by Amanda Castleman
Do as the Romans Do, Travel By Moped in Italy
roads lead to Rome, specifically to Piazza Venezia. Buses
blast around the rotary, as tiny Fiats dart across the undefined
lanes. It's a swirling whirlpool of metal. And I'm
riding the wave bareback on a beat-up moped. This is Italian
traffic, al fresco.
pumping their horns, so I inch my thumb over and press the
red lever. Parpppp. My Honda Sky emits a sheepish bleat,
lost in the great din. But it gives me courage.
Arch of Severus, near the slopes of the Capitoline Hill,
was built in the year 205.
muscle aside a Peugeot and shoot off past the Capitoline Hill.
Michelangelo designed the spectacular piazza, the Campidoglio,
on the crag. I give the statue of Marcus Aurelius a jaunty
wave and turn west, sweeping past the Theatre of Marcellus,
the Mouth of Truth, then across the sultry Tiber River.
stains the buildings, already deep hues of ochre and umber.
Trees overhang the quiet road, as it switchbacks up the slope.
I pass two military policemen, young carabinieri in
their designer uniforms, navy with natty red piping. They
wave, laughing in the summer air. I gun my mighty 49cc engine,
too intent flirtations.
hear the chuckle of splashing water and squeeze the hand brakes,
coasting to a stop. The Fontanone, the great fountain of the
Gianicolo hill, towers over me, all solemn marble and turquoise
waves. I wheel my moped to the overlook. And there is Rome,
flushed rosy at dusk.
whole city stretches out below, the crooked sooty alleys,
the prenatal bump of the Pantheon, the gaudy Vittorio Emanuele
monument. The Tiber - book-ended by mighty flood barriers
- wanders through this bewitching mix of ancient, medieval
and modern. Honeyed light pours down, coaxing buttery tones
from the white marble, crisping up the tall spears of cypress,
deepening the peacock sky. The Eternal City is beautiful beyond
tourists crest the hill, gasp in admiration and race to the
edge. They have blazed off the guidebook path, struggled up
the steep slope. This epic view is their reward, a scene not
found on lurid postcards, a glimpse of glory that will forever
define la bella Roma for them. And in the 80-degree
heat, they truly earned it.
on the other hand, am cool, even refreshed by the breezes
stirred by the moped. Sweat stains may foul their t-shirts,
but I am ready to swan into the finest restaurant, wearing
a little black dress, flowing scarf and ridiculous high heels
(no-one said 'going native' would be easy).
moped - il mio motorino - lets me dart down to the
Colosseum at whim, effortlessly zip over to the Baths of Caracalla
for an opera performance. I coax a friend onto the back and
speed off for ice-cream, that rich Italian gelato,
followed by espresso. On a dull afternoon, I swoop down to
the Vatican and check up on St Peters. Because I can. This how to experience Rome, not slogging along in a baseball hat
del Popolo was once the northern gate for Ancient Rome.
and adventure, as always, exact a price. Driving in the Eternal
City is scary: some might say terrifying. The traffic is infamous
for its exuberance - and lawlessness. And we're not talking
quaint little mishaps, a la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
These drivers do whatever they please, all the time.
attitude is nothing short of Machiavellian. Opportunities grasped and consequences be damned. Everyone - from the crucifix-clasping,
black-swathed grandmothers down - is looking out for numero
uno. The Italians even have a word for this ruthless
self-gratification: Menefreghismo, the state of not-caring.
all done with great verve, however, as Eleanor Clark pointed
out in Rome and a Villa (Steerforth Press, 1950): "What
makes these streets Roman, and not those of any old European
city, is the demonic energy that goes into everything, and
the divine disregard for any other form of life ... also an
element of miracle in the way the motorcycles and other traffic
get through, shooting straight from hell, without anyone's
changing his expression or pace or direction at all."
disregard for authority fuels the chaos. "In Italy, rules
are just serving suggestions," an expatriate friend once
mused. Indeed, vehicles hurtle through pedestrian zones, blast
up and down one-way alleys and quadruple-park, blocking entire
squares and streets. Mopeds speed on the sidewalks or sputter
under the weight of entire families. It's not uncommon to
see scooters on the "school run", a small child
wedged between their parent's legs.
it seems, contributes to the Mediterranean mayhem. Many devout
Catholics place themselves in the hands of a loving God, then
floor the gas. If it's time to die, the Lord's will be done.
If not, they'll live to drive another day.
simply fail to realise the dangerous nature of the scooter,
the fragility of the vehicle," Giovanni Catanzaro, a
municipal police chief, told Wanted in Rome magazine.
"Their behaviour is superficial, excessively off-hand.
They're careless. They think themselves immortal. They don't
respect pedestrians, they overtake on the left and right,
the highway code doesn't exist."
freely interpret laws to suit themselves - even the most basic
road signs are open to debate. Urban legend claims the mayor
of Naples was asked to explain a traffic light. "Green
obviously means go," he replied. "Red means slow
down and proceed if it looks safe." He stopped with a
the other bulb?" a journalist prompted. The mayor shot
right back: "Yellow? The yellow, my friend, is there
drivers share this cavalier attitude, others are just plain
ignorant. No special training is required for the less powerful
mopeds. In fact, no license at all is required for
a 49cc model, like my crusty hand-me-down Honda. It's quite
humiliating really, being cut off by pimply 14-year-olds on
new Vespas. I resign myself: These bambini were born
on the mean streets, I'm a day-tripper.
author takes a brief moment to pose for the camera before
braving Roman traffic once again.
I've got the bug. Driving in Rome is dangerous, but it's also
sublime. The locals are aggressive speed freaks, but they
are all the more alert and honed for it. Absolute control
is needed to navigate the absolute chaos. All my senses spring
alive, as I float through the traffic, flashing by the fountains,
shattered columns and Baroque domes. My worries melt away.
My heart swells.
coin cast into the Trevi Fountain ensures a return to Rome,
according to folklore. My motivation won't be the art, the
ruins, the fine wines and food, however precious. No, my euro
is for another shot at Zen and the art of moped mayhem.
Mopeds are the quintessential Roman mode of transport
- and fashion accessory. A 49cc model may be driven
without a license. Rentals cost about €20 per day,
€95 per week. Try Scooter Hire on Via Cavour 80a,
00185 Roma, Italy (06.481.5669; www.scooterhire.it).
Most major airlines fly into Rome. British Airways,
Delta/KLM and national carrier Alitalia usually have
good deals. Leonardo da Vinci - better known as Fiumicino
- is 32km south-west of Rome (www.adr.it;
06.659.51). An excellent train service runs into the
city centre (€4.70-8.80), as does the COTRAL night
bus (€5.16). A taxi takes 45 minutes and costs
around €45 (always use the authorised white and
yellow cabs at the stand).
- 15km south of downtown Rome - is a mixed blessing.
Outrageously cheap flights land here (€10 from
London), but the public transport links are tricky (www.adr.it;
06.794.941). COTRAL buses connect to the vast Anagnina
Station, then catch Metro Linea A to the central train
hub, Termini (€1.80). Some airlines run more expensive
shuttles (around €20 return), while a cab costs
airlines - like Ryanair (www.ryanair.com)
and Go (www.go-fly.com)
- sell one-way tickets, making it affordable to fly
into Rome and out of another regional capital, such
as Naples, Venice, Pisa or Genoa. Other fledgling airlines
connect Italy with the Continent: Sky Europe (www.skyeurope.com),
Hapag-Lloyd Express (www.hlx.com),
and Bmibaby (www.bmibaby.com).
has an extensive train network. Service is generally
reliable and inexpensive - making rail the most pleasant
way to explore the country (Ferrovie dello Stato; www.fs-on-line.com;
8488-888-088). Check schedules and purchase tickets
from the automated machines, avoiding huge queues.
Hotel Il Castello has rare perks for a bargain hotel
near Termini station: 24-hour access, room service,
laundry, phone and fax. Even better, it accepts credit
cards. Doubles €42-103 (www.ilcastello.com;
06.772.04036; Via Vittorio Amedeo II, 9, 00185 Roma).
and cheerful Fawlty Towers provides guests with a fridge,
microwave and fast, free Internet access. Doubles €62-82,
while €18-23 rents a cot in a four-person room
06.445.0374; Via Magenta 39, 00187 Roma).
Real Rome rents lovely apartments in the historic centre,
well-stocked with staples like olive oil and coffee.
Highly recommended for travellers craving privacy and
authenticity. Minimum three-night stay, €65-140
each night (www.realrome.com;
339.827.1285; Via delle Cese, 00040, Ariccia).
Hotel Portoghesi is hidden away in the evocative Tor
di Nona area, north of Piazza Navona. This stylish hotel
includes a breakfast solarium and roof terrace, frothing
with flowers. Doubles €185-310 (06.686.4231;Via
dei Portoghesi 1, 00186 Roma).
The Hotel Hassler hosts the bel mondo atop the Spanish
steps, surveying St Peter's, the Villa Medici and all
Rome. Big Spenders - like Bill Gates - prefer the swanky
penthouse, though corner room 403 also is coveted. Doubles
06.699.340; Via Trinità dei Monti 6, 00187, Roma).
And just next door is the exclusive boutique hotel Scalinata
di Spagna. Doubles €250-380 (www.hotelscalinata.com;
06.679.3006; Piazza Trinità dei Monti 17, 00187
Even the fast food is delectable in Rome. Pizza al taglio
shops sell mouth-watering slices, cut to order and wrapped
in wax paper. Try cheese-potato pizza, sprinkled with
rosemary, or plump suppli, tomato-rice balls. Many cafes
serve excellent sandwiches, squashed flat in the grill,
as well as fresh juice.
allow yourself to be herded into a restaurant by pushy
waiters. Any place begging for custom can't be very
good, as Romans will wait hours to eat at the best pizzerias,
like Da Baffetto near the Piazza Navona. Sixties radicals
popularised this straightforward establishment - now
the whole world scrambles for a seat (06.686.1617; Via
del Governo Vecchio 114, 00186 Roma).
prefer to dine across the river in atmospheric Trastevere,
home to two famous pizza restaurants. Dar Poeta serves
up soft, rich pies in a jovial atmosphere (closed lunch,
closed Mon; 06.588.0516; Vicolo del Bologna 45, 00153
Roma). Panattoni is gruffer, but the vast pizzas are
just as tasty. Celebrities rub shoulders with workers
at the long marble tables. Also known as I Marmi, the
Marbles, and the less-appetising l'Obitorio, the Morgue
(closed Wed, closed August; 06.580.0919; Viale Trastevere
53/59, 00153 Roma).
Settimio is a vivid, cheerful nook near the Pantheon,
serving the best penne all'arrabiata in town (pasta
with fiery tomato-garlic sauce) and superb gorgonzola
polenta (firm corn-meal cake). Reserve a table for dinner,
as this petite establishment quickly overflows (closed
Sun and Mon; closed August; 06.678.9651; Via delle Colonnelle
14, 00186 Roma).
is perfect for long, intimate meals, which should include
at least one legendary artichoke dish. Try them alla
giudia (Roman-Jewish style, batter-fried whole) or al
mattone (crushed between two bricks, then baked). An
elegant option (closed lunch, closed Sun, closed August;
06.687.5810; Via delle Zoccolette 11a, 00186 Roma).
your tomato-stunned taste buds with spicy coconut soup
at the excellent Thai Inn. Blue lanterns, bamboo matting,
fake flowers and butterflies create a tranquil Asian
atmosphere (closed Monday, closed August; 06.582.03145;
Via Federico Ozanam 94, 00152 Roma; Bus 44).
celebrate special occasions at Antico Arco, a nouvelle
cuisine mecca in an 18th-century palazzo on the Gianicolo
hill (closed lunch, closed Sun, closed August; 06.581.5274;
Piazzale Aurelio, 00152 Roma; Bus 44).
Italian cafes cater to all tastes: coffee, fresh juice,
beer and booze, not to mention sandwiches and ice cream.
But not all bars are equal: bustling Tazza D'Oro sells
the city's best coffee - a creamy, fragrant blend -
near the Pantheon. Seasonal favourites include granita
di caffè (coffee sorbet) and cioccolata calda
con panna (hot chocolate with whipped cream). No seating
(closed Sunday; torrefazionetazzadoro.com;
06.678.9792; Via degli Orfani 84, 00186 Roma).
San Calisto is rowdy and rough-hewn, but no less classic.
The bar, nicknamed Marcello's, serves cheap coffee,
beer and ice cream in Trastevere. This gritty hole-in-the-wall
is famous for affogato, ice cream drizzled with liqueur,
especially the vodka-lemon sorbet (closed Sun, closed
end of August; 06.583.5869; Piazza San Calisto 4, 00153
Long lines usually clog the tourist booths at Fiumicino
Airport (06.659.56074) and Stazione Termini (06.487.1270).
Try the main office at Via Parigi 5 (06.488.99253) or
a sidewalk information kiosk.Italy Weekly, the English-language
paper published with the International Herald Tribune,
also has a good web site (www.italydaily.it).