Apparently, getting a private tour of Vatican Palace is about as difficult as getting into a very, very, very exclusive nightclub. So when - thanks to a highly fortunate personal connection - we were granted one, we knew we were in for a treat. Upon entering ultra exclusive Vatican City, a private city state with its own post office, radio station and publishing house, we were ushered through the Vatican's private gardens and Papal Palace by a bishop himself. And while walking unheeded through the sacred halls where the Pope conducts business, eats, sleeps and entertains, I had the singular feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Highlights included standing on the balcony overlooking Piazza San Pietro from which the Pope addresses crowds of thousands, visiting a curious private room designed as an enclave for birds - with walls frescoed by Raphael in delicate flora and fauna, and touring the great halls where the Pope receives foreign dignitaries and other important people (there is actually a throne in the largest!).
But nothing could touch our entry to the Sistine Chapel for sheer awe-factor. While standing in the largest of the marbled Papal halls, our host asked if we would like to see what was beyond two enormous wood doors. Sensing something spectacular, we nodded and held our breaths, and in seconds were standing behind a velvet rope at the Vatican equivalent of the ultimate VIP entrance. With tourists already inside the chapel gawking at our unaccountable appearance at this secret entryway (it's the Pope's, natch), we stepped past the velvet rope and into paradise.
Pictured: view of Piazza San Pietro from the Papal Palace, another view from the Papal Palace, view of Roman skyline from Vatican gardens