One of our guides was walking down the street one day, and realized that a young, British tourist-couple was a few yards ahead, arguing about something. He was insisting that he was right, while she rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Babe, listen to me. I’m telling you it’s a COUNTRY, an independent country!”
The topic of their disagreement immediately became obvious: they were talking about Vatican City.
It’s surprising how many visitors come to Rome and don’t understand that the State of Vatican City is an independent nation, located right in the center of Rome–which is the capital city of yet another independent nation, Italy. But since this arrangement is the only one of its kind on the planet, maybe their confusion should be forgiven.
Vatican City is the smallest independent country in the entire world (0.44 square kilometers, or 0.17 square miles), and you can see the whole nation in the above photo. Only a few hundred people have citizenship there, and none of them got it by birth. Most of the people who work there don’t live there, and don’t have citizenship there… which means that technically they are something like foreign guest-workers.
The State of Vatican City has its own police force, its own army (the Swiss Guard, who are all foreigners themselves), its own bank, its own fire department, and its own post office. It also has its own tax code–and tax rates which are much, much lower than those of Italy!–and its own legal system.
When you walk into St. Peter’s Square, or into the Vatican Museums off the street, you’re actually crossing a national border. There’s no passport-control, since both nations are members of the European Union; but even before the EU was born, there was a concordat between Italy and the Vatican, in which both nations agreed that if you’re legally permitted to enter one nation, the other will automatically allow you to enter too.
(A high-profile and problematic exception to this occurred back in 2005, when Robert Mugabe, the notoriously corrupt President of Zimbabwe, was officially invited by the Vatican to the funeral of John Paul II. Italy refused to allow the dictator to fly into Rome… and so a lot of tactful, diplomatic footwork had to take place before Mugabe could get to St. Peter’s. Curious? We can tell you all about it!)
But returning to the arguing British couple, our guide politely stepped up to mediate. “He’s right! It’s a country, an independent country!”
She took the correction very well, and he was grateful for the backup.