Rome Stories and Tips

The Mightiest church in the world: St Peters Basilica and Piazza

St Peter himself - at the entrance to the Basilica Photo, Rome, Italy

For one of the greatest experiences in Rome stand in the middle of St Peters piazza and turn around 360 degrees.

The view is nothing less then earthshaking. On two sides is a vast colonnade designed by Bernini. The colonnade embraces a square the size of two football pitches massed with pilgrims. A great obelisque is set in the centre surrounded by Bernini's gushing fountains. Between the gap between the arms of the colonnades is Via Conzolione stretching all the way down to Pont St Angelo and the Tiber and behind you will be a great marble platform dotted with giant statues leading up to the mighty St Peters Basilica. The great home of the global Catholic church is overpowering in its bulk and its facade is dotted with statues and column's. The great warty dome of St Peters can barely be seen from below. Take your time enjoying the view - you are now standing at one of the centres of the world...

You will pinch yourself that you have finally reached the most famous church in the world. All others are humble in the face of god's representative on earth. Italy may not have the mighty empire it did have 2,000 years ago but the world still turns its attention to this city as the centre for the Catholic faith. This is the last and most famous St Peters built on this site. The first was built over the area of St Peters crucifixion and lasted a thousand years. This was the true centre of the medieval world with worshipper passing alms and making pilgrimiges from every country in Christendom. The medieval pope's were so powerful they could excommunicate the peoples of whole countries. By the 16th century the Old Peters had begun to decay and plans were drawn for a fitting magnificent church for the vicar of Christ. And elderly Michelangelo had a hand but it was transformed over sixty years by a succession of architects. They created the most spectacular church in the world.

Every visitor to Rome feels obliged to visit St Peters just as they feel obliged to see the Sistine Chapel. In consequence Piazza San Pietro gets very crowded not just with tourists but with pilgrims, nuns and priests. To reach it is easy. The best way is probably from Ottoviano metro and follow the crowds down Via Ottoviano to Berlini's colonnades. But a spectacular church demands a spectacular approach and the traditional way is across the Tiber from the Centro Storico - the Pont St Angelo with Bernini's angel statues and along Via Conzolione. The best tip I can give you about this area is to hit the Vatican Museum first. The crowds pile out of Ottoviano metro and do St Peters first therefore the Musei Vaticani has no queues. Only an hour later when they have seen the Basilica and trudged around the Vatican walls do the queues become absloutely horrendous.

But as you step through the maze of Bernini's colonnades and admire the statues of saints adorning them - the whole of St Peters lays bare before you. We visited on a Wednesday when the pope gives an audience in the morning. Thousands of chairs had been laid out and were being cleared away by men in vans (see photo)and the piazza was full of thousands of pilgrims. Holy visitors from all over the world follow guides with pink sticks aloft and the queue for the toilets was unbelievable. But seldom have I got such a sense of being at the centre of things as I was surrounded by African nun's, Filipino priests and Albanian pilgrims. Most head up to the great Basilica and I found myself climbed the colossal portico with the rest. A gigantic statue of St Peter (see photo) was nearby and we were watched by the Swiss guards in their costumes designed by Michelangelo.

Make sure you cover your shoulders and legs when entering this mother of churches. And I felt a little tingle of excitement as I passed through the doors. Inside, you get a massive sense of space immediately with a real giant of a nave. The church seems to swallow the thousands of visitors and was in near darkness only illuminated by the famous dome above. Each of the towering marble columns held statues of saints or apostles and the side chapels were very impressive. The most famous being Michelangelo's Pieta - a statue of the virgin carrying Christs body. Near the massive altar was another queue this one to kiss the feet of a statue of St Peter. This one was dressed in robes with a crown on his head.

You need a lifetime to explore St Peters properly. Several highlights stand out - the Baldacchino (papal altar) with its bronze corners twisting into the air and the entrance to the tombs which listed all pope's and dates of their rule going back to St Peter. Take your time in St Peters, there's alot to take in and I can guarantee the next time you visit Rome you will head back there to see it all again. And who can blame you - a visit here is one of the great experiences Europe can offer..

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