There are all kinds of nations and states across Europe, big and small, with or without minorities, having overlapping or shared interests, and arbitrary borders in between. There are forms of statehood ranging from theocracies – like Mount Athos – via feudal monarchies – Isle of Sark – to republics. There are forms of government ranging from dictatorship – like Belarus – to parliamentary democracies. All have their highest points, and on every one I have wanted to stand.
But there is ONE little one, which surpasses all others in craziness: the Vatican State, for not only it is a theocracy, having God's representative on Earth as its head of state, it is also a secular absolute monarchy with the monarch being elected. It is a state as small as nothing else in this world, a tax-free enclave, not represented in the United Nations, but with a super-tight network of „embassies“ across the world. It holds an army of Swiss mercenaries, as ridiculous as it is itself. It outsources policing to the Italians. Its population does not maintain itself through births, but through acquisition. Each of its citizens holds temporary double citizenships, as long as there is a job to do. It has its own stamps and one single mailbox. Its Euro coins sell higher on the street than their face value, and therefore they are completely superfluous as a means of payment. Its car license plates read „SCV“ – Stato della Città del Vaticano – and its official language is considered dead: Latin. It owes its stately existence to a criminal: Mussolini. And exactly as weird is all that surrounds the Vatican: it's a hoax, the most glorious, stuck-in-the-past, formal expression of the oldest still existing political institution in Europe: the Roman-Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, it also has its own highest point: the Vatican Hill, Colle Vaticano, 75 m „high“. How to climb it? That's the question.
But prior to that: Where is the Vatican's highest point? One would believe it shouldn't be a problem to spot a highest point on 0.44 square kilometres, one fifth of which is already covered by the massive Saint Peter's Cathedral. Then there are Saint Peter's Square and the offices and the museums, all out of consideration, because they are man-made. For me, the Vatican's highest point has to hide somewhere in the Vatican Gardens, and this is the way to go: I must purchase an entrance ticket to the Vatican Gardens. But, where is the ticket office?
Map of the State of Vatican City
Approaching Vatican Hill
The road leading into the turmoil of Rome is Via Cassia. A right turn at the right moment takes me onto Via Andrea Doria. Since it is Sunday today I even find parking space at the corner with Via Tunisi, from where I can peacefully approach my target.
My first advance means absorbing the atmosphere, on foot via Via Leone IV to Piazza di Risorgimento. For a Sunday there is alarmingly much traffic. Huge tourist groups push forward along the wall of the Vatican, its national border with Italy. Next to me an American lady wants to find out on her map where to go. „I don't know where I am“, she sighs and hits the point.
To the right I walk into Via di Porta Angelica. Already I hear singing, church hymns. Masses of people rush through the Colonnades onto Saint Peter's Square from where the sound of the songs comes, pious Monsignors in brown gowns mix with Japanese tourists shuffling along with their Nikon cameras on broad belts around their bent necks, sweat-wiping, and their ladies tripping behind. All have to squeeze through a narrow gate, where Carabinieri seem to check something; in reality they simply wave us through.
Under the Colonnades people stand so tightly that there is no movement possible anymore. The entire Peter's Square is crammed with people, maybe one hundred thousand. Mass is in full swing. Public viewing screens transmit what is happening in the interior of Saint Peter's. One can see the Pope whisking across the screen. Then everybody is singing again. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás, founder of Opus Dei, will be canonized today.
Outside the Vatican: Behind the wall lies Colle Vaticano
This apparently is not the right day for mountain climbing, not the right environment. And yet it must be. I must find an information bureau of the Vatican where one will explain to me, how I can get in, into the gardens behind Saint Peter's. The highest point of the Vatican is said to hide behind the massive cathedral.
Sundays all information bureaus are closed. I must postpone the enquiry until Monday. And my mountain may have to wait even longer?
Through Via Tunisi, passing the Chinese restaurant Hao-Hua, I push forward a second time to the Vatican, this time from north. Tunisia! Chinese! How far has Christendom sunk that it tolerates Tunisians and Chinese within the realm of His Highest Holiness! It will also tolerate me, turning into Viale Vaticano, sniffing along the Vatican wall for an opening through which I possibly could penetrate illegally or could swing myself across the wall's crown and delve into the Vatican Gardens. Directly behind the wall should be the highest point, the Vatican Hill, close to conquer, if I am just able to climb the wall.
Pine trees look over the ten meters high wall. Insurmountable. But over there is a scaffold leaning against the wall. Scaffolds are good climbing supports. But as clever as they are, the scaffolders have disguised their work with towels and sheets, so that climbing up will simply be impossible.
Now I arrive at a place where the lawn in front of the wall ascends, reducing the wall's height to only about seven meters. Here I could position a telescope aluminum ladder by night and clamber up and across. But do I have an aluminum ladder at hand? Again, not a viable option.
Around the western corner of the state territory I reach a bricked-up gate. Behind the wall stands a tower looking like a water-shed. Again no chance to enter. On the lawn in front of the wall the Romans walk their dogs. Another memorial plate in the wall: „Pius IIII Medices Mediol. Pont. Max. An. Sal. MDLXIIII“ – Pius IV of the Medici clan of Milan has worked here as a bricklayer in 1563? Unbelievable.
I descend the stairs of Rampa del Viale Vaticano and land in the railway underpass of Via Aurelia in front of an advertisement poster. A girlie lolls on it in sexy underwear, legs apart, and gives me to consider the following: „Extreme Plaisir. Si disegna sul tuo corpo e diventa parte di te. Lovable. L’emozione è donna.” Apparently the wear provides extreme pleasure to the lady, designed „to your body“ and „become part of you“. The feeling is all woman. Lovable. One should lead the Pope here, probably he would claim the rotten corner under the railway bridge part of his territory, so that the believers would not get seduced and fall to sin.
Under the bridge and through I step up the Rampa Aurelia again, meet Via della Stazione Vaticana and settle for a rest in the small green plot next to the railway tracks. The tracks enter a tunnel leading through the Vatican wall, but its heavy metal gate is closed. The tracks seem dead. Whenever the Vatican printing shop receives a load of paper to print the Osservatore Romano the gate must be opened, the train rolls in and unloads its freight, preferably from Finland, in the underground Vatican railway station. Even if the Vatican has shrunk to a minuscule territory without power, it still maintains a railway station and 730 meters of track. My respect increases. On the bridge that I can oversee now leading across Via Aurelia a few freight cars stand forlorn. In the crowns of the pine trees above the Vatican wall crows croak.
At Porta Cavalleggeri I find another memorial plaque at the wall: „Murum urbis Leonianae a Nicolao V Pont. Max refectum, Pius IX. Pont. Max instavravit tutioremq. reddidit anno MDCCCLVIII curante Iosepho Ferrari Praef. Aer. – The Leonian city wall was repaired by Pope Nicholas V. Pope Pius IX renewed it and returned it more securely in 1858, executed by finance minister Giuseppe Ferrari“. The more I loiter about at the wall, the better becomes my Latin. That is bitterly necessary if I want to talk to other mountain climbers in the „Status Civitatis Vaticanae“.
Penetrating into Vatican
On Monday I like to penetrate into Vatican, searching for its highest point. Roaring motorcycles and cars zoom by on Viale Vaticano. Someone explains to me that museums are closed on Mondays. The entrance ticket would need to be ordered in advance at the entrance to the museums. Nothing doing today. I have to wait another day, kill time, just for ordering a ticket. Will Tuesday be the day of the Lord?
Evening at the Vatican wall: The headlights creep up the curves of Viale Vaticano and wind themselves around the repellent wall. At its foot a have discovered a parking space in the second row, nicely shielded. Ahead of me parks the first row, behind me a strip of grass, before the vertical stone mass shoots up. Opposite art nouveau villas. Opening the door of my van provides excellent cover for me to urinate. This calms me down and lets me fall asleep faster on the flat rear seats of my Subaru Libero. Overnight the continuous roaring and rustling of the traffic steel cavalcades will diminish only shortly.
Tuesday. Waking up at 7:15h. The queue of the working people in their cars is rolling down, squeakingly, Viale Vaticano again. Ambulance cars howl their emergency signal in-between uselessly. There is no faster advancement. A self-proclaimed parking lot guardian begins to act, puts his motorcycle in a parking gap and moves it only, when a car wants to find asylum in the same. For a fee, of course. With the eyes of a hawk he watches the scene, jumps on free gaps like on wounded game, pushes his motorcycle in, waits for the next prey. Busy metropolean vulture. He doesn't cast his eye on me when I put off my clothes to wash the upper part of my body, right in front of Vatican's wall, in the middle of Rome, the hub of the world.
„Life in the mountains has something more human in it than life in the flat plain, the inhabitants are closer to one another, if you will also further apart, the demands are less, but more urgent, man is more self-reliant, must rely on his hands, his feet ...“, said the old German poet Wolfgang von Goethe, and meant exactly what applies to my overnight place next to the holiest spot of the Roman-Catholic world and to my survival methods in the jungle of a mega-city; I cannot comprehend why I should spend three nights expensively in a hotel when I only want to climb a ridiculously small hill. On the other side of the road I see a cardinal marching, purple cap on his head; he has witnessed the canonization of the head of Opus Dei on Sunday. A young man bears his briefcase; the cardinal ahead, the servant three meters behind.
Again there is a long queue in front of the entrance to the Vatican museums, hundreds of tourists pushing through to catch a view of the Sistine Chapel. Long before opening I have been standing already seriously in the queue together with giggling Japanese girls. The Japanese follow stupid-blindly their leader, who rises a flag over her head. Outside of the herd, Japanese are helpless. Baring teeth some Italians also queue up blathering, locked in between Vatican wall and rush.
Nine o'clock. Now it's my turn in the bureau for Permessi Speciali. My name is being entered in the computer. I am number 38 in line for reservations of special tours through the Vatican Gardens. „Not today, tomorrow“, decides the official. „Why not today?“ „Today full.“ The official turns away, grabs his Gazetta dello Sport, to look how AS Rome has played. „When tomorrow?“ “I have to check.” The official does not like to be disturbed so early in the morning. “Can you check now?” He looks into the computer again. „10:30 tomorrow. You have to make reservation.“ Again he takes up his Gazetta. „Can I make reservation now?“ The official sighs. So much perseverance can only come from a Teuton. „What is your family name?“ “Ese – se – ache – a – u – be, Schaub.” Eventually he presses the enter-button. The computer starts thinking. Spits out a ticket with number 38 on. „Tomorrow you come 10 o’clock, to the exit. They let you in quickly and you do not have to wait a second time.” Finally the official warms up. An intelligent proposal. Never was I closer to my aim, Colle Vaticano. Never before has a small hill, fully 75 meters high, put up so many barriers.
Wednesday at 9 o'clock I actually am allowed to enter, on a gate labelled „Uscità“ for exit; Italy upside down. At the counter „Visite Guidate“ my reservation slip is being checked. My data in the computer are being compared to the data on the slip. Everything in the Vatican must be in order, and God's employees must be kept busy. Was it not the „sanctification of work“ that Opus Dei aimed for? Now one sends me to another counter, for payment. 9 Euros are due. In return I get a real entrance ticket for a „Visita Guidata – Giardini Vaticani – Intero.“ Another step in the battle for Vatican Hill successfully concluded. Never before was I so close to Colle Vaticano, and yet I am still so far.
Through the spacious lobby of the Vatican museums the „normal“ visitors pour in by the hundreds, those who wish to see „only“ the Sistine Chapel. Japanese ladies with their hats on trip in, towing the grim-looking small-footed husbands behind; colossal Americans with McDonalds-tommies and baseball caps on fat heads pulling haggard wives who are on some „diet“: „Darling, can you hold my bag while I buy the tickets?“ Immature chattering German youngsters on a school class trip, annoyed senior teachers. The ultimate elemental requirements are still being satisfied quickly in a sparkling, marble-lined mass toilet.
In the anteroom of the Ufficio Permessi Speciali I have to sit down on a bench and wait for half an hour. Time to look around and let everything else walk by. In the niche next to me in the wall is placed a sarcophagus. Titus Fufius Flavius Salinator from Veii was laid in it to rest in the second half of the second century after Christ. Titus would be amazed if he could see what is happening here 1,800 years later.
Twenty minutes to Eleven the tour starts. First the tickets are being checked. The participants are being counted. „My name is Adelaide“, our lady leader presents herself. We are led to a long escalator that carries us upwards from the lobby. Before we step on a terrace outside of the building, the tickets are being checked again. Outside Adelaide Trezzini assembles us 40 people from all over the world around herself. She quickly runs through Vatican's history: Growth until renaissance, then pushed back, finally entire Rome occupied by Italian troops. The listeners shiver of pity: the poor Popes!
Slowly we stroll past the Fontana della Zitella at the edge of the museum building, a female fantasy being later transmuting into a fountain. Adelaide plucks a blossom here, a leaf there. Explains the exotic plants in all detail. I sniff about in side walkways: Where is the „mountain“?
„You must stay with us“, gives me Adelaide to understand, „it is not permitted that you leave our group.” I return to the squad, disciplined. From Viale del Giardino Quadrato we view the Winter Tower and the Square Garden. On a parkway with a fountain erected by Pope Pius XI we ascend through the English Garden. Finally uphill! We approach the summit without a single member of the group excited for the one and only moment ahead. Who is interested at all in Vatican Hill! Adelaide again speaks a few sentences: „Pope Pius XI consented to the Lateran treaty in 1929. Previously the Vatican Hill was a vineyard, but only acid wine was produced here.“
Hedges of myrtles lead us to a point where formerly the monument stood of the first world economic summit in the nineteenth century, now there is a statue of Saint Peter.
Our group, Adelaide ahead, arrives at a decorative fountain grotto made of tuff with an eagle as the coat of arms on top. Slightly ascending we walk up Viale Gregorio XVI to the masts of Radio Vatican. Adelaide explains: This here is not Radio Vatican proper. Radio Vatican stands outside of the Vatican on Italian soil. The reason for the masts remains unclear. What do they transmit and where and why? The secretiveness surrounding the Catholic Church: here it is at its best.
Grotto on the way to the virtual Radio Vatican
Instead it becomes clear that we excitingly approach the summit of Colle Vaticano. Even the „watershed“ that I had spotted on my circuit around Vatican wall stands at its place where Viale Gregorio XVI meets Viale del Bosco. Adelaide is explaining some little plants, tiny flowers or stuff: That is the moment when I sneak away in an acute angle, onto a woodway leading me first to a huge amphora lying on its side under the trees like rolled there. Behind an about two-meter-high little knoll rises, tree-lined. That is it, the summit of Colle Vaticano. I must take a photo. It is last on the film roll. I have to change films. Where do I have the capsule with the new film? Fiddling about back and forth, camera open, camera closed, clack. Now I can rush back to my group, deeply content.
Yet nothing is to be seen of Adelaide and her group. Haven't they been here just a minute ago? Desperately I look in all directions. No Adelaide.
Near the summit of Mons Vaticanus
The summit of Colle Vaticano. Has anybody already been REALLY on the summit? Through the underwood?
Desperation in the Gardens
Panic befalls me. How will I get out of the Gardens, if not as part of my group? Still it has not got that far, still I can perhaps drag behind the group and catch up. But into which direction?
I decide for Viale degli Ulivi. A statue of Madonna de Fatima, sponsored by an American artist, seduces me to read the little inscription on it, reminding of the Turk assassin Ali Ağça who shot down the Pope on 13 May 1981 on Saint Peter's Square. It is said the Madonna of Fatima had saved the Pope at the time. Maria of the Portuguese village of Fátima had already 64 years prior to the assassination predicted to her children Francisco and Jacinta Marto and her cousin Lúcia six times between 13 May and 13 October 1917 that the Pope would be shot. Actually not precisely the Pope, but a „bishop in white clothes“. The story just fits well.
Shooting? On the Pope? Everything is possible. In fact from here would be the best opportunity to fire a rocket onto Saint Peter's. I am totally alone. Will they now shoot at me? Absence without leave? Unauthorized. Where is Adelaide?
On Paul's VI bastion, in the extreme western corner of the state's territory there is a helicopter landing site. From here Vatican's helicopter takes off, the only plane of the state, to lift the Pope to the Rome airport of Ciampino, from where he sets off to his journeys worldwide. No other plane is permitted to overfly the Vatican, no other helicopter may land on Paul VI bastion. State visitors who want to hover in in style, can do so on Saint Peter's Square. In the background of the landing site stands a Madonna statue. That is the place where the Pope prays, before he steps into his helicopter, and that is where he thanks Virgin Mary, when he returns safely from his journeys.
I turn into Viale Pio XII. The terrain is still almost as high as at the summit of Vatican Hill. A thick round tower is placed here, which in its upper elevations housed Pope John's XXIII private studio, unto which he always retired when he wanted to be alone. That happened often, and media turned that into a story of him meditating; I believe he simply could not bear this world anymore – I would have had a recipe against depression for him: mountain climbing. Perhaps John XXIII wanted to enjoy the feeling that he resided in his hermitage high up in the tower really higher than anybody else in the Vatican, closer to heaven than Saint Peter's cupola! And certainly almost double as high as the summit of Vatican Hill.
In the Vatican Gardens
A car is approaching me from behind, very slowly. Now it stops as I scribble notes on a piece of paper. I look for its license plate: one of the rare examples of cars registered in the Vatican, with SCV and a 5-digit number. According to statistics of 1984 the Vatican maintained 235 vehicles, 194 of which were cars, the rest railroad freight cars, among others. The Romans say the SCV stands for "se cristo vedesse" – if Christ saw this – and backwards (VCS) the answer "Vi cacciarebbe subito" – he would immediately chase you away.
The car shadowing me does not want to go ahead. The driver keeps an eye on me. That I make notes all the time, makes me suspicious. The engine purrs gently 30 meters behind me.
I walk on. I pass by an olive tree, the Olivi di Puglia, named „Radici di Pace“, roots of peace, „il messagio di una terra generosa ed ospitale“, ambassador of a generous and hospitable world. The car still goes on creeping in my back.
At the Largo Capanna Cinese a bell is placed reading „Jubilaeum MM“ – the Church celebrating the 2000 year anniversary of its existence. From here I have a nice view on Saint Peter's cupola from the west, about in my eye's level. Adelaide's group is almost forgotten. Gardeners work in the park landscape, I enjoy the well-taken-care-of lawns, palm trees, pines, cedars. Also one of there mysterious radio masts or antennas or what-do-I-know-what-that-is stands in between.
I turn into Via Pio XI, wandering along the „Italian Garden“, whose decorative, neatly cut boxwood hedges encircle geometric, symmetric lawns and flower beds. Parrots croak in the pine crowns. Forty parrots enjoy the park so well that they want to remain here and don't like to emigrate into the turbulent Rome. I begin to like it as well here. There I am, just around a building, I hit Adelaide and her well-behaving troop.
She glances at me frowning: „Where have you been?“ How can I know where I was; I am not in the mood telling her that I have met my „state objective“ and that the rest I care little about. So I stammer some sort of an apology and look down. Yet this is not all.
The car that had persecuted me, had driven up to the little guardhouse next to the way. The policeman who had been standing in the guardhouse, emerges from it, strides towards the group. Loudly he verbalizes his indignation, in Italian. I can understand, that is about me and that the matter is very serious. „Capito?“ he finishes his speech. Adelaide translates: „By all means you must stay with the group. If you move away once more, you will have to leave.“
I have triggered a medium international crisis. The security machinery of the Vatican has been activated, I am unmasked as a public enemy. The empathy touches me, with which the Italian policemen protect their boss from scatterbrains like me. Eventually I am disciplined, behave orderly, have given up my freedom – Adelaide leads again. This is Catholic Church at its best.
A new perspective
They want to ban me? The Pope should first care of removing alien gods from the territory of his state. In one corner of the park we, Adelaide and her group of lemmings, come to a fountain, on top of which the antique Greek god of the forest, Pan, is enthroned.
„Pan“ means "pa" and that stands for everything edible. Pan is said to have mingled with the Dionysian Maenades, the priestesses of Dionysos and Orpheus – and not only that: Pan has also been married to Athene, Penelope, Selene and many archaic forms of the „Great Goddess“. Ugh! Something that immoral in the Vatican!
The word „panic“ originally designates the scary cry of Pan, with which he intimidated his enemies, deprived them of all their force and put them to flight. I would have wished I could have done this with the police today.
Christianity has denigrated Pan as the devil, has however left him untouched sitting on the fountain in the Vatican Gardens, where he can be worshipped now. Unheard of! Even more: Christianity would look different without Pan. Pan was a member of the Phrygic Kybele and Attis cult of the third century, and like Jesus he was the son of a virgin, died, descended to the underworld and rose again from the dead three days after. One told his worshippers: „God has been saved, and you will be redeemed of your grievances.“
Part of the cult was a ritual meal that should unite the initiated ones with Attis. His body was eaten by the worshippers in the form of bread. After the meal the initiated ones must descend into kind of a burial cavern, virtually into Kybele's womb. Above a bull was sacrificed, the blood of whom served as the carrier of vital force. The worshippers were sprinkled with it and left the grotto like newborn ones and free of sins, washed clean with the blood, much like in the Christian communion.
This also is Catholic Church: Take over what you cannot defeat, adapt, assimilate. The bible as a reincarnation of pagan cults!
Painting by Arnold Böcklin, 1875: „Pan with the syrinx flute“
Out of here!
We pass now a place with Adelaide, where it is becoming high-tech suddenly: Here the inventor of the use of radio waves, Guglielmo Marconi, demonstrated to the Pope the transmission of a message in 1930. Pius XI was so excited that he asked Marconi to establish a radio station. Radio Vatican began in 1931 to send the first programs; with this, Radio Vatican belongs to the oldest radio stations worldwide.
Next to a camphor tree Adelaide turns with her group onto Viale della Grotta di Lourdes leading downhill. On Viale dell’Osservatorio we reach the railway station, on Piazza del Governatorato the neo-renaissance building that houses the Vatican government with the cardinal secretary of state as the head. He is the second in line in the Roman Catholic Church, but he is not the Pope's deputy.
All participants of the guided tour politely say bye-bye to Adelaide. I am looking down embarrassed and slink away along the wall that forms the border of the Vatican with Italy.
Halt! Here is a gate. Passing through I find myself in the Vatican again, however, only by civil law. A cemetery, an extraterritorial possession of the Vatican, but Italian soil by constitutional law. Now it's beginning to become complicated, and I better stop here, before I find a reason to watch out for the highest point on the cemetery.
A State of God, not at all a godlike state! Shares sovereignty with a worldly man-made State reporting to the same sovereign, and, in addition, with the mundane Repubblica Italiana! Unheard of.
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