Don’t go there

The Sistine Chapel is amazing. It’s also appalling: a horrible experience, one which I wish I had skipped.

Don’t get me wrong: the paintings are incredible. The sheer number of them is amazing, and each one is an incredible work of art. The creation of Adam is arguably the most famous painting ever:

1024px-Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)But don’t forget: Michelangelo painted on the ceiling. That means you have to look up. And if you’re lucky enough to get to the closest spot to the creation of Adam, you have to bend your head all the way back and look directly above you. It hurts. And you can’t keep that position for long.

VAT-Museum-sixt-kapSo you move to a different vantage point. Or at least you try. Because there are about 80 thousand other people in the room (OK, I exaggerate: only 75 thousand), all trying to get good vantage points. And they’re trying to get a photograph of the famous paintings.

Except, of course, the room is also crawling with security guards who regularly shout “no photographs!” and “no videoing!” They also threaten to take people’s cameras away, offer to escort you out of the room. One man got shouted at but protested his camera was off, and the guard told him to put the lens cap on.

When they’re not shouting at people to not take photographs, they’re shouting to tell people to be quiet. “Silence!” goes out, and the buzz of people falls quiet for a moment. Then it builds again. “Silence!” Again and again.

And the guards are also shouting at people to keep moving so there’s a path clear. You can stand at the edge or in the middle, but otherwise you have to keep moving. That’s a good thing, because there are thousands more people in the corridor outside moving into the chapel and if the flow doesn’t keep going things could get ugly.

Quite honestly, I was happier to look at the paintings in the fantastic Wikimedia Commons collection, and the Vatican’s virtual tour. Sure, it’s not like being there. It’s quieter, less crowded and doesn’t hurt my neck.

my own photo of crowds making their way towards the Sistine Chapel
my own photo of crowds making their way towards the Sistine Chapel

I’m speaking partially tongue-in-cheek: travel is amazing and it’s a fantastic experience to see things personally rather than virtually. But there is no denying the fact that some places like the Vatican are magnets for millions of tourists and when you visit a spot like that the experience is diminished by the crowds. (Yes, I recognize the irony: I added to the size of the crowds.) Also, the volume of tourists changes the nature of the place: it becomes more commercialized, attracts people who want to take advantage of visitors, etc.

It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy visiting places that are more off the beaten path. There are gorgeous works of art and architecture in Lisbon. Bratislava has a beautiful old town.  Sofia’s churches are simply amazing. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone else!)

So, do travel to see the famous sites. But be prepared to be joined by many others. And consider alternatives. The artwork in, say, Ethiopia isn’t as famous as the Vatican’s collection, but it’s pretty amazing!

All images of the Sistine Chapel are taken from Wikimedia Commons. (I didn’t use my camera: don’t arrest me!) Paintings by Michelangelo Buonarroti are in the public domain.

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