09 September 2010

Dirty Tourists Threaten Sistine Chapel, or, Why We Need More Strollers

This story brought back fond memories of my family's visit to the Vatican museums back in 2003. At the time, we only had three children ex-utero, though Sharon was most visibly "with child" #4. If you ever have the good fortune to go to Europe with young children, I am here to suggest that a baby stroller (that's "pram" for you SLC Brit readers) is your key to sightseeing happiness.

The typical method of touring the very extensive collection at the Vatican museums (the largest in the world, with 1400 rooms) is to start at a preselected entry, and then undergo one of a few enforced tour routes that ends at the Sistine Chapel. Thus, to get to the Sistine Chapel, one has typically undergone a multi-hour journey and will enter the chapel at the end of their limit of energy and attention span. There are often very long lines to accommodate the 15,000-20,000 visitors per day.

If you have a stroller, however, all that can change.

My family and I entered the Vatican museums, purchased tickets and turned to enter the collections. Before we got to the entrance, a museum guard came up to us and asked if we spoke English. He then remarked we had a beautiful family (perhaps looking at Sharon...) and asked, "What would you like to see first?" Sharon and I exchanged a very brief glance and both responded, "How about the Sistine Chapel?"

"Follow me."

And we were off. We spent a good while in the Sistine Chapel, which is absolutely magnificent, to say the least. When we had our fill, our unofficial guide asked what we wanted next. And next, and next, and on and on. Going through the museum, escorted by the guard, we had our run of the place. Often we were traveling against the normal flow of the tour routes, and whenever space was tight, the guard would make the tour lines move to the side so we could get through. Whenever we had to change floors, we were led to a locked, private elevator and escorted around. I felt a little guilty, but didn't turn down the help. At the end, in the gift shop, our friend went back to his normal post with many thanks, ending our private tour, but the employee behind the counter said, "It is always so beautiful to see families with many children." And we only had three.

This attitude was consistent throughout Rome, but especially on the Vatican City sites: the four basilicas, the museums and the Scala Sancta. When we would walk around, little old Italian ladies would pat my wife's stomach, say, "bella famiglia", and smile. Call this an anecdotal corroboration of Italy's sub-replacement level birthrate.

As an aside, even in the birthplace of the French Revolution, a stroller can bring sightseeing bliss. The crowds at the Louvre in Paris can be even bigger than those at the Vatican museums. They stretch around the perimeter of the glass pyramid entrance, and entry takes a bit of time. With a stroller, we walked right inside, bypassing the line, and were led a special elevator to get to the first wing. Pretty nifty. I only heard one negative-sounding heckler from the line, who uttered something about destroying the planet.

So, forget 15,000-20,000 visitors a day. Just account for 100 or so families with strollers.

Or better yet, let the TSA administer the great museums of the world. With them in charge, it would be impossible for 15,000 people to enter any building in one day.

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