. I do not think I will petition to get through there any time soon. We were already about 440’ up, I do not think another dozen would make much difference.
Going down is actually a little worse… those almost endless spiral steps can make you dizzy, but thankfully once you get back to the basilica roof, refreshment waits. Bathrooms, water, a gift shop and a café all operate on the roof of the world’s largest church to provide services for the stair-weary pilgrim. (To get a small taste of the small stairs, check out someone’s YouTube video)
Rounded out the day with a late lunch of Roman pizza by the slice then gelato from the Old Bridge Gellateria – famous for its generous portions and modest prices, and pretty decent quality, too – before heading back to the Lay Centre for dinner and some overdue blogging!