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Vespa Virgin: Scooting Around Rome on a Scooter | Marshall S. Berdan

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Gregory Peck.  But I just know they were staring at this American journalist as I motorscootered around the Eternal City on my own Roman Holiday.  And I didn’t have Audrey Hepburn joy-riding sidesaddle behind me!

Of course they might have been saying to themselves “look at that crazy tourist pretending he’s an Italian.  If we’re lucky, we might see him bite the cobblestones.”

Fortunately my demise never materialized – though I’ll never know for sure how close I came.  What I do know was that for one whole afternoon I was indeed doing exactly what the old adage says to do when in Rome — and loving every minute of it.  It might not be Fellini’s idea of La Dolce Vita, but for only L60,000 ($30) it was definitely the highlight of my trip – and a pretty sweet deal to boot.

It was also culturally correct.  Since its debut in 1946, the Piaggio Vespa has been the 20th-century plebian’s license to roam throughout urban Italy.  Everyone from budding starlets to tweed-covered professors have – and continue to — avail themselves of its corner-cutting technology to zip in and out of Italy’s infamous traffic.  Now in its second century, the Vespa (literally “wasp”) – and its offspring, the Scarabeo (literally “scarab”) — continue to set the Italian transportation minimum.  And just when the natives thought it was safe to step out into the Via Nazionale again, those devil-may-care tourists come buzzing past, ready to sting them anew.  Mama Mia!  Head for the Seven Hills!

For my own day of driving dangerously I had wisely chosen a Sunday, when traffic would be at its lightest.  But it was my bonna fortuna that it turned out to be such a spectacular Sunday – the last in April when Rome was in all its vernal glory (and Paris was still all wet).

Directed by a placard outside the Hard Rock Café on the Via Veneto (which features a vintage Vespa in its window), I disrupted the diminutive clerk, engrossed in a live broadcast of the Spanish Grand Prix.  An omen to be sure, I concluded, though of what I hadn’t a clue.

Alas, there were no Vespas left, only a flashy orange and white 50-cc Honda “Sky”.  It would have to do.  After a quick refresher lesson from the resident mechanic (a.k.a. the clerk), I strapped on the obligatory crash helmet and lurched up the auspiciously – or is that suspiciously? — named Via della Purificazione.

I decided to confine myself to this quiet, squarely-gridded residential neighborhood until I felt competent, but a conspiracy of one-way streets soon funneled me out onto a major artery populated by trucks and buses.  In desperation I took the first right-hand turn that presented itself – only to find myself at the top of the Spanish Steps, where American newspaperman Joe Bradley (Peck), hungry for a scoop, convinces the gelato-eating AWOL Princess Anna (Hepburn) to join him on a day-long impromptu holiday.  A serendipitous turn to be sure — but the heavy vehicular traffic (I’m talking trucks here, big ones!) left me little time to enjoy it.

Lesson #1: All roads may lead to Rome, but once there, they go every which way.  So don’t waste your time plotting exactly how you’re going to get from Piazza A to Piazza B – just lock in mentally the general direction and the landmarks you should encounter en route.  Then when you don’t, don’t hesitate to pull over, pull out your map, and reorient yourself.  It’s not as if you’ll be blowing your incognito.

I cruised through the Piazza del Popolo, picking up both confidence and speed.  Now ready to attempt actually going somewhere, I cavorted across the Ponte Cavour and turned down the Lungotevere where a carabinieri squad car just happened to pull up behind me.  Now I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong – yet.  But I also knew that I couldn’t say that in Italian, so I took a quick right behind the monumental Castel Sant’Angelo and sought temporary sanctuary in the parking lot of St. Peter’s Motors (closed on Sundays, naturally).

When the coast was clear, I rejoined the flow and turned right up the stately Via della Conciliazion, the magnificent dome of St. Peter’s Basilica looming in front of me.  It was here, while paused at a traffic light, that I first became aware that I was an object of some interest to the throngs of more pedestrian tourists.  For most, it was just idle curiosity. For others, however, there was clearly an element of wishful wonderment.  When the light finally turned green, I made extra sure I rotated the handlebar throttle smoothly.

Finding a vacant piece of sidewalk (all a motorscooter requires fortunately) just outside St. Peter’s Square, I dismounted for a quick look.  I had all afternoon, but as that’s exactly what it takes to see the Vatican, I bushwhacked my way back to the southbound Lungotevere, now flanked by towering sycamores.  Here I encountered my first true challenge – a tunnel in which I had to change lanes.  Mercifully no one was behind me when I made my move, and it was on to Trastevere, modern Rome’s trendiest medieval neighborhood.

Lesson #2: You can’t always get where you want.  The Sunday before my family had spent the afternoon in the Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere and I was hoping to revisit this charming little square.  But unnoticed by me then, it’s all zona pedionale and so this afternoon, I wasn’t going to get anywhere close.  Other no-go moto areas include the Trevi Fountain (where Anna gets her hair cut), the Pantheon (where she sips champagne while Joe figures out how he’s going to pay for it), and on Sundays, the entire Via dei Fori Imperiali (where Joe finds the drugged princess passed out on a bench.)

But a funny thing happened on my way to the Forum.  Instead of quietly sneaking up on it from the rear as planned, I found myself on a one-way street heading straight for the Piazza Venezia – Italy’s most notorious intersection.  I had planned on gradually working my way up to this ultimate test of nerve and skill, but I still hadn’t learned Lesson 1.  So seizing the moment, I gritted my teeth and surged forward — only to be shunted onto the side streets of the Esquiline Hill because I hadn’t learned Lesson 2 yet either.

It took me several sorties to finally get beyond the cordoned-off area, but I eventually did via the Via Merulana.  By now I was beyond confident, I was cocky — adding my shrill tweet to the cacophony of horns that greeted an obvious tourist trying to literally move three lanes laterally in front of St. John’s in Laterine Basilica.

Still reluctant to turn left against ongoing – much less oncoming – traffic, I stayed right again and was channeled out through the old city gates.  This was not good as I was now off my detailed map.  More importantly, the pro forma release I’d signed specifically limited my insurance coverage to inside the city walls.

But I was soon back in terra cognita, and watching the speedometer needle spike above 40 (kilometers per hour) as I zipped down the back straightaway of the Circus Maximus.  I made another stop at Constantine’s Arch to rest my steed and stretch my legs – and smugly survey the six-abreast queues fighting it out to enter the Colosseum.  Speeding away unencumbered, I glanced left and was memorably enthralled: there is something unforgettably magic about seeing the Colosseum in your own rear view mirror.

Behind the Baths of Caracalla the red fuel light came on and I abandoned my peregrinations to make a beeline back to the shop for a pitstop (Most gas stations are also closed on Sunday.)  Besides, it was time I shared the road with my wife, who had spent her afternoon pushing the stroller and shopping for shoes.

As much as I love her (and get to keep her) my wife is no Princess Anna.  For starters, she’s a blonde commoner.  But she certainly drove like the pampered princess did, though I am relived to say that her 0-30 acceleration up the Via Veneto resulted in no actual damage and no spontaneous reception at the local magistrate’s.

Lesson #3: Given the hilly, narrow streets, free-for-all piazzas, and constant congestion, to “drive like a Roman” isn’t an insult, it’s an accomplishment of many years — and an inestimable asset to the monumentally distracted tourist.  As long as you stay your course, the motorist behind you will eventually slide past.  Likewise, Italian pedestrians are uniquely adept at crossing the street amidst heavy traffic.  Again, just maintain your course and speed, and let them pick their way across.  In fact, the only things you need fear are inattentive (or panicked) tourists and bicycles, which tend to wobble going uphill.

Back in the saddle again, I made the most of my last hour and the late afternoon sun, looping up along the Borghese Gardens and the Corso D’Italia where I brazenly cruised past an entire carabinieri station.  And then it happened: while stopped at a red light after emerging from the tunnel that runs under the Quirinalian Hill, I was summonsed by another motorscooter driver asking for directions.  But before I could muster my best “non parlo italiano”, I realized that he was asking directions to the Spanish Steps.  And I knew exactly how to get there!

Though I grumbled as it neared my witching hour of 7:00, I was actually relieved as I knew that come twilight the Romans go strolling en masse and the tourists get into even more dangerous spirits.   On our own walk home that night after dinner — and just three streets away from where I had rented my scooter — I saw a disturbing vision of what might have been.   A car and a motorscooter had collided and suffice it to say, the ambulance wasn’t there for the motorist.

I looked on in after-the-fact concern.  There but for the grace of common sense, nervous caution, and good-old Yankee know-how might have gone I.  But then I reminded myself that no one ever really gets hurt in those silly romantic comedies anyway.  At the end of Roman Holiday, even Gregory Peck walks away with only a broken heart, his own visions of what might have been, and the knowledge that he, too, has just had the time of his life.



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