ROME - The scene is ancient Rome. The year 205 A.D. Chariots race around the Circus Maximus, the city’s oldest and largest chariot track, at a blinding pace. Chaos reigns supreme as drivers jockey for position, putting their lives at risk and laughing at the ever-present dangers.
Fast forward to 2005 and the scene is much the same, although the old track is now a grassy mound that plays host to bicycles and locals on their daily strolls.
On the streets of the Eternal City, the scooter is the contemporary chariot. Traffic laws may curb much of the reckless driving that charioteers practiced on their great tracks, but cruising the city’s streets on a Vespa can test the mettle of even the most seasoned driver.
Above: Seeing the Eternal City on a scooter can be a lot of fun.
To begin, merely crossing a street in Rome can be a challenge. Drivers gear down as if they were driving F1 cars and tend to stop at intersections with barely a yard separating pedestrian flesh from automobile bumper.
Scooter drivers, on the other hand, will cut off pedestrians as if they were invisible. Because of their mobility, the two-wheelers are also easy to maneuver and weave around terrified tourists.
Some of those intrepid travelers will even try to match wits with seasoned scooter drivers.
Although it’s not highly recommended, even by those who own scooter rental shops, many tourists still mount up to cruise Rome’s tight streets.
“It’s very important that you have scooter experience,” says Luigi Bonini, owner of Scoot-A-Long on Via Cavour, just a stone’s throw from the Coliseum.
At Bici & Baci, a scooter shop near Rome’s main train station, an employee who identifies himself only as Giovanni seems exasperated when asked to put the risks of scooter-borne sightseeing into perspective.
“Have you seen our traffic?” he asks sarcastically. “Yes, there are many incidents.” This from people who make earn their living renting motor vehicles.
Rental prices vary based on the power of the bike, but expect to pay about $50, including insurance, to rent a scooter for 24 hours.
Helmet rental may be extra at some shops. But if you consider wearing protective head gear a nuisance, you may have more in common with locals than you think.
Above: Unusual sights and great monuments await for scooter riders.
In March 2000, Italian officials finally introduced mandatory helmet laws, much to the chagrin of stylish moped drivers who made a wind-in-hair ride on a scooter as much a fashion statement as a runway walk. The move was welcomed by emergency room staff at hospitals around the city, though.
According to a report by the World Health Organization in 2004, roughly 385,000 motorcycle and moped injuries are treated annually in Italy. Fatality figures hover around 1,500 per year.
While taking cabs, public transportation or simply walking are probably safer means of transport, thousands of visitors still mount up for a true Italian experience and live to tell the tale.
One piece of advice — start off on a few side streets before navigating main thoroughfares around Piazza Venezia and Via del Corso.
Your insurance company will thank you.