My new friend in Rome had offered to take me to a restaurant called “Luigi’s,” built into the ancient remains of the Theatre of Pompey.
Anabel was the bilingual guide on a tour of Palatine Hill in which I was a participant, and she took an instant liking to me.
Getting along well in the meantime, we arranged to meet later at the gate on Via di San Gregorio, when she was through with work, at which time Anabel arrived to pick me up.
After hopping onto the back of her beat-up Vespa, we zoomed through a maze of small streets and alleyways while she proficiently executing the many twists and turns until parking the scooter above the stage of the illustrious venue, presently buried under the street where we were standing.
A great deal of the theater’s original structure formed the foundations and facades of the present-day buildings in the neighborhood, covering over what had been such a wondrous tribute to Rome’s imperial legacy, considered by some authorities as being the largest theatrical complex ever built.
We walked through the nearby Piazza del Biscione, leading to our destination. Anabel said the restaurant was built into the upper level of the old theater, above where a series of vaults had supported the top deck of the seating.
Furthermore, dining rooms were found and used on occasion from within the vaulted cavities in the basement of the eatery. She also claimed Luigi’s served some of the best Roman cuisine in all of city. I was looking forward to tasting some local dishes while dining within the ancient walls of this once-magnificent showplace.
As soon as we entered the restaurant, a man who appeared to be the owner of the establishment came running up to to greet us.
“Buonasera, Anabel,” he said. “Come sta?
“Salve, Luigi, ci sentiamo bene,” Anabel said. “Luigi, I would like to introduce you to an American friend of mine, Michelino. He is visiting Rome for a few days.”
Luigi shook my hand heartily. “Welcome, Michelino, it is a pleasure to meet you.
Luigi led us through a corridor and down a winding staircase, ending in the basement of the restaurant where the vaulted dining rooms appeared. Except for the electrical outlets, lighting, and the furnishings found inside, the space sent us back over two thousand years.
He told us he normally didn’t bring guests to eat down in the basement unless the rooms upstairs were filled to to the max, at which time were relatively empty. “But since it is for Anabel and her American friend, I will make an exception.”
We entered the smallest, coziest room. Luigi called it Saletta Romana, pulling a chair out from beneath one of the tables for Anabel to sit, scurrying around afterward to the other side and moving a chair out for me. We ordered a decanter of the house red wine and began to check out the menu.
“Luigi is a very friendly person. He really seems to like you,” I said.
“He’s a close cousin of my father and took me under his wing when I moved to Rome from Naples for my job here as a tour guide. I’m forever grateful to him.”
We chit-chatted and I let Anabel do the ordering for dinner, being she was a resident and knew what was especially tasty.
The supper had turned out to be out of this world. I even gave in to having a drink of Amaro, a sweet digestif which contained the dreadfully abhorrent substance, anise, which always seemed to get me into big trouble after imbibing the potent spirit.
The herb had seeming led to much pandemonium for me each time I drank it, but what the hell? What could have possibly been the harm in drinking just one shot?
“Evviva,” I said and we chugged our drinks down.
A noticeable, yet distant guttural tremor began to suddenly resonate, sounding as if it was coming from deep within the bowels of the earth. Silverware began to rattle. Our wine and water glasses shook and toppled over, shattering after rolling off the table onto the pavement.
The furniture began to tremble and inch its way about the cavern while the lanterns on the walls began to sway. The rumbling grew louder and was seemingly getting closer with greater intensity, until the last moment I remembered before waking up on the cold marble floor was the incredible roaring heard as the ground shook; and dinnerware was being smashed all around me.
A sharp pain radiated from the left side of my head, for something had crashed down upon it, evidently knocking me out. “Damned, that fucking anise” were the last words I recalled uttering before the lights went out.
Upon my regaining consciousness, the now reticent basement of the restaurant was in total darkness except for the sparse glow of emergency lighting in the hallway. I called out to Anabel but got no response. “Is anybody down here?” I shouted. No one replied.
A sliver of glass had cut my hand while I was pushing myself up off the debris-cluttered floor. Remembering my trusty, pen-sized, laser-like flashlight with the adjustable Fresnel lens was inside my camera bag, I felt around the room to retrieve it.
The bag was nearby underneath our table. Taking out my flashlight to survey the area, I felt something warm was streaming down my cheek, wiping it with a napkin and finding blood. I ripped a piece of the tablecloth with a steak knife and wrapped it tightly around my head, securing the linen with a central knot on my forehead. My right palm was also bleeding. A napkin took care of that.
My flashlight illuminated most of the Saletta Romana. Anabel was nowhere to be found. Perhaps, she ran out to get some help when the earthquake settled. I made my way out to the hallway and noticed a mass of huge rocks had piled up, blocking the stairway leading to the exit of the restaurant, the only way out of the basement as far as I could tell.
Upon further investigation, I noted the stairwell had totally caved in. Having considered removing the stone blocks and crushed bricks, I decided it would have been an exhaustive endeavor, only to be attempted as a last-ditch effort.
Certainly another passageway must have led out of the lower level. I lit an oil lamp that was atop the server’s hutch by the arched portal, leading into our dining room. Anabel had commented she had a light just like it when we passed by it earlier.
“Citizen, over here,” a raspy voice rang out from inside one of the rooms off in the distance. That’s what Anabel had called me before learning my name. I slowly approached the entrance of the most elegant dining room seen thus far within these ancient vaults. An engraved plaque on the wall read “Salone Imperiale.”
A man who wore a bloodied white toga and looked like Mel Brooks stood inside the archway, and part of the musculature of his face had been sliced open. His throat was slit. Spurts of blood gushed from the gash, squirting out in rhythm with his heartbeats, like water through a pin hole in a garden hose.
“You must help me get away,” the ghostly figure of a slain Roman said. “We have to hurry before the the Liberatores from the Senate catch up to us.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Julius Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, and Dictator of Rome. Bow down before me, Plebeian.”
I had to be seeing things, although it was one of my lifelong fantasies to meet a ghost; and not only was I presently fulfilling the dream, but here it was happening with one of my all-time greatest heroes of ancient history.
Surely, it wasn’t so; but I got down on one knee just in case and said, “Hail Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, and Dictator of Rome. Long may you live.”
“OK, very good,” he said. “Now let’s get out the hell of here.”
“How? The stairwell to get out is blocked from the earthquake. I didn’t see any other exit on the way over here, and this is the last room in the cellar.”
“Don’t panic! Let us stack those tables onto one another to reach the skylight at the other end of this room. Follow me.”
Don’t panic? What was that, a universal catchphrase? How could I not panic? Not only was I stuck in the caverns of the Pompey Theater, but I was also hallucinating great Caesar’s ghost was directing my escape; however, it did sound reassuring. Every time I heard the phrase uttered to me on my trip so far, I seemed to escape whatever predicament into which I had found myself.
Caesar was quite a strong fellow, considering he had been stabbed twenty-three times and was bleeding profusely. I wondered how this spirit was lifting his share of the weight. We stacked the tables four-high while starting with a base of six of them.
I rushed back to the blocked stairwell and grabbed four bricks to throw at the skylight with hopes of breaking the glass. From the second tier, I lobbed up three while ducking under the tables after each attempt before shattering the window finally. The pane broke apart and fell all around me. Fortunately, I didn’t get cut up again.
“Here, Citizen, take my sword and use it if you must. Make sure they are not waiting upstairs before passing through the skylight.”
After grabbing hold of the weapon and climbing up the stack of tables, I peered over the opening and was snatched up immediately by several men who appeared to be Caesar’s adversaries.
They dragged me through the upper dining room and into the barroom, where I was stabbed deeply in the chest several times before collapsing into a crimson pool of blood; and everything slowly faded to black. In the meantime, I could hear Caesar’s yelling from within the caverns below.
“Wake up, Michelino; please, wake up.” I faintly heard Anabel as if I had been in a deep slumber and was beginning to arouse, opening my eyes to see she was sitting in a chair next to me, while a man in a suit was finishing his suturing of a bad cut on the left side of my head.
Anabel said a lantern had fallen down and cracked my head open during the earthquake, knocking me out and causing me to land on the floor. I looked around the room to see it appeared identically to the way it was in my dream.
Evidently they had picked me up and sat me down at our table, where my caretaker sewed seven stitches and bandaged my noggin. He told me to wait for the ambulance, coming to take me to the hospital for observation.
“No way,” I said. “I’ll be all right. There’s no need for me to go.”
“But what if you suffer a concussion later on tonight?” Anabel said. “You could die.”
“I’ve had worse things happen to me, and I’m still kicking. Call off the ambulance.”
Luigi came running in. “Oh il mio Dio, you are OK, Michelino. That looked like an ugly wound on your head.”
“It’s just a scratch. There’s no need to get excited. I’m just glad Anabel didn’t get hurt.”
“You are so sweet, Michelino.” She gave me a kiss on my cheek. “I really think you should go to the hospital for tests to make sure you’re OK.”
“Please, Anabel, don’t worry. I once had a shovel crack open the top of my head as a kid, and I lived to tell the tale.”
“Well, that explains everything.”
“Very funny! Now who do I owe for all of this medical attention?”
The well-dressed man said his name was Doctor Mariano, a friend of Luigi, to whom he would send the bill.
“That is correct,” Luigi said. “I will take care of everything, including tonight’s meal. Can I get you something to drink? Perhaps a glass of whiskey will help with the pain.” My head was pounding, and I thought some whiskey couldn’t make it feel any worse.
“That would be great. Thank you for taking care of me and the bill.” I also thanked the doctor who exited with the proprietor.
A couple of busboys had finished up-righting chairs and sweeping the debris from the dining room. They had been straightening out the remainder of the caverns as well. The fallen lantern survived the earthquake. My head had broken its fall.
Anabel said it landed on top of my chest. An electrician reconnected the wiring and was refastening it to the wall. I told her I wanted to take a look at the other rooms in the basement, to see how different they were from those which appeared to me while unconscious.
Everything was exactly as I had seen it. The Salone Imperiale was still the largest, most elegant room in the caverns; and a plaque fastened to the wall had the same inscription engraved on it as had been displayed in my chimera.
The eeriest part of all this was to see my flashlight lit and sitting on the table directly below the skylight. I rushed in ahead of Anabel to grab it. Next to it was the oil lamp I had grabbed off the server’s hutch, and it too was illuminated.
“You don’t look so well. Why don’t we return to our dining room. You need to sit down.”
“OK, Anabel, but I have something strange to tell you about why I probably look this way.” She took me by the arm, and we made it back to find our drinks were sitting on the table.
Just before we reentered the Saletta Romana, I checked to see if the stairwell had any evidence of wreckage from the earthquake; but no signs of any damage were evident.
Later, the news media reported the magnitude of the quake at its center, seventy miles east of Rome (112.654 km), measured six-point-three on the Richter scale. Fortunately, no severe destruction occurred in the capital city.
I took a slug of whiskey and began to tell Anabel my dream about waking up on the marble floor, getting my flashlight from my camera bag, lighting the oil lamp found on the server’s hutch, meeting up with the apparition of Julius Caesar in the Salone Imperiale, crashing through the skylight to the upper dining room, being dragged into the barroom and stabbed repeatedly in the chest; and while collapsing into a pool of blood before regaining consciousness, I could hear Caesar’s yelling in the caverns, saying, “Thank you, Citizen, I am now free to go.”
“What bothers me the most about all of this, Anabel, are the parts of the caverns never seen by me before our little walk just now. They looked identical to what I saw while knocked out.”
I took another nip of what tasted like a fine Scottish whiskey and continued to describe the whole scenario as being like an out-of-body experience, feeling so real, just as looking into her pretty eyes did at that very moment. Mentioning also the rooms, the plaque, the skylight, and the table below, where the oil lamp and my flashlight were still lit, had all appeared exactly the same way as was portrayed in my illusion when I was knocked out.
“Now, I know you’re delirious. You must have suffered some brain damage. I’m going to tell Luigi to call the ambulance back.” That made me laugh, but I didn’t know if Anabel was serious or not.
“Don’t do that. I am not making this up. Why is my flashlight in my shirt pocket? I didn’t have it there at dinner. I can prove this to you.”
“Prove what? You weren’t hallucinating, and you didn’t steal the flashlight from the table? I saw you pick it up while we were in there. This, I’ve got to hear.”
“Thanks a lot for implying that I’m a thief, but I didn’t steal it.” I opened my camera bag and pulled out a protective case, finding it astonishingly empty; yet the authenticity certificate inside, bearing the serial number of the device, matched the ID tag on the flashlight . I couldn’t explain it nor believe it myself, and showed the evidence to my doubting dinner date.
“I apologize for accusing you, Michelino; but what was I to think?” She handed me back the case.
“What about the oil lantern also on the table inside the big dining room? It was the same one you had noticed when we first got here. Look outside in the hallway on the hutch. It’s not on there now.”
“The busboys cleaning up probably put it there earlier. Somehow they must have found your flashlight and put in there too.”
“OK, explain this. When entering the restaurant, we didn’t pass through the dining room directly above the skylight in the Salone Imperiale, right?”
“No we didn’t. That room is on the other side of the bar from where we came in. What does that have to do with it?”
“I have never been here before, correct?”
“Based on you having just told me so, I suppose you haven’t. Why do you ask?”
“In the dream, when I was pulled up into the dining room by Caesar’s enemies, I had noticed a few things while being dragged into the barroom.”
I described seeing a painting of the original Theatre of Pompey, hanging on the wall above a cabinet that showcased a couple of old swords crisscrossed in front of a legionnaire’s shield, set below a helmet with its cluster of horsehair missing a patch of bristles.
On the opposite wall was a painting of the Pantheon, under which stood a row of at least a half-dozen spears, all with large bronze tips.
“Come to think of it,” I added, “a large bookcase on the far wall contained several books; and a shelf was strictly dedicated to old scrolls somehow being held upright.”
Anabel stared at me with her mouth agape. “You’re absolutely right. That’s exactly what’s up there. I can’t believe this. How could you remember everything? It’s sending chills down my spine.”
“So, do you still think I’m delirious?”
“Well, maybe just a little bit. I can’t imagine it was Caesar who you met.”
“Why not? He was killed here, wasn’t he?”
“He wasn’t murdered in the same part of the theater as where we are now. It was actually about two blocks away, next to the archaeological site of Torre Argentina,” Anabel said. “It was in a curia situated by the Sacred Area. Nowadays, excavations of the ruins of four temples and the cat sanctuary are located beside the spot.”
“Death sees no boundaries of time or space. The apparition told me his name was Julius Caesar, and said he was being chased. Why wouldn’t it be him?” I said. “It was as if I had served a purpose here by freeing his ghost from having been held prisoner within the confines of the theater, and what’s this about a cat sanctuary in the ruins?”
“I was right. You are still totally delirious.” Anabel said the felines had been sanctioned by the city council as being what she called, “bio-cultural heritage.” The site had become a humane shelter, where the kitties were protected from starvation and disease, fed daily and given medical attention if needed, by the many volunteers on the staff.
“I’d like to go there. It’s probably too late to see anything now. Maybe tomorrow I’ll pass by here on my way to visit the catacombs.”
“Don’t drive in this section of the city, you’ll get a ticket and could have your car towed away. I get away with it because I have a permit for being a tour guide.”
“Well, so much for that idea.”
“Because of your head injury, I was going to suggest you stay at my apartment tonight. You really need someone to be with you.” Anabel took hold of my hand. “I only live less than a mile away and have a foldout couch you can sleep on. Then tomorrow morning, we can stop by the ruins and the cat sanctuary before I take you back to your hotel.”
My concerned companion said she didn’t have to be at work until eleven o’clock, giving us plenty of time to visit the site. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
We went upstairs to say goodnight to Luigi, and I took a gander in the dining room above the skylight. That was just too weird to see it exactly as I had in my phantasm.
“I’m sorry your visit here turned out the way it did,” Luigi said. “You will probably never come back to see us.”
“That’s not how I feel at all.” I told him the experience was one of the most memorable events in my lifetime. “I will be coming back to Rome in the future, and I’ll most certainly stop in to see you. You have a wonderful restaurant here.”
Anabel hugged her father’s cousin and kissed him before we left. After walking back to her scooter, we surprisingly found the vehicle had remained upright on its kickstand. I decided not to wear the helmet. My head hurt pretty bad, and I didn’t want to damage the sutures.
The scooter backfired twice once she started it. The noise resonated throughout the narrow streets and alleyways, probably frightening an already nervous neighborhood from their having just experienced an earthquake.
“Don’t you think a tune-up is in order?”
“Why? It runs great. Hop on,” she said. We sputtered away to her flat.
The above story is an excerpt from my book, Thirty Days Across the Big Pond: Part One.