ROME -- One of the hazards for tourists hoping to enhance their experience as they visit the world's best known monuments, museums and other sites is the self-promoting tour guide.
I was reminded of this peril by a recent New York Times article, "Alone (or Almost) with Michelangelo in the Vatican Museums," written for the "Cultured Traveler" column, which describes an after-hours visit to the Vatican Museums. As an art historian and professional tour guide in Rome for the last 12 years, I read the piece with great interest and expectation.
The premise of the column was to "investigate" whether the high price tag of an after-hours visit was worth it; to that end, he joined a small group tour through a local tour company. The agent made much of the exclusivity of the visit, talking up the difficulty in gaining access and the infrequency of such tours -- which, in this case, cost about $388 per person.
An informed traveler, in fact, could have taken a brief glance at the Vatican Web site
to discover how to arrange an after-hours Vatican visit on one's own, which, incidentally, is offered on a daily basis except holidays and on a first-come-first-served basis, contrary to inventive tales spun by some tour agents.
The piece describes a "musty, pungent and aromatic" scent from the artwork he sees and calls the quiet of the night-time tour "almost spooky." Apparently, in the post-Dan Brown world, art has become the unfortunate handmaiden of conspiracy theory. Michelangelo and Raphael no longer stand on their own merits, but require mystery and intrigue to get a rise out of visitors.
Relying on his guide's word, the writer faults the Vatican custodians for deciding "on a moment's whim -- which rooms to open, where we can stand and for how long," and reports that personal relationships between guide and guard determine the quality of the visit.
Actually, an after-hours visit is anything but unpredictable or disorderly; the itinerary never varies and is written in black and white on the reservation form.
The biggest slight here is the author's breezy dismissal of a group of hard-working professionals -- the Corps of the Vatican Guards -- as capricious. They are employed to watch over the artwork and to assist visitors, and have no authority to deny or permit access at will.
After seeing the Vatican Museums' custodians deftly navigate two bomb scares and defuse countless volatile situations -- an inevitable consequence of 20,000-plus visitors a day from every corner of the world -- it's hard to imagine a more competent and professional group of people.