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Originally published Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 7:05 PM

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‘La Dolce Vespa:’ See Rome by scooter

Taking a tour of Italian capital on motor scooters.


The Washington Post

If you go

Rome Vespa tours

Scooteroma offers several guided Vespa tours, including a popular half-day motoring tour for about $195. scooteroma.com/

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Sitting on the back of the Vespa, I watch the dark-green sedan inch closer and closer. We’re stopped at a traffic light, and the car’s Italian driver, chatting busily on his cellphone, isn’t paying attention. Just as his vehicle drifts across the lane and threatens to knock into us, the driver of my scooter slams her palm down on the hood. Startled, the man snaps back to reality and hits the brakes.

The light changes, and our Vespa hurtles forward, leaving the chaotic knot of Roman traffic in the dust.

Ciao, amici!

Italians’ love affair with the Vespa has been going on since 1946, when the manufacturer Piaggio first introduced the wasp-shaped scooter (vespa means wasp in Italian) to the market.

When Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck buzzed through the Italian capital in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday” — the first in a long line of actors to pose astride a Vespa — the scooter’s popularity shot into overdrive. Today, the Vespa is one of many modern scooter brands, including Aprilia, Suzuki and Honda, that crowd Roman streets.

Even though I’m a longtime Vespa owner myself, I wasn’t keen on the idea of negotiating Rome’s frenzied streets on my own. So on a recent return trip with my husband and in-laws, we arranged a professional Vespa tour of the Eternal City.

On a humid spring afternoon, Annie Ojile, an American expat who’s the brains behind the Vespa tour company Scooteroma, and her fellow Vesparazzi pick us up outside our rented apartment. Annie hands us helmets and directs us to climb on behind our guides. I mount up behind Annie on her cherry-red Vespa.

The morning rain has cleared, but as we slowly file out of the cobblestone alley, my husband asks his driver whether the still-damp ground will be a problem. I’m glad I didn’t hear the response at the time: “It’s like putting ice skates on a Vespa,” the driver said.

We’ve scheduled our tour for a Sunday, when the traffic in Rome is a smidgen calmer than normal, but Annie and the other guides are still cautious as we zigzag through a confusing array of streets that veer off in random directions and make our way toward the Palazzo Venezia, the monument to a united Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II.

We stop at the histrionic tribute that locals like to disparage, calling it “the wedding cake,” and Annie gives us some broad strokes of the city’s history and points out details — like the balcony above the piazza from which Mussolini gave many of his speeches.

The clouds have cleared and the sun is shining as we wind around behind the monument and up a short paved hill. We stop at a park overlooking Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot-racing stadium that Annie calls the “NASCAR of its day.”

Annie is engaging and funny as a guide and aware, without being tortoiselike, as a driver. It puts me at ease, and as we meander over to Aventine Hill, a posh residential district dotted with gardens, I let go of the center seat strap I’ve been holding and snap pictures of my family riding behind their guides.

We pull up to the walled entrance of Giardino degli Aranci, or the Garden of Oranges. Hopping off our scooters, we stroll under a canopy of Roman pines and take in citrus-perfumed air and sweeping views of Rome.

Back on our scooters, we tootle just a few blocks over to the Piazza of the Knights of Malta. Far from the grand piazzas of downtown, a few tourists are clustered outside a marble arch with a large wooden door. We join the group and look through the keyhole, where we see the dome of St. Peter’s in the distance, enchantingly framed.

We motor onward, along the ancient city wall that rises more than 30 feet above the modern road and park outside the main gate of the Via Appia. Wandering down the road, our guide points out the wheel markings of ancient Roman chariots that once traveled along this route.

We dash back toward downtown, waving and tooting our horns at fellow scooter riders and weave through Testaccio, once a working-class neighborhood but now a trendy hot spot, where we pop into a cafe for a thimble-size espresso and biscotti.

Revived, we make our way toward the Great Synagogue of Rome. For the first time, we’re traveling along busy, multilane roads, and the kamikaze driving makes me glad that I’m not behind the handlebars.

Finally, we pull into the historic Jewish ghetto and park near the synagogue, with its square dome meant to distinguish it from the city’s Christian churches.

In a single-file scooter line, we twist onward past terra-cotta-colored buildings up a tree-lined hill. I inhale wafts of sweet honeysuckle between occasional whiffs of the exhaust from the mid-1950s scooter my husband is riding ahead of us. (Scooteroma uses both new and vintage Vespas on its tours.) We ascend the Gianciolo, a hill west of the Tiber and just above the Vatican.

I dismount and take in a view of Rome’s skyline. And I think about Hepburn as the AWOL princess in “Roman Holiday,” teetering on her Vespa but relishing the escape and the freedom. I understand why the scene is so iconic: Seeing Rome from the seat of a scooter is a slightly out-of-control adventure that made me feel vivacious, young, and free.

It was, well, la dolce Vespa.



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