Sunlight skipped across the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica as we stepped over the line that divided the country of Italy and the country of Vatican City.
The sparkling cupola beckoned us to come and explore. My children danced across the cobblestone, cheering with delight as they began their discovery of another nation.
As if a stone soldier at the ready, an Egyptian obelisk guarded the center of the square, facing off against the 12 huge apostolic statues which towered above the colonnade. Their gentle faces offered both solace and solemnity.
Devyn flicked a small hand across the water in Bernini’s fountain, sweeping up toward the sky in line with a pigeon who flirted conspicuously with its mate.
It wasn’t for love of the Catholic Church that I’d always wanted to see Vatican City. It was for art, especially the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the statue of Michelangelo’s Pietá.
Throughout my travels to 50 countries and counting, I’ve had the privilege of visiting hundreds of some of the world’s best art museums, all of which inspire and delight in their own unique way.
If there is one brilliant thing the Catholic Church has consistently perpetuated, it has been the making of great art. And the Vatican’s 26 Museums hold more than 70,000 pieces of art.
Experiencing great art with wide-eyed, open-hearted kids who love to learn is a delicious kind of wonderful.
That first day, we sat in St. Peter’s Square with sketchbooks and pencils, noticing the details on the basilica, capturing the arches of the colonade, and memorizing the symmetry of the piazza’s design.
I told my daughters some stories about this place.
This was where hundreds of Christians were slain when falsely accused by the Emperor Nero. They joined more than two million other Christians who were also killed as martyrs in the first 300 years of Christianity.
It was here where the popes addressed millions of faithful followers throughout the ages.
Here, the Swiss Guard have borne their noble arms in quiet defence of the papacy for over 500 years.
In this place, passionate groups have gathered in earnest–both in protest and in worship.
Reagan, my nine-year-old aspiring artist, was listening, enraptured in the stories. She then noticed two ornate clocks on either side of the St. Peter’s Basilica, each 13 feet high, cardinal and imposing. Her younger sister, Madison, pointed out that the clock to the left told the true time, while the one to the right seemed to be entirely wrong.
I explained that the one on the right was the Italico clock which is supposed to show the hours which have passed since the last sunset. We tried to read it that way, and it still didn’t seem to add up to the correct time.
Little six-year-old Devyn, ever resourceful, asked a Vatican guide who was passing by if the clock was broken.
Sweetly, the guide replied,
“Very observant! The clock is not correct. We don’t want that clock to tell the right time because we don’t want the devil to come to mass on time. He should always be guessing the hour, don’t you think?”
And with a wink paired with sincerity, he was on his way.
I smiled. Our journey into the hidden folklore of Vatican City had begun.
Later that day, we sat listening to Pope Francis share his remarks before an adoring crowd. He was gracious and kind, welcoming people from all corners of the earth, while delivering a catalyzing address.
But the children didn’t listen to much of what the pope said. They were far too curious about the pope’s soldiers, the unblinking Swiss Guard.
The pontifical guards’ uniforms were Renaissance-era in design, delightfully flamboyant in orange and blue. Bright red ostrich feathers stood high atop their morion helmets, appearing lofty and smart — and mildly comical.
And in their hands, they held long wooden halberds, a weapon resembling both a spear and a battleaxe. They were ready for action against any opposing enemy.
These were the elite guard of this tiny nation-state.
When the ceremony concluded, we were off to explore the cathedral. Elated, I followed my daughters inside. I’d waited a lifetime to see the Pietà, and the moment had finally arrived.
This is an excerpt from the upcoming book: Exploring Italy, A Travel Guide Book for Families with Kids by travel journalist Janelle Schroy from Adventure Family Journal.
If you are a parent who plans to explore Italy with young children, this book is for you! In it, you’ll find a curated guide to Venice, Rome, Vatican City and Florence, written specifically for families with young children.