Keepers of the faith

Anna Drummond discovers some of the quirks of the papal city-state during a quest to find a rare manuscript.

It's hard to take a security guard seriously when he's wearing brightly striped pantaloons, even if they are part of a uniform designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century. Nevertheless, this sentry is looking at me very sternly indeed. After a pause, however, he gives me a terse nod and I enter the world's smallest country. My pantalooned guard is a member of the Pope's Swiss Guard and this is the Vatican.

Each year nearly 4 million people visit St Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and its attached museum, yet very few see the rest of the Vatican, which is in fact a sovereign city-state. It issues euro banknotes and has its own police force and postal service, as well as a television channel that broadcasts the Pope's public audiences, masses and other official duties. The Vatican's weekly newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, reports on the Pope's official visits, sermons and messages to the faithful.

Vatican City State, as it is officially known, issues passports to its 900 citizens, most of whom are priests, members of the Swiss Guard or diplomatic staff. There's even a Vatican domain name (.va) and a YouTube channel.

I've come here to use the library, seeking a rare art-history index that is yet to be digitised and which is gathering dust in the bowels of this building. But I have to get in first. There are no passport-control queues to enter this city-state but by the time I reach my first destination a succession of officials and library staff has scrutinised my credentials, photographed me and stamped and exchanged endless bits of paper.

There are no visas for the Vatican but many people arrive with a pharmacy prescription. The pharmacy is cheaper and better stocked than its Italian equivalents and I wonder if this is the only place in the world where prescription medications are among the main tourist attractions. The pharmacy is, however, run by monks, so don't ask for contraceptives or Viagra, as neither are stocked here, in line with Vatican policy.

The 100-year-old pharmacy is older than the Vatican city-state, which as a legal entity was created in 1929 by a treaty between Mussolini and the Pope. The Papal States once ruled much of central Italy, before being incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.

The Vatican has been a papal residence for 500 years and has been important to Christianity since St Peter was purportedly crucified here, on a cross set upside down so as not to imitate Christ. There have been churches here since about that time.

For me, it's straight to the library, the working one, rather than the ornamental version that forms part of the Vatican museums. This library is a trove of priceless manuscripts and is an imposing and forbidding building.

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When I arrive, there's another round of slips of paper, locker keys, credentials and indemnity letters before I head upstairs in the tiny lift, which looks as though it was installed many popes ago.

The Vatican library embodies all of the contradictions of the country itself. The building dates from the 16th century and is all lofty ceilings, archways and magnificent frescoes but the room is abuzz with the tapping of keyboards, as pens aren't allowed, only laptops.

In one room, researchers sit in neat rows poring over some of the library's thousands of manuscripts. Peering over shoulders, I catch glimpses of intriguing medieval illustrations and ornate lettering; to the left there's a man in corduroy holding a magnifying glass but there's also a jocular twentysomething American who's here to study Renaissance copies of ancient Roman poetry. Librarians patrol sternly.

I feel nervous; the Vatican library's rules run to six pages and the librarians are fierce. Among other stipulations, I am instructed to turn pages quietly, obey library staff "without discussion" and to "wear attire appropriate for an ancient institution of culture and study".

Sure enough, I fall foul of the rules by forgetting to submit my table number when I request a book from the closed shelves and a librarian scolds me. Fortunately I get away without any Hail Marys.

My anxiety is making me thirsty so I head for the cafe, which is in a converted Roman ruin next door. The staff here are much more chirpy and much better at football. Each year there's a match between Vatican library and cafe attendants and the trophy behind the counter suggests the coffee-makers are this year's winners.

Beyond the library, there are eight hectares of gardens, which can be visited on a two-hour official guided tour. This haven has been a place of retreat and meditation for popes since 1279 and is enough to make me consider running for papal office myself.

The gardens' 800-year history is evident everywhere, from the manicured perfection of the ornate Renaissance parterre gardens to the baroque fountains. Subsequent popes built artificial grottoes and English-style landscapes and planted the exotic species brought to them from all over the world by Catholic missionaries, who also donated the Australian silky oak. Gravel paths link stunning flower gardens, topiary and 1.6 hectares of forest. This is one hell of a perk, although the Pope mightn't describe it in those exact terms.

The gardens, like the remainder of the Vatican, seem to be home to the highest population density of nuns anywhere in the world. There are nuns in blue, nuns in black and nuns in grey as well as nuns of every age and ethnic origin.

Each of the outfits denotes a different order of religious sisters, from the Poor Clares, founded in 1253, to the Congregation of Missionary Sisters of Christ the King for Polish Immigrants, founded in 1959. I'm used to nuns who wear everyday clothing but most of the nuns here are wimpled and veiled. I pass a pocket-size sister who looks as though she has come directly from a Sound Of Music rehearsal.

Nearby are the Vatican Secret Archives, which I am destined to view from the outside, as they have even more stringent entry requirements than the library. In Dan Brown's novel, Angels And Demons, the archives are a mysterious underground facility accessible only with the Pope's express permission.

The reality is a little more mundane. More than 1000 scholars visit the archives each year and the term "secret" is inherited from the 16th century, when it meant simply private.

The archives contain thousands of historical documents, including the diaries, contracts and other writings of historical figures from Mozart and Napoleon to Galileo and Francis of Assisi. There are letters from Martin Luther to the Pope, another from English lords asking for Henry VIII's divorce from Anne Boleyn and another missive in Michelangelo's spidery handwriting complaining about corrupt builders working on St Peter's.

Instead of the archives, I head for my ornately dressed security guard and the exit gate. I'm pleased to be leaving with my belongings intact; the Vatican has one of the highest crime rates in the world.

Statistically, each member of its population commits more than one offence each year. Such figures suggest the sandalled nuns are up to no good but more mundanely they reflect the pickpocketing and petty theft in the Vatican museums. As the Vatican chief prosecutor once commented wryly, the Vatican is an "earthly paradise" for pickpockets.

Having survived such a den of iniquity, for me it's time for a cheery wave to the gaudy guard as I head out through the side gate, with handbag and contents untouched.

Around the corner are the more public parts of the Vatican. My visit to the headquarters of Catholicism would be incomplete without a stop in the world's largest Christian building, St Peter's Basilica, which is as awe-inspiring as it is famous.

Its massive dome, visible all around Rome, towers above me and the walls are awash with mosaics, gilding and sombre Latin inscriptions. In the chapels are famous sculptures and below, in the crypt, are the tombs of many popes.

It is worth braving the queues to climb into the dome, which provides an alternative view of the church interior. From here, pay the extra euro to get the lift up to the roof, which has superb views of the city.

My final stop is the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel. This is where Adam reaches out to touch the hand of God in Michelangelo's fresco, which is surrounded by no-less-impressive biblical scenes from other Renaissance masters.

Despite the crush of tourists and the loud and persistent "sh" from the guards, this is a jaw-dropping experience. It's also a neck-straining one, as the frescoes are a long way up. And yet the Sistine is only a small part of the Vatican Museums, which hold a surprising array of exhibits, including exceptional art and archaeology collections, more papal presents from missionaries and an Egyptian mummy.

There is also a series of rooms covered in frescoes by Raphael, in which he included a tiny self-portrait.

The Vatican Museums form part of the Apostolic Palace. The pope and his closest aides occupy about 200 of the building's 1000 rooms and the Swiss Guards live nearby in their free time they conduct shooting practice, sing and play table tennis.

The papal apartments are inaccessible to the public but the Pope addresses the faithful each Wednesday morning in St Peter's Square. To attend you need a ticket, except in August, when the Vatican printers go on holiday and the Vatican is unable to supply printed tickets.

Outside the gates once more, I contemplate buying a souvenir of my visit. The highly sought-after Popener bottle opener, perhaps, or a Pope-on-a-Rope soap? I'll pass on the T-shirts but if they sold striped pantaloons, it would be a different story.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air China has a fare to Rome for about $1603 return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, flying non-stop to Beijing where you change aircraft and then fly non-stop to Rome. There are regular trains from the airport on the Leonardo Express to Termini railway station, taking about 30 minutes. You can then walk, take a taxi or catch a bus to Vatican City.

Visiting there

* Entry to the Vatican Library is restricted to postgraduate students, teachers and researchers. It is currently closed for renovations. See www.vaticanlibrary.va.

* The Vatican Pharmacy is reached through the Porta Sant'Anna on Via di Porta Angelica. Tours of the Vatican Gardens last two hours and cost €30 ($53, or €25 concession). See mv.vatican.va or email visiteguidatesingoli.musei@scv.va.

* The Vatican Secret Archives are open Monday to Saturday mornings from September to June. Entry is restricted to qualified researchers from higher-education institutions, excluding students. See http://asv.vatican.va/ for the relevant application procedures.

* St Peter's Basilica is open 7am-7pm from April to September and 7am-6pm from October to March. Entry is free, with the exception of the dome (€4, or €5 using the lift instead of stairs). The dome is open 8am-6pm (until 5pm October to March).

* The Vatican Museums are open 10am-6pm but are closed on Sundays and public holidays, which are listed at the website mv.vatican.va. Entry costs €14 (€8 concession) and tickets can also be booked at the website. Get there early and expect to queue for up to an hour, depending on the time of year.

* Tickets for papal audiences are free and can be obtained in person from the Prefecture of the Papal Household, open 9am-1pm Mondays and 9am-6pm Tuesdays. You can also request tickets by phoning

+39 06 6988 3114. Alternatively, visitors from outside Rome can write to the Prefecture of the Papal Household, 00120 Vatican City State.

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