Rome


Despite the fact that I have never been to Africa or South America, I have traveled relatively extensively to other parts of the world, including Europe. Remarkably, though, I had never made it to Italy, a country I have always known is one of the most gorgeous on the planet, despite being populated by Italians (that was just a joke, Italian friends!) So, finally, I spent 5 days in Rome. Some people thought I was nuts for just staying in Rome and not venturing to other places.

I do not regret limiting my visit to Italy to Rome for a couple of reasons. First, although I am aware Florence, Venice and other Italian cities are more aesthetically stunning than Rome, that is a truly mind-bending fact as I thought Rome was incredibly beautiful – even more so than Paris as Paris’s beauty is so uniform while Rome’s architecture is more diverse, quirky with its contrast between the wide tree-lined boulevards and alleyways that a fat man would not fit down and, of course, in parts truly ancient. When it comes to ancientness, that is the second reason I was happy to spend all of my time in Rome: the history

Ever since I was a boy, I loved everything ‘swords and sandals’: i.e. Roman history and the nature of empire. I read and re-read Robert Graves’s I Claudius, fascinated by the immense power as well as the soap-operatic intrigue during the Julio-Claudian dynasty (which included everything from murder to incest to raging insanity to infanticide – all the good stuff!) and was addicted to the astonishing BBC series that was adapted from the books. Also, Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator, is for me one of the greatest movies of all time. There is a breathtaking scene in that movie when Joaquin Phoenix, playing a twitchy Emperor Commodus with smoldering malevolence, steps out onto a balcony after threatening to murder his sister’s young son and gazes out over the capital where a flock of birds takes off from the Coliseum and flies out over the majestic rooftops of the imperial palaces on Palatine Hill. A magnificent digital recreation of ancient Rome. Okay, I am starting to babble. The point is this: all of my life I have told myself “you MUST get to Rome one day no matter what!”

So, having said all of that, of course the first places I visited were the Coliseum and Palatine Hill which I knew were close together but I did not realize that they are immediately side-by-side. Considering it is almost 2000 years old, the Coliseum, considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering (the amphitheater is believed to have held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators!), is remarkably well preserved. I mean, when Linda and I visited the Tower of London I was struck by the same thing but the Tower of London is 1000 years younger! In any event, I was thrilled to go all around it, just staring at it in awe with my mouth hanging open. I thought about the unimaginable quantity of appalling and barbaric blood-letting that had taken place in there as the ‘bread and circuses’ means by which Roman Emperors pleased the people: gladiators battling it out to the death, people being fed to wild animals imported from Africa, gruesome torturous executions, etc. I thought about 50,000-80,000 people roaring in delight – people who were at the very apex of human civilization in the heart of the capital of the empire – and how today the ‘circuses’ are basically professional sporting events where the crowd goes deathly silent if an athlete gets seriously injured on the field. I cheerfully thought to myself that perhaps we human beings actually are gradually evolving to a higher level. This is a rare feeling indeed for me as, when I read the news every day, I am overwhelmed with the sense that humanity is imminently doomed. Perhaps not…

I then went next door and wandered all around Palatine Hill where the ruins of the palaces of the emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Domitian can still be seen. In sharp contrast to the Coliseum, these truly are ruins but I was overjoyed to be walking around the exact location where all the events depicted in I Claudius took place. It even contains the residence of Livia, the treacherous, conniving and murderous wife of Augustus. So cool, I thought, that I am standing at the very spot where that frighteningly epic bitch hatched all of her evil plots, the effects of which, once they had been carried out, changed the course of the history of the empire. A strange thing happened though, just as I was getting ready to leave Palatine Hill. I felt this wave of emotion crash over me and I had to find a secluded spot in the shade under a tree where I started to cry. I am not just talking about watery eyes here. I cried. For about 10 bloody minutes. No, I have no explanation for that – I guess I was just overwhelmed by it all but I have been seriously overwhelmed when traveling before and never had a meltdown like that. Very, VERY strange…

Anyway, I pulled myself together and resolved to have a proper Italian coffee and pizza. I will try and put this in the most eloquent, elegant, intelligent and sophisticated manner as I possibly can: HOLY FUCK, MAN – THAT WAS THE REAL SHIT!!! I am not even going to bother trying to describe it – William Shakespeare would not even be able to do it justice. You just have to go there and experience it yourself (note that I use the verb ‘experience’ and not ‘eat/drink’). Afterwards, I went for a gelato which I also enjoyed. This is remarkable seeing as I almost never eat sweets (I wonder sometimes if I am allergic to sugar). In fact, food for me is, in general, irrelevant. It is simply the fuel my body needs in order to keep living. The vast majority of the time, when I am alone, I eat it quickly and I do not care what it is. The last thing on the planet that I am is a “foodie”. So, because I am actually blogging about food, if you are a “foodie” who has never been to Italy – this I promise you: if you go, you are going to have to find a secluded spot in the shade under a tree where you will cry for 10 minutes because you are so overwhelmed.

I am babbling again, damn it. So, to get back on track, of course I had to go and see the Vatican. To avoid the lineup, I booked my ticket online but, at the time, I did not realize it was just for the Sistine Chapel and not Saint Peter’s Square. When I got there the next day, the lineup to the latter was ridiculous (and there is very little else in this life that will put me in a worse mood than waiting in long lineups with hordes of people). So, I blew it off but it was okay because I managed to weasel myself into a space where I got a pretty good look at it. Yes, it was as magnificent as all the pictures I had seen and the basilica is massive and spectacular but I did not regret my decision to not go inside as I was much more excited about the Sistine Chapel anyway.

Art historians will call me a heretic but I felt a little bit let down by the Sistine Chapel. There is a very long corridor that leads to it, with astonishingly beautiful paintings all over the walls and ceilings, through each chamber of the corridor you go through. I was thinking that, if this is only the passage to the chapel, I am about to get my mind completely blown when I get in there. Michelangelo, here I come – bring it! Well, no. It was much smaller than I thought it was going to be, I thought the ceiling was a very high dome but it is, in fact, more of an arched structure much lower to the floor than I was expecting and I thought the most famous fresco panel (i.e. ‘The Creation of Adam’ with the fingers almost touching) was enormous – it’s no bigger than the other panels, which are not big at all. Also, with all of the intensive restorative work that has been done on it, I suspected that very little of what I was looking at was original and had been painted over the last 20 years. It almost looked a bit cartoonish. For those of you who think I am a barbarian for speaking like this about the Sistine Chapel (pretty much the epitome of the Renaissance), let me just say that I think it was just a classic case of super-hyped expectations that nothing could have possibly satisfied. Had I never heard of the Sistine Chapel and just wandered in there, I probably would have thought that it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life. Then again, though, when I visited the Great Wall of China, I had similarly stratospheric expectations but I was NOT disappointed at all. I am going to have to think more about this one…

I am not going to list all the places I visited over the 5 days as this blog is already overly long and the names will be meaningless if you have not been there (you can look at my pics on Facebook whenever I get around to posting them). A final observation on Rome, though, as a follow-up to my visit to the Vatican: you are constantly aware that you are at the epicenter of the Roman Catholic faith. There are magnificent churches on every other street corner, buildings have enormous statues of Jesus and his disciples on them, crosses and crucifixes are ubiquitous, etc. I have never felt so thoroughly immersed in Christianity (which is ironic given the original relentless persecution of Christians by the Romans that lasted about 3 centuries). As beautiful as all of these religious homages to Jesus are, if the depiction of Jesus’s character in the Gospels is even remotely accurate, I am guessing he would angrily tear it all down just as he allegedly expelled traders from the Temple in Jerusalem. I also suspect he would be furious about the ostentatious wealth and pageantry in the Vatican and the Church’s intolerance towards homosexuality, women becoming priests and contraception (even in countries where HIV infection is totally out of control). I imagine Jesus would be VERY cross

On one last note, of course I visited the Trevi Fountain which was absolutely spectacular and mercifully not too overrun with tourists. I was missing Linda and, as I tossed my coin into the water, I wished with all my heart that she and I work out…

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About Requiem for the Damned

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