VATICAN CITY – Anyone left on your Christmas list just aching for a 65-inch Samsung 3-D flat-screen television?
Just your luck. The Vatican’s duty-free department store has one on sale for $3,840 – a nifty savings over the $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 at a nice markdown from the Samsonite website. 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.
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.
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 is entitled to run 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 Montecristo No. 3 Cuban cigars. 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 Burbury backpacks to choose from.