What could be better on a crisp spring day in Rome than to take a walk on the creepy side, in Verano Cemetery? But don’t go alone; I really wouldn’t recommend it. At first it seems pleasant like an ornamental garden, you’ll even see a few people stooping at distant graves or carrying flowers – blooms are big business here, if the thriving row of stalls outside are anything to go by.
The unseeing marble faces – young and old, angels and hags, pensive moustachioed men, all fossilised – passively allow you to stare and point, but as soon as you walk on, you feel their eyes on your back, accusing and resentful as your lively tread crunches on the gravel path.
Take a left-hand lane and you find yourself making your way up some steps or a winding pathway to the hill top, the part of the cemetery visible from via Tiburtina. Parts are dilapidated, stones crumbling. Perky cherubs sit cheekily with legs crossed atop grave stones, painted portraits of wealthy Victorian couples gaze happily from family shrines, as if they belonged above a mantelpiece in a grand 19th century house.
You can walk for ages, taking in all those names and dates: the legions of the dead – ancestors, aunts, still-borns and infants, mothers, the forgotten and people you never knew from centuries past.
Behind me a twig cracks, I turn and no one is there. It’s then that I realise I haven’t seen a living soul for some time now, maybe an hour. Again a noise – there is someone else up here after all – a child laughing, or is it cackling? I turn quickly again, expecting to catch a glimpse of a toddler running up the path in the long rays of the sleepy afternoon sun. No one is there. It may be the cawing of crows or ravens, perching on the telegraph wires and in the wizened but shady pine trees.
Around the next corner the mosaics on a small doorway inspire me: two life-size angels depicted in pre-Raphaelite style with vivid mosaic pieces. I stood admiring the colour and beauty of the mosaic, but soon had the sensation of again not being alone.
Sure enough, a smoke-grey cat sits behind me, watching inquisitively and expecting something, which I didn’t give. I left the cat looking perplexed and affronted by my lack of generosity and made my way to the exit before the light began to fade.