This wasn’t my first Audrey Hepburn moment in Rome. Several months earlier, I’d clung to a friend as he scooted us to dinner on an all-too-brief ride that was both a wind-blowing-through-my-hair thrill, taking us past dramatically lit churches and ruins, and a white-knuckle terror as we swerved around distracted drivers and gaping tourists.
Italians’ love affair with the Vespa has been going on since 1946, when the manufacturer Piaggio first introduced the wasp-shaped scooter (vespa means wasp in Italian) to the market. When Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck buzzed through the Italian capital in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday” — the first in a long line of actors to pose astride a Vespa — the scooter’s popularity shot into overdrive. Today, the Vespa is one of many modern scooter brands, including Aprilia, Suzuki and Honda, that crowd Roman streets.
After my first private “Roman Holiday” moment, the exhilaration and glamour of whizzing around the city on two wheels outweighed any fear I’d felt. I was eager to do it again, but even though I’m a longtime Vespa owner myself, I wasn’t keen on the idea of negotiating Rome’s frenzied streets on my own. So on a recent return trip with my husband and in-laws, we arranged a professional Vespa tour of the Eternal City.
Off we go
On a humid spring afternoon, Annie Ojile, an American expat who’s the brains behind the Vespa tour company Scooteroma, and her fellow Vesparazzi pick us up outside our rented apartment. Annie hands us helmets and directs us to climb on behind our guides. With a high roundhouse kick over the small trunk, I mount up behind Annie on her cherry-red Vespa. No dark, romantic Gregory Peck type for me this time, but auburn-haired Annie knows her way around Rome, and that’s what counts.
The morning rain has cleared, but as we slowly file out of the cobblestone alley, my husband asks his driver whether the still-damp ground will be a problem. I’m glad I didn’t hear the response at the time: “It’s like putting ice skates on a Vespa,” the driver said.
We’ve scheduled our tour for a Sunday, when the traffic in Rome is a smidgen calmer than normal, but Annie and the other guides are still cautious as we zigzag through a confusing array of streets that veer off in random directions and make our way toward the Piazza Venezia and the monument to a united Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II. We stop at the histrionic tribute that locals like to disparage, calling it “the wedding cake,” and Annie gives us some broad strokes of the city’s history and points out details — like the balcony above the piazza from which Mussolini gave many of his speeches — that we’d missed when clambering over the monument and through the square just the day before.