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Secrets of the Eternal City

Outside the doors of the Vatican Museum Geoff Nilon follows his Harvest tour guide, Vincenzo, past the queue of people that snakes 200 metres down the Via Vaticano. At the entrance, they sidestep the crowd and the heat to begin their afternoon tour through a historical and spiritual labyrinth of jaw-dropping art.

“It was just amazing having that sort of access,” Geoff says of his time in Rome. “There was no dead time; it was all quality stuff. We ended up in the Sistine Chapel, which I expected… well we expected a prayerful, quiet, calm place.” He chuckles. “It was like Central Station on speed at peak hour! But it was still incredible to go there, it was very impressive.”

Vincenzo led the pilgrim group through each gallery, providing unparalleled knowledge of the Vatican City. He explained the significance of artworks, chapels, monuments and icons, and highlighted special features inside St Peter’s Basilica and later St Paul Outside the Walls that left Geoff awe-inspired. “He was really, really specific and detailed and interesting,” Geoff says. “If we’d have gone there on our own, we’d have been impressed. We’d have looked at some beautiful paintings, and probably walked away thinking they were paintings.” But Vincenzo pointed out that some of the portraits were in fact mosaics. “You had to get up really close to see that they were mosaics. That blew us away. We’d have looked at some of the other icons in that incredible place and not appreciated the true history. We wouldn’t have known about the fact that every Catholic country in the world was represented in the floor tiles.”

Inside the Basilica of St Paul, pilgrims marvelled at the intricate columns, each illustrating a unique moment in Christian history, meeting above their heads in a hand-carved archway or a gleaming icon.

They’re works of art in themselves, as well as places of worship. When you think about the hundreds of thousands, millions of people who’ve been to some of them before you, it’s a very humbling experience.

In both basilicas, the pilgrim group was taken into private chapels where they celebrated a private Mass. “To have that special access and experience of celebrating Eucharist on our own, within the confines of a large church where there were hundreds and hundreds of people outside… I know we visited a few other churches in Rome and they were all very impressive in their own way, but this experience was very special for me.”

For Geoff, having ready access to local expertise, exclusive experiences and generous service made this personally enriching and spiritually nourishing visit to Rome a trip of a lifetime. “It was worth paying a little extra to not have to queue, to not have to worry about tipping people or thinking about meals. You had people with local knowledge, local language, and the doors were open for us — physically and spiritually — doors and nooks that we wouldn’t normally walk through.”