(click on pictures to enlarge)
The Vatican State encompasses a huge area (about 110 acres) just east of the Tiber in the city of Rome. It is completely surrounded by walls over 30 ft high, except for the part in front of St Peter’s Basilica. I walked around it once and it took me an hour at a fast pace.
Since we live close by, anytime we want to get to the neighbourhood north of it, we have to make a huge detour as one can’t go across it. I’ve always wondered what its like inside the walls so when a friend who is a nun and who has access to the Vatican Farmacia asked me if I wanted to join her on an excursion to the Farmacia, I jumped at the chance.
The Vatican State is all that remains of the once extensive Papal States which were secularized during the unification of Italy between 1860 to 1870. So called because the land on which it sits used to be called Ager Vaticanus, it was created in 1929 through the Lateran Treaty between Pope Pius XI and King Vittorio Emmanuele III of the Kingdom of Italy. It was actually Mussolini who signed the treaty on behalf of the King.
It is an independent entity which can issue its own passports, stamps and currency. Its currency is the Euro even though it is not part of the EU. With a population of about 850, it has its own newspaper, Post Office, bank, radio station and even a railway station. Most countries including Canada have two embassies in Rome, one for Italy and one for the Vatican.
There are three gates into the Vatican which are normally accessible from the city of Rome, all manned by Swiss Guards.
We entered through Porta Sant’Anna which is the busiest gate and allows access to cars as well as pedestrians. Interestingly, the Guards posted here don’t wear the typical colourful robes of the Swiss Guards but a blue uniform (covered with a cape during winter). The pink building you see just inside the gate to the left are the quarters of the Swiss Guards. Once inside, we made our way to the Farmacia past a supermarket and the Post Office.
There is no tax payable within the Vatican which is why people who have access to the Farmacia prefer to buy their medicines there. I was expecting a sort of basic dispensary but to my surprise, it was like any other pharmacy in the city. Larger and better stocked if anything and to my amazement, with a fine collection of perfumes and cosmetics by Gucci, Dior, Chanel etc. I didn’t need anything but I did buy a tube of toothpaste which was indeed cheaper than in our local cut-price supermarket.
To my disappointment, it was not possible to freely wander about as there are more walls inside and lots of buildings with high locked gates. The gardens occupy a large part of the land but these are kept locked and are only accessible to the public if you pre-book a guided tour. The bank is within a fortress-like tower. When the Lateran Treaty was signed, the Vatican received a financial settlement from the Italian State for the loss of the Papal States. This consisted of 750 million lire in cash and 1 billion lire in the form of government bonds. This was used as seed money for Vatican investments and the less said about the Vatican’s present assets, its property empire and financial scandals the better! Incidentally, the Lateran Pact stipulates a 5 year prison sentence for an Italian citizen who makes a public joke against the Pope ‘whether by means of speeches, acts or writings’. No wonder the media don’t make jokes about the Pope.