Ok it isn't really a secret but it still the closest many of us will ever get to climbing through an ancient unexplored tomb and it was a secret for many years. This travel tip is one of our favorite all time destinations and if you are planning a trip to Rome it is a must see.
For historical context the current Vatican Church, St. Peter's Basilica was built in the 1500's on top of the ruins of the Old St. Peter's Basilica which was built in about 400 AD.
But like everything in Rome there is more history waiting if you just dig deeper. The Old Basilica was built on top of a Roman Cemetery which contains the graves and Mausoleums of many prominent individuals including it is believed St. Peter himself. Which explains why the basilica was built there in the first place if you think about it.
In the 1940's with WWII raging around them the Vatican leadership was apparently concerned about the possibly of needing to relocate and set out to excavate the bones of St. Peter. To accomplish this teams of archaeologists worked at night in secret to excavate the large necropolis (City of the Dead) under the current Vatican. This work remained a secret until well after WWII had ended and access to the excavated ruins was not easy until much more recently. Even now access is restricted to 250 people per day and must be booked many months in advance through the Vatican excavation office.
Once you book you will be given a time and date to arrive at the excavation office which is on the left hand side of the basilica. You will need to talk to the Swiss Guard and show your ticket and you will be allowed past the barricade. There is no need to wait in the line for the basilica itself you simple enter the excavation office directly (more on this later). Once entering the office you will join your group and enter a very steep and cramped stair case that will take you down to the excavation itself. I'll leave the details for you to discover on your own but the most interesting part for me was the fact that the cemetery had tombs of many different faiths represented. Although the tour is led by a Christian priest I found them to be extremely knowledgeable and willing to talk about the meaning and influence of the different symbolism. This is by far the most interesting site in Rome in my opinion and very much worth the effort to visit.
A couple quick comments to close:
- If you are claustrophobic this is certainly not the tour for you - just don't.
- Remember you are entering a place that is very sacred to Christians so respectful clothing and behavior is expected more so then typical Church tours.
- When you finish this tour you are let out inside the barricade and can just walk directly into the main St. Peter's Basilica. This line can be hours long in the hot sun so for that reason alone the tour is worthwhile.
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