Anyone left on your Christmas list just aching for a 65-inch Samsung 3D flat-screen television? Just your luck. The Vatican’s duty-free department store has one on sale for (euro) 2,899 ($3,840) — a nifty savings over the (euro) 3,799 ($5,032) it costs at Italy’s main electronics chain Euronics.
Or how about some new luggage for the holidays? The Vatican shop stocks a variety of Samsonite Cordoba Duo carry-ons for (euro) 123, a nice markdown from the (euro) 135 on the Samsonite website. But if a last-minute shopping splurge is in order, the Vatican can also oblige: Take this leather-bound travelling trunk from Florence’s “The Bridge” leatherworks, with its five drawers, plaid interior, six wooden hangars and shiny brass buckles.
At (euro) 5,900, it comes with a matching leather golf club bag, just what every monsignor needs under his Christmas tree.
There’s a little-known open secret in the Vatican gardens, a few paces behind St. Peter’s Basilica and tucked inside the Vatican’s old train station: a sprawling, three-story tax-free department store that rivals any airport duty free or military PX, stocking everything from Church’s custom grade shoes ((euro) 483 a pair) to Baume et Mercier watches (ladies (euro) 1,585, men’s Capeland (euro) 5,000).
There’s a hitch, however. It’s not open to the public, only to Vatican citizens, employees and their dependents, diplomats accredited to the Holy See and (unofficially) their lucky friends who, after stocking up on holiday must-haves, proceed to the checkout with their Vatican connection and the ID card that entitles them to shop there.
To be sure, Rome is no stranger to tax-free shopping. Embassies, nearby military bases and the U.N. food agencies all have commissaries for their employees, where imports of everything from American ice cream to French wine can be had minus the 21 percent sales tax included in list prices in Italy.
The Vatican has that and more, given that it’s its own sovereign state — the world’s smallest — operating in central Rome. At 44 hectares (110 acres), the Vatican city state is the physical home of the Holy See: the pope and governing structure and administration of the Catholic Church.
The Vatican Museums, home of Sistine Chapel, are the main profit-making enterprise of the Vatican city state, bringing in (euro) 91.3 million in revenue last year alone. But other smaller entrepreneurial endeavors boost the Vatican’s coffers as well, including the department store, the tax-free gas station, the stamp and coin collecting office, the Vatican pharmacy and its supermarket.
And in these days of austerity, their profits and bottom line are ever more important to the Vatican.
The Vatican is entitled to run such tax-free enterprises inside its walls based on the Lateran Treaty, the 1929 pact that regularized and regulates the Vatican’s relations with Italy. But those regulations also limit the Vatican’s customer base, lest all of Rome descend on the supermarket to stock up on Gordon’s Gin ((euro) 8.50 a liter compared to the (euro) 15 it can run in nearby liquor stores) or Montecristo No. 3 Cuban cigars (box of 25 (euro) 84 ($110.95) compared with $164.95 on www.bestcigarprices.com).
About 4,700 people are employed by the Holy See and the Vatican city state; the Vatican’s diplomatic corps — the Holy See has relations with some 175 countries — adds another chunk to the customer base.
Few people outside Rome know the department store exists — there’s no evidence of it on any Vatican website, no photos of its wares, no advertising outside the Vatican walls. Those who do know it exists seem to want to pretend it doesn’t since the high-end luxury items on sale aren’t necessarily in tune with either the sobriety or the salaries of the Vatican rank-and-file.
In fact, on a recent Thursday morning, nary a collar nor religious habit was in sight as ordinary lay folk milled around the spacious store during December’s “extraordinary opening hours” — extended to accommodate bargain-hunting Christmas shoppers who were rewarded with a wine tasting in the central atrium and piles of Brooks Brothers non-iron shirts and Burberry backpacks to choose from.