When in Rome, Ride like the Romans Do

Words and Photography Karen Rutter

We lean into the curve around the Colosseum, and a flock of camera-clicking tourists jump quickly out our way. I feel incredibly smug, which is not really fair, because I am also a visitor to Rome. But to be honest, when you’re seeing the city from the back of a Vespa, it’s difficult not to feel superior. 
Particularly if you’re being driven by a born-and-bred local who knows all the short cuts.

Admittedly, I was nervous the first time we set off. It was a bit like being in a chariot race, considering the Roman traffic. But once you start enjoying the organised madness that characterises the roads, it’s an exhilarating way to experience the Eternal City. As one blogger on the net puts it: “What to foreign eyes resembles a chaotic game of elementary school soccer is actually a carefully orchestrated flow of traffic that defies logic to get people from point A to B. Driving a motorino (scooter) enables one to dance among the cars, rather like a jazz piano weaving between the rhythms of bass and drum.”

We roar along the Via del Corso, past designer shops showcasing Italian fashion, then nip into medieval side streets where there’s barely enough room for the bike to squeeze through. Parking is easy, then we hop off and explore. Laura, my Roman friend, points out the Pantheon with its hole in the ceiling, her favourite shop that sells exquisite handmade chocolates, the Trevi fountain with its flocks of coin-throwing foreigners, the ancient house where she had childhood piano lessons. It’s a mixture of the personal and the public, this glimpse into the city. Much nicer than an organised tour. I resist the urge to get smug again. We fuel up on heavy-duty espresso, and then it’s back on the Vespa and off to another vantage point.

There’s nothing like a midnight swoop alongside the centuries-old Circus Maximus, where Julius Caesar used to hang out and watch gladiator duels. Circling the immense Piazza del Popolo on a Saturday evening, seeing Italians coming out to parade in their finest. Rumbling to the Vatican City, looking up at the dome of St Peter’s with your helmet grazing the back of your neck.
I love the way Italians get around their city like this. It’s obviously the most cost-effective way to do short-distance commuting—and the Romans, literally thousands of them, make it look so stylish. Over the days, as I get more relaxed in the saddle, I watch the scooters next to me. Young schoolgirls beetle about two-up, chatting non-stop. Teenage boys smoke cigarettes with one hand while they accelerate with the other. There’re the older guys who fancy long, chopper-shaped models with chaise-longue-sized seats. Elderly women buzz in and out with their shopping between their feet. People carry dogs, eat sandwiches and shout at each other. I saw one couple having a huge argument as they drove, gesticulating wildly through the traffic. Another man was reading the newspaper while his friend drove. I like it that I can mingle with this rowdy, swirling scooter-crowd and feel (almost) at home.

It’s the same where I’m staying, in an area called Testaccio, slightly off the main beat and running alongside the Tiber River. It used to be a solid working-class neighbourhood, dominated by a slaughterhouse. In recent years a more trendy element has moved in, but the neighbourhood is still unpretentious. I’m staying in a flat on the Via Amerigo Vespucci. Every evening I walk my friend’s dog around the small piazza down the road, where neighbours have sundowners and early-evening snacks. The dog is a huge Italian breed called a Spinone, and he’s a complete softy. People keep on stopping to pet him. In the morning I stroll to the local market and buy fresh bread and fruit alongside the Testaccio residents. There’re no tourists here, and only Italian is spoken. I get along by pointing at what I want to eat.

Ah, the food. It’s a bit ironic for a vegetarian to be staying on the grounds of an old slaughterhouse, because lots of the restaurants in my area specialise in traditional offal-based meals—pajata (the intestines of an unweaned calf), milza (spleen) andtrippa (tripe) are clearly popular dishes. But there are, obviously, a load of pizzerias and small bars where I quickly get addicted to crispy thin-base pizzas,suppli (a kind of dumplings with different fillings) and toasted tramezzini with spinach and cheese. 

One night a group of friends take me to a Sicilian restaurant, where they urge me to try specialties likecaponata, pan-fried squid and cannoli for dessert. Another evening we take the Vespa to a ‘secret’ destination (so-called because nobody wants the tourists to find out about it), where long tables are lined with Italians eating ‘the best pizza in the city’. I had to admit mine was close to perfect. My lips are sealed.
Over the river is another working-class suburb, Trastevere, which still has a few rough edges but is known for its plethora of good restaurants. I can walk from my flat, and I do. Around the piazza dominated by the gorgeous Santa Maria church are loads of trattorias where you can get anything from deep-fried courgettes to home-made ravioli to wild boar.

I tried a less wild dish for the first time when we took a trip into the countryside. Not by scooter—Umbria, which borders on Tuscany, is a little too far for that. But it gave me chance to experience Italy by car. Another eye-opener. Things like stop signs and red traffic lights don’t seem to count. It’s kind of like being in a South African taxi, except there’s Italian pop on the radio.
It was well worth the trip for the truffles, which we had in the village of Spoleto. Known for its ancient Romanesque churches and annual summer arts festival, the quaint town is also something of a truffle capital. We had truffle pâté on toast, truffle pasta, and a kind of truffle pudding. I was hooked—just as I was on the scenery.

Italians have these things they casually call ‘country’ or ‘summer’ houses, and my friends were incredibly generous with them. Not to mention low-key. One night I stayed in a ‘holiday home’ that turned out to be a 40-room castle. Another night I was in a renovated three-storey villa that dated back to medieval times. And all around, the rolling Tuscan hills were spread out like neat golden blankets. We stopped at tiny bars for bread and cheese and rough red wine. In the mornings we ate cornettos, a kind of fluffy, sweet croissants. And on the road we stopped at the Autogrills, which must be one of Italy’s greatest inventions. (Yeah, yeah, the architecture is great, but the petrol stops are brilliant.) Here you can get anything from diesel-strength espresso to a glass of fine wine. Buffet-style restaurants serve baccala (fish), scottadito (grilled lamb chops) and other local dishes that are so popular families come to the Autogrills for Sunday lunches. You can buy CDs, clothes and DVDs 24/7—along every Italian highway.

But, as they say, all roads lead to Rome and we are soon back. And it is with another wave of smugness that I realise I am starting to recognise the layout. I can’t wait to get back on the Vespa and ride around my neighbourhood. I feel a bit like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday—except she was doing it for the cameras. I’m doing it for real.

If you want to try it yourself, visit www.scooterhire.it. But be warned—if you’re not a regular scooter rider, the roads may be a bit daunting. Not to mention dangerous…