This tour is one of Rome’s best-kept secrets, and I found out about it by chance while reading a guidebook on out-of-the-ordinary Rome. This tour takes you into the inner depths of St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica, as everything else in Rome, is built upon an ancient site – this particular one believed to be the tomb of St. Peter himself. The main altar (directly below the dome) of the present day basilica is directly over the tomb, and only the Pope may say Mass at this particular altar. While archaelogists were digging underneath the church back in the 1940’s looking for the remains of St. Peter, not only did they discover some bones wrapped in a silk cloth, but they discovered an underground city of the dead. In ancient Rome, these underground passages were actually at street level – crypts lined the street and many of them were decorated with beautiful mosaics. These crypts are visible on this tour and the mosaics are extremely well preserved – incredible when you consider that some of them date back 1700 years. Bones were found during excavation but they were never undeniably identified to be those of St. Peter, even though they are of a male of about the same age with the feet missing (which is consistent with the upside-down crucifixion death endured by St. Peter). Extensive excavations of this necropolis were not possible due to the fear of de-stabilizing the basilica’s foundations therefore only a small portion of this ancient city has been brought to light.
Accessing the necropolis is done via the office of the Scavi. Reservations need to be made through email only and their confirmation process is somewhat mysterious. When making the reservation, you need to indicate some possible dates that you will be available, along with the language choice, and the number of people to take the tour. Then they might respond with a confirmation. Might is the key word here. You may never hear from them, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a tour reservation! The last time we were in Rome, we had decided to take this tour. We had requested a reservation prior to our departure and gave them some possible dates for our visit. Once we got to Rome, since we had not heard from them, we asked the Concierge to check for us. Low and behold, we were scheduled for the tour on the following day! With this type of confirmation process, I’m sure they must have a huge amount of no-shows!
When we arrived at St. Peter’s square, we had to get passed the Swiss Guards in order to enter the office of the Scavi. This part was a little intimidating, since the Swiss Guards are like sentries to the interior of the Vatican City. But they were very nice and showed us the way.
The tour guide spoke very bad English and at times, it was difficult to understand her. Nonetheless, just seeing the mosaics and walking the same paths that the ancient Romans took was an incredible experience. The tour ends in the crypt where the tomb of St. Peter is located, along with the sarcophagi of many Popes. It is a somber spot, but very reflective. The faithful are kneeling and saying prayers, and it is a peaceful place. This part of the church is open to anyone touring St. Peter’s Basilica, and you do not need to take the Necropolis tour to see it.