Ever since I saw the chariot race in ‘Ben Hur’ as a child, I had dreamed of visiting Rome. The desire magnified when I watched Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in ‘Cleopatra’. The urge to visit acquired more urgency when I saw a cousin playing the role of Caesar in a university play. As decades passed, more films and TV miniseries came but no visit to Rome took place. Instead, I contented myself with viewing Roman monuments left behind in Britain, Greece and Turkey. But it was the new biography of the Egyptian queen by Stacy Schiff that put me over the tipping point. I just had to go to see how the masters of Rome fell for this foreign woman. The day arrived and I found myself walking on Roman soil, the same soil on which Julius Caesar had walked once. My economics professor had warned me that instead of finding the Roman Empire I would find the Holy Roman Empire. I was not sure what he meant until I saw the detritus of empire. The monuments, once glorious, were in various stages of decay. The Coliseum, while dramatic in many ways, was smaller than what I had imagined. The white Arch of Constantine nearby was about what I expected it to be. The external view of the Pantheon let me down; but once you stepped inside, its brilliance was evident. The same could not be said of Caesar’s grave in the Roman Forum, along the Sacred Way. It was a mound of mud, as if Brutus had been assembled it in haste over his ashes just yesterday. Even the Mausoleum that Augustus had built for himself was reduced to a shambles – a large round brick structure filled with mud and in such serious decay that visitation was forbidden. Now here was a man who, on his deathbed, had said, “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.” The Mausoleum to Hadrian was in somewhat better shape but only because it had been later converted to a castle and then into a church. Why had I seen better remnants of imperialism in the outposts of empire than in its capital? Were the barbarians who had sacked Rome to blame or the ravages of time? In striking contrast to the sad state of Roman ruins were the extensive and opulent art collections of the Vatican museums, rich in tapestry and statuary and paintings. This papal meditation on art seemed almost infinite in scope but its culmination in the Sistine Chapel failed to yield the anticipated climax. The area seemed small because hoards of humanity had squeezed into it. It was also dark and smelled of human perspiration. By contrast, both the exterior and the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica were grand and simply beyond words. And what made our visit even more special was that by coincidence we had wandered into the interior of the church just as the evening mass in Latin got underway. The monuments, once glorious, were in various stages of decay. The Coliseum, while dramatic in many ways, was smaller than I had imagined. The white Arch of Constantine nearby was about what I expected it to be. The external view of the Pantheon let me down; but once you stepped inside, its brilliance was evident The music seemed to float ethereally from the giant organ and to embrace all who had come to visit Rome’s grandest monument. As the mass ended, a group of priests in white robes emerged, walking toward us in a sombre procession. The highest ranking among them was carrying the cross with great dignity. The procession moved diagonally across the sacred hall and was soon out of sight. As the crowd dispersed, it seemed that most visitors had gotten something in their eyes; they were looking away as they wiped their eye lashes. Had a spirit moved them or was it simply the music? On a prior day, we had gone to the Trevi fountain and tossed a few coins into it, ensuring our return to Rome. But it was crowded to the point of asphyxiation. It was much more gratifying to treat ourselves to grapefruit-flavoured gelato at the shop a few blocks away. We also checked out several plazas in Rome – each seemed to trump the previous one. The Baroque splendour reached its crescendo at Piazza Navona, which was topped with Bernini’s masterpiece of the Four Rivers. The only thing that did not seem to fit into the artwork at this piazza was the Egyptian obelisk; the small cross at the top seemed incongruous to a fault. We visited the Spanish Steps twice, since they were close to our hotel, and found ourselves duly inspired both times. But the British teashop at the bottom, written up in every tour book, was a terrible disappointment. Our ravenous appetite for scones and high tea was later fulfilled when we toured England. In the area lay the uber fashionable street, the Via Dei Condotti. But the line-up of fine stores – Armani, Bulgari, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, and Zegna – could have come from San Francisco’s Union Square. The only reminder that we were in Rome and not in San Francisco was the much higher prices and the Italian discourse. Venice was simply grand with its gondola-plying canals and narrow streets crammed with shops and myriad bridges. There were incredible monuments all around town but especially in St Mark’s Square, rightfully called by Napoleon “the world’s most beautiful drawing room”. The view from the top of the 100-meter high Campanile transported you to another era. On a friend’s recommendation, we took in a Vivaldi concert in a huge church. Every note was crystal clear – but what seemed to trump the performance was a mime act by a senior performer that was directed at two members of the audience who were seated toward the front but clearly visible to the rest of us. He was sending increasingly aggressive non-verbal cues to them; asking them to “get out” and they were equally determined to stand the ground. There were churches everywhere we went, probably more per square foot than anywhere else. Many had become art museums by day and concert halls by night; I wondered if the abundance of churches was more than matched by a shortage of worshippers. We dined voraciously on Italian food but at some point we could not resist going to a Lebanese restaurant. It had kabobs in every flavour. On our second visit, we encountered 10 Arab guests who greeted us with the traditional Muslim greeting, “As-salamu alaykum”, as they entered the downstairs dining room. When I responded in kind, the room lit up with 10 smiles and I felt like the warmth of Arab culture had embraced me. The Italians were among the friendliest people I have encountered in my travels. But what really endeared me to them was the manner in which they spoke English, pronouncing every syllable and adding missing syllables. I told the hotel concierge that I wish I spoke Italian. She said you speak the language the whole world wants to speak. As I shared my memories of Rome with a well-travelled friend, he said that all of Europe is one vast Roman ruin. So true! The writer has visited 35 countries on six continents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Published in Daily Times, October 8th 2017.