A woman praying in Rome

Photo credit Ian Hustwick

Sun and shadow play across the white arches of the Colosseum, as they have done for nearly 2,000 years. They say it took 60,000 slaves to build, held an average of 65,000 spectators, and witnessed more than 400,000 human deaths for entertainment. Now, four million tourists arrive each year with selfie sticks. From above, they swarm like ants round a biscuit.

Wind north through ancient vicoli until you reach the Trevi Fountain. A modern addition to the city, completed in 1762. But if you’re thinking of recreating La Dolce Vita, think again. You’ll be lucky to get close enough to toss a coin over your shoulder; sensual splashing is unlikely.

En route, you’ll pass the controversial Altare della Patria, better known as The Wedding Cake. Although less than a century old, the monument has crowbarred itself into Rome’s architectural tour through sheer monstrosity (in the proportional sense of the word, at least) and audacity. People back up like outfielders on a cricket pitch, trying to fit the whole thing into a photo.

By now you’ve earned an aperitivo. Basking in the evening light as it settles on the Pantheon – its concrete dome erected two millennia ago and still the world’s largest* – is a lovely idea, although you’ll have to pay a premium on your birra for the privilege. The glorious Piazza Navona is another option; its three baroque fountains are surrounded by dozens of cafes, but not many Italians.

You need to recoup your strength though, because finding a restaurant can be exhausting. Food is perilously close to parodying Italian cuisine. Pizza and pasta for the masses. Oh, not everywhere of course, but you need to know where to go, very much like Paris. Hard work when your only resource is TripAdvisor.

Yet amid all this, if you’re really lucky and you keep your eyes peeled, you might still catch a glimpse of the heart of this city, founded on the two eternal pillars of faith and beauty.

On Easter Sunday, we breakfast on the terrace of a small café in a less glamorous piazza, albeit minutes from the Colosseum. A Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church faces into the square and its eastern European-Italian congregation gather outside, bearing baskets for blessing. It’s a cross-generational affair, with grandparents tending to the Easter offering while small children clamber atop parents’ shoulders. They strain to see the priest as he weaves through the crowd in ceremonial robes, sprinkling holy water. The baskets are beautiful and their contents arranged with care, decorated with sprigs of greenery, flowers and embroidered cloth.

When the ceremony is over and everyone dispersed, I push open the church’s heavy wooden door. My eyes take a moment to adjust from bright white stone to a cool, dimly lit chamber. The space is small and square – not more than six or seven rows of pews and a shallow sanctuary with flickering candles.

A woman faces the altar, head bowed. She wears a necklace of weighty pearls, gleaming above a black lace top that covers her shoulders. Kitten heels, a formal black skirt and sheer black tights on her sturdy frame complete the look of a family matriarch, in her late fifties. Her blond bob is coiffed for volume. We are the only two inside.

In this city of grand cathedrals, it is no more than a tiny hollow. But the woman’s faith feels big. Her right hand moves up, down and across her chest, sketching the crucifix. I breathe in and breathe out, close my eyes, and focus on my pulse beating strong. And this moment of privacy and peace restores me.

(*Largest unreinforced concrete dome … not quite as catchy!)

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