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Seeing Rome by Moped - Zen and the art of moped mayham in the Eternal City

by Amanda Castleman

Do as the Romans Do, Travel By Moped in Italy

All 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.

Everyone's 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.

The Arch of Severus
The Arch of Severus, near the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, was built in the year 205.

I 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.

Sunset 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.

I 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.

The 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 compare.

Puffing 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.

I, 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).

My 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 and sneakers.

Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo was once the northern gate for Ancient Rome.

Freedom 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.

The 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.

It's 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."

Absolute 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.

Religion, 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.

"They 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."

Italians 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 self-satisfied air.

"And the other bulb?" a journalist prompted. The mayor shot right back: "Yellow? The yellow, my friend, is there for gaiety."

Many 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.

Amanda Castleman in Rome, braving Roman traffic on her rented moped.
The author takes a brief moment to pose for the camera before braving Roman traffic once again.

But 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.

A 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.


Moped rental
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;

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 (; 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).

Ciampino - 15km south of downtown Rome - is a mixed blessing. Outrageously cheap flights land here (€10 from London), but the public transport links are tricky (; 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 roughly €35.

No-frills airlines - like Ryanair ( and Go ( - 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 (, Evolavia, Hapag-Lloyd Express (, Germanwings ( and Bmibaby (

Italy has an extensive train network. Service is generally reliable and inexpensive - making rail the most pleasant way to explore the country (Ferrovie dello Stato;; 8488-888-088). Check schedules and purchase tickets from the automated machines, avoiding huge queues.

Where to stay
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 (; 06.772.04036; Via Vittorio Amedeo II, 9, 00185 Roma).

Cheap 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 (; 339.827.1285; Via delle Cese, 00040, Ariccia).

The 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 €375-635 (; 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 (; 06.679.3006; Piazza Trinità dei Monti 17, 00187 Roma).

Where to eat
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.

Never 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).

Locals 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).

Da 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).

Evangelista's 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).

Revive 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).

Finally, 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).

Where to drink
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;; 06.678.9792; Via degli Orfani 84, 00186 Roma).

Bar 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 Roma).

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 (