Gods and Monsters in Rome

Losing yourself in a kaleidoscope of antiquity and artistic splendor

Castor and Pollux on Capitaline Hill next to the Palazzo Senatorio | Photo: Grigory Borodavkin

We land in Rome under a clear sky tinted with azure, a warm wind gently caresses the tops of the palm trees, which feels surreal after the damp Vienna cold, and the air smells of ageless stone and water. We hop on a bus taking us into town, glued to the windows as Fiats, Vespas, and three-wheeled Apes buzz by and the tiny buildings pass in a semi blur. Majestic ancient aqueducts just stand there as if it’s the natural thing to do, and the driver switches between whistling and talking on the phone, and laughing so hard that we can’t help but smile.

At the hotel, we dump our bags and meet Katya, Sasha’s sister, and after charging ourselves with cappuccinos, so cheap yet so unbelievably good that a tingle runs down my spine every time I take a sip, we head into the city and wander around devoid of destination, ducking into narrow streets and reemerging on massive squares in front of magnificent monuments of Gods and Monsters. I can’t help staring, my eyes sliding over the geometric perfection of every line and curve, until the muscles in my neck go numb.

Back at the hotel we pour ourselves a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and start drawing several routes on a map of the city before falling asleep, overwhelmed by a childlike eagerness to see the city bathed in daylight and the promise of adventure.

The next three days are a blur, as we strive to take in as much as humanly possible. Through labyrinths of narrow streets, we find our way to the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, Palazzo del Quirinale, St. Peter’s Square, finding Egyptian Obelisks in front of Catholic Churches, always astonished, starry eyed, exhilarated. Circling gulls wailing above our heads, we squeeze through hundreds of scooters parked by the curbs and jaywalk along with respectable businessmen, children and even nuns, Italian men nonchalantly running their eyes over my striking Ukrainian companions, doing this so casually that I can not even be mad at them.

Everywhere we go, something mind-bogglingly beautiful seems to present itself and the routes we drew earlier fade from memory. Hypnotized we walk, drawn by a force beyond our control. On our way to the Vatican, we come across the Dorothy Circus Gallery (Via dei Pettinari, 76), a small art studio exhibiting the works of contemporary painters of Pop Surrealism and the colorful, twisted shapes on the canvases have a deep impact on me, adding to the sensual overload.

In the Sistine Chapel, I am on the verge of Stendhal Syndrome – a condition of stunned amazement the author experienced when he visited Florence. My head is cocked, hands hanging limp by my sides, the rest of my body weightless, Michelangelo’s masterpiece growing more three-dimensional the longer I look at it, reaching down to me. I can’t be sure I am not hallucinating all this, the only remaining link to reality being the security guards letting out loud shushing noises to calm the crowd of overwhelmed tourists, as the hum of their muted mumbling rises and subsides.

We finally come outside, and I find myself taking rapid deep breaths under the generous Italian sun, haunted by Michelangelo’s macabre self-portrait as the skin of St. Bartholomew. We rest in a secluded and comfortable courtyard, leg muscles bulging, feeling fit to burst; but instead, we just have more coffee and hit the road once again, never stopping anywhere for longer than 20 minutes.

Staring at the Roman Forum, every stone demands respect, radiating a glory so ancient it fills me with a mix of wonder and an existential terror in the face of Time.

Most days we forget to eat – too much to do – so when night falls and our stomachs start growling, we are infused with a hunger so urgent, it’s almost painful. We scour the streets, bent on the notion that we will refuse to settle for anything less than memorable.

One restaurant in particular (Angelina via Polli 27) turns into a feast, as we drink a bottle of red wine, and I order the fettuccine alle spuntature di maiale (fettuccini with bacon bits) which the waiter calls a “playful but mysterious little dish.” When I give it a try, succulence spreads through my mouth like wildfire, numbing my jaw, eyes shut tight, the world reduced to a single taste.

On the way home we suddenly realize that we will have to leave the next day, and a silent sadness passes between us. Under a streetlamp, tipsy and satisfied, we hug, happy to be alive. Chugging down Mojitos in our hotel room, I lazily chuck clothes and souvenirs into my briefcase, trying to come to terms with the fact that probably the greatest trip of my life has come to an end.

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