What is a Scavi Tour?
The Scavi Tour takes you below Saint Peter’s Basilica to the Vatican necropolis. The Vatican commissioned excavation of this site in the 1940’s whereupon archaeologists found a burial ground dating back to the 4th Century. Among other things they unearthed in the Vatican Catacombs is the Temple of Constantine and what is strongly believed to be St. Peter’s Tomb.
We took the Vatican Scavi tour ourselves and found it to be an incredible experience that will definitely make our list of “most memorable.” However, I really wanted to share the experience from the perspective of someone raised in Catholicism. My partner, Nathan, was raised in a Catholic home, but I was not. Since I am the writer in the duo I decided to call upon a fellow writer, who also happens to be Nathan’s mother, to share her experience.
As Written by Laurie Rochon-Sado
“Rome, Italy. Two words that conjure up all sorts of images; historical beauty, iconic tourist spots, romantic settings, even holy moments of wonder. To even begin to describe in this brief article my incredible four days would be an exercise in futility.
Each place I went brings its own description, its own moment of wonder. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and of course, visiting Vatican City.
However, for this simple woman from a little town in Washington State, USA, nothing compares to the quiet moments I spent deep beneath St. Peters Basilica in the necropolis. This is my account of what is called the Vatican Scavi Tour.
The Vatican necropolis, aka Scavi, sits directly beneath St. Peters Basilica. Located there are the tombs of past Popes, St. Peters tomb itself, as well as an ancient Roman street.
If you are planning a trip to Rome, this is one of the must-see Vatican tours. It is well worth the small amount of trouble it takes to procure the rare Scavi Tour tickets. Since it is one of the most exclusive tours in Rome, with only 250 people a day allowed to enter the excavation, it is well worth the extra effort.
On the day of my scheduled tour, I awoke with a sense of anticipation. I just felt that something very special was going to happen to me that day. I was not disappointed.
As my family and I entered the Vatican we were greeted by the Swiss Guard and directed to the Scavi offices. Due to the fragility of the excavations, we were put into a small group of about 12 people. Keep in mind that children under 15 cannot enter, for that reason.
As we began our tour, we entered on foot through the Arco delle Campane. Almost immediately, I was engulfed with a sense of history. The air was thick with warmth and dampness. Being raised in a Christian home, I also began to feel something spiritual the deeper we went down.
The air became warmer as we descended, and walls become a little bit tighter. However, not so tight as to bother those with mild claustrophobia. From an archaeological standpoint, I was amazed at the structures, the tombs, the beauty. I kept thinking, what a treat for anyone interested in archaeology to take this tour.
To my understanding, this necropolis dates all the way back to the 4th century. One area was said to be the temple of Emperor Constantine complete with an ancient graffiti that translates, “Peter is here.” It gave me chills.
As our 90 minute tour continued, I truly believed I had entered one of the Vatican’s best kept secrets. I was transported into a dark city of small cave like mausoleums arranged along a narrow, dark street with ornate decorations and inscriptions evoking a sense of mind-boggling history. I was breathing in the past. My past. The past of my religious ancestors.
As our journey below continued, we reached a niche like area that led to a small room where our tour guide paused for several minutes to let us take in the place believed to be St. Peter’s tomb which holds the relics of St. Peter himself. Not being a particularly holy woman, I was surprised to find as I stared into this softly lit room, that there were tears streaming down my cheeks. Was it the mesmerizing history that was leaving me breathless and emotional, or had I truly been touched by something profound; a holy moment of wonder?
At the completion of our tour, we continued to view the rest of St. Peters Basilica, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. All beautiful and awesome, however, I raised a silent prayer that I stumbled onto the Scavi Tour website all those months prior to our trip to Italy. Those quiet moments spent in the necropolis touched my heart and remain with me today.”
How to Get Scavi Tour Tickets
Prior to your trip, once you have booked your transportation and decided where to stay in Rome, simply log onto the Scavi website. We booked ours three months in advance sending through the request via email directly to the Vatican Scavi Tour offices.
You will need to include the dates you will be in Rome and you will be notified, usually within a few days, of the date and time you have been assigned. You are not able to specify an exact date and time yourself so be sure to leave the dates you’ve given open until your receive confirmation. The cost is very minimal at 13.00 Euros.
Here is the process we went through:
Requests may be submitted in written form by sending an email to [email protected], by fax+39 06 69873017, or by visiting the Excavations Office in person (using the south [left] entrance, just outside of the Colonnade).
It is absolutely necessary to provide the following information:
1. Exact number of participants
2. Names of participants
3. Language requested
4. Possible dates *when the Excavations Office can assign your visit (the time will be determined by the Office). *please always write in full the name of the month (e.g.: from 01 January 2018 to 08 January 2018)
5. E-mail address, or fax number, or a complete postal address.
It’s as simple as that to arrange a unique and moving experience of a lifetime and become only one of 250 people out of 30,000 that visit the Vatican daily.
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Vatican Scavi Tour Tips
- Book as far in advance as you can, especially in high season as there are limited spots.
- You won’t be able to photograph while in the catacombs but you should be able to bring your camera with you on the tour as long as it is kept secured in a bag. You actually exit the tour into St Peter’s Basilica where you will definitely want your camera.
- It can get a bight tight and confined in spots so if you have severe claustrophobia you may want opt out.
- Because of the sometimes tight spaces and historical importance of the site large bags and backpacks are not permitted. A standard size purse or camera bag if fine as long as it can be strapped close to your body.
- Dress appropriately as you would for any sacred site. Men must wear long trousers and women no skirts above the knees and all should have shoulders covered.
- You will have a very specific time of entry and the office can be a bit tricky to find so be sure to arrive early and bring the directions emailed to you at time of booking.
- They do not allow anyone under the age of fifteen.
Other Must Sees When Visiting Vatican City
Once you have confirmation of your Scavi Tour date and time you can start planning the rest of your visit to Vatican City (aka the Holy See.) As the center of Catholicism, residence of the Pope and home to many priceless and historical works of art, there is a lot to see at Vatican City. We suggest allowing at least one full day to take it all in at a comfortable pace.
The Vatican Museums
As the largest museum complex in the world it’s impossible to see it all in one visit so it’s a good idea to plan ahead what you want to see. There are four different itineraries for the self guided options taking in different parts of the Vatican Museums. If you choose to go it alone we do suggest paying the little extra for a Skip the Line Ticket, especially during peak season. There are also guided tours which we recommend if you want to get the most out of your visit. Either way you should allow three hours and you will always end up at the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel is the prize at the end of the Vatican Museums trail. You can only get there by going through the museums first. That doesn’t mean you should rush through the museums though, they are more than worth the time to explore on their own. In fact, once you reach the Sistine Chapel for the first time you may be forgiven if you’re a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it is magnificent and awe inspiring to see Michelangelo’s famous ceiling but the ever-present crowd and the constant sound of a disembodied voice saying “Please keep moving” and “No cameras!” can somewhat hamper the experience. Just try to block that out and take in the masterpieces that surround you including the magnificent Creation of Adam.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
Saint Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world and was built on the site of a church that covered Saint Peter’s tomb. This stunningly beautiful church holds many important works of art including the famous Pieta by Michelangelo. Saint Peter’s is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics as the original site, Circus of Nero, is where the Romans martyred thousands of Christians in the first century. Don’t miss climbing to the top of the dome for 360 degree views of Rome and Saint Peter’s Square. As mentioned in the Scavi Tour notes you will exit into Saint Peter’s Basilica so plan accordingly.
The Vatican and it’s Popes have been protected by the Swiss Guard since 1506 and despite their rather elegant looking uniforms they are much more than a colorful sight for tourists. Every member of the Swiss Guard is highly trained in weaponry and martial arts. To become a member of the Swiss Guard they must be Catholic, single, Swiss males between the ages of 18-30 and former members of the Swiss military. In my experience it seems they must also be quite handsome!
Audience with the Pope
If you are able to time it right you can be present for the Pope’s speech in Saint Peter’s Square. When he is in town he will hold audience on Wednesdays at 10:30 am and on Sundays at noon. On Wednesdays he speaks outside in the square and there are free tickets available for seating. These tickets must be requested and picked up ahead of time. No tickets are required on Sundays when he gives a shorter speech from his apartment window. You can find the Pope’s schedule and ticket info here. If you want to be assured of getting tickets and a decent seat you can also pay for a guided audience which will include detailed explanation of the papacy as well as headsets to hear the speech clearly.
Getting to Vatican City
If you’re not taking a tour that includes transportation you will have a few options for getting to Vatican City. If you’re staying close enough to walk there you’re in luck but make sure you map your way and leave plenty of time if you have a Scavi Tour booked. Taxis are everywhere but Rome traffic can be busy and prices high so check with your hotel or taxi service in advance. You can also take the Rome Metro Metropolitana Line A to the Ottaviano “San Pietro” stop which would be our choice over a taxi.
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Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.