"Benvenuto, giornalisti!" That's how our group of journalists was welcomed into Vatican City last week. Previous participants on this pilgrimage were booked at the Paul VI hotel, but not us. For the first time we nonclerics would be staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae—the home of Pope Francis.
Normally the Domus (or Casa Santa Marta in Italian) is reserved for cardinals during a papal conclave, as well as select clergy who have business with the Holy See. So we were told in advance to be on our best behavior, keep conversations to a whisper, and refrain from taking photos, lest this first time be our last. And above all, we were urged to take our room keys wherever we went—it would open doors both literally and figuratively. Want to enter through the side of St. Peter's Basilica rather than wait in a long line? Wave the key. Need to make a quick exit from the basilica? Just cross over that rope barrier and wave the key. Same with returning to the Domus, which has Swiss Guards posted at the entrance.
Speaking of which, the Pontifical Swiss Guards have been protecting the pope since 1506. And to this day they still don those colorful uniforms (don't call them costumes!) along with those deadly halberds. There are also the dark-suited guards who, according to FoxTrotAlpha, carry MP7s with armor-piercing bullets, Sig P220s, and Glock 19s.
As you walk past one of these intimidating fellows, it's best to simply exchange buongiornos or salves and be on your way. Except that the uniformed Swiss Guards would salute me as a guest of the papal residence. I began to salute back but was told it wasn't appropriate since I'm not in uniform. Yet mere nodding seemed insufficient. So I resorted to the half salute or wave—what Jerry Seinfeld calls the "casual heil."
There's a mess hall in the Domus and the first day I walked in, I saw the man himself. Pope Francis was seated at a table by the window, dressed in his white cassock, across from his personal secretary. We were also told that since this is the pope's home, it's advised to keep your distance—no selfies with the Holy Father!
Following the first two courses—an eggplant dish and a bowl of macaroni and ground sausage in a light cream sauce—we were free to help ourselves to the salad bar. It's a bit surreal to be scooping up leaves of arugula (the pepperiest variety ever) and looking up to see the pope having his lunch. He too helps himself to the buffet table, not wanting to impose on the Daughters of Charity who work there.
I later saw the pope during breakfast, which, by the way, is a simple affair. Italians love their lunches and late dinners (preferably after the sun sets), but the first meal of the day is usually a piece of bread and coffee. There was also a plate of cold cuts and cheeses. I, myself, got into the habit of making a sandwich, substituting butter for mayo, followed by toast with Nutella.
Another perk of staying at the Domus: the Vatican laundry service. I was pleasantly surprised to find my clothes not only cleaned but pressed—who presses socks these days? It was all neatly bundled on my bed the next day.
As for the bed, it's a double mattress, not a queen or a king. The room is divided into two parts, a study and a sleep space, which has a television. The walls are stark white and the floors are dark wood, as are the furnishings. There was tons of closet space, considering all the vestments used by cardinals. Again, this isn't a hotel room. The point of these dwellings is contemplation. (I did wonder if the pope had my room—during a conclave to select the next pontiff, the rooms at the Domus are assigned by lottery.)
As for the rest of the trip, I'd like to point out (to my colleagues) this wasn't a junket. You don't make it to 11 churches in four hours at a leisurely pace. According to our guide, Father Roger Landry, we accumulated 18,000 steps on a single day (the day of 11 churches plus the Colosseum and the Forum), which translates to between seven and nine miles. Combined with the sweltering heat (I'd sometimes need to shower three times in a day), I probably burned 2,000 calories daily.
Which is a good thing because, as I mentioned, Italians love their lunches and dinners. There's the antipasti, the primi piatti, secondi piatti, and dolci, not to mention the vino (Montepulciano, Frascati) and perhaps a digestif, which is an Italian specialty—think sambuca, amaro, limoncello, fernet branca, and, of course, grappa. It truly was a spiritual journey.