We were in Rome for a mere two days before embarking on an 11-day Eastern Mediterranean cruise and since it was my first time in the Eternal City, there was a lot I wanted to see.
At the top of my list was not only Vatican City, but a special part of the Vatican most tourists don’t get to see – the Scavi.
The Vatican Necropolis, or Scavi, is located directly beneath the immense St. Peter’s Basilica and contains everything from the Papal tombs to Roman cities of the dead. I first heard of the Scavi from a message board about Rome and knew right away that I had to find a way to visit.
The Vatican being the Vatican of course, did not make organizing a tour an easy process. Akin to what requesting anything from a Soviet-era bureaucrat must have been like, the Vatican has set up a very strict protocol that must be followed to the letter.
You can read about the full process here but in short, in order to participate in a Scavi Tour you must:
- Contact the Excavations Office directly via email. ONLY the actual people going on the tour are to request a tour. (no travel agents)
- You must give the names of participants, language desired, range of dates, etc.
- At some point prior to your visit, the Office will contact you letting you know whether or not you made it. If you made it, you will be given the exact time and date of the tour and you must pay for the 10 Euros immediately.
No children under 15 are allowed, no photography is allowed and only 250 visitors a day are allowed to participate.
Regardless of the odd ticket procurement process, participation is an absolute must for any visitor to the Vatican. I was a little early for my tour, but thought I would wait at the Excavations Office for my tour time. I went up to the Swiss Guard, showed him my ticket to which he said, no.
I was told that I would only be allowed in 10 minutes prior to the start of the tour. I glanced at my watch – it was 13 minutes until the tour. Not wanting to get into an argument with a Swiss guardsman in the Vatican, I sat down in front of him and waited. Sure enough, as soon as the clock hit 10 minutes before the hour, he motioned me in. In all honesty, I should have expected this Type A business model based on all of my experiences with the Vatican.
The guide led us into the basement of the Basilica, pushed past tourists and opened one of the doors that said “No Public Access.“ Cool. We walked down a staircase, past an oddly modern electronic glass sliding door and suddenly we were there. In the Vatican Necropolis. It was one of those travel moments that at the time you realize just how privileged you are to be in that particular place at that particular time.
The entire tour was an hour and a half, but it seemed like ten minutes. We wandered through all of the various levels of excavation, navigated uneven ground previously trod upon by Roman nobles. Included in the tour is an entire Roman city street and necropolis complex. It was incredible to peer through doorways and imagine the city two thousand years earlier.
Finally, our stroll in the musty, wet scavi, walking past long defunct fountains and buildings, ended at what the Vatican believes to be the tomb of St. Peter. The discovery of the Saint’s remains was an effort by an earlier Pope to be buried as close to the Father of the Church as possible. The tour guide gives the group a few moments of reflection before formally ending the tour.
After the tour, you emerge from the darkness into the middle of the Papal tombs and throngs of tourists. The effect is a little discombobulating at first, but in reflection is the perfect end point for the remarkable tour.
Regardless of one’s faith, the archeological wonders and veritable time capsule that is the Scavi is well worth the time and effort needed to visit this oft over-looked area of the Vatican.
For more information on the Scavi tour and to book your own, visit the Vatican Excavations Office site.