Annie and I have fallen behind the rest of our group, now waiting for the light to change and release the wave of traffic like the grand marshal dropping a race flag. Drivers cram their cars together with little space between bumpers, oblivious to lane markers. Annie carefully snakes through the chaos toward our group at the starting line. From my perch behind her, I peer into car windows and watch drivers checking their phones, lighting cigarettes and turning around to talk to friends in the back seat. My stomach knots up a bit; I’m uncertain whether it’s because of the distracted drivers, the competitive driving, or the idea that traffic signs and lights appear to be merely suggestions. We’ve almost caught up to our group when the green sedan starts drifting toward us, and Annie responds with Sonic the Hedgehog-like speed to launch us past the mayhem.
Finally, we pull into the Jewish ghetto and park near the synagogue. I catch my breath while we watch elaborately dressed wedding guests lingering outdoors. The bride arrives, and we take in the flurry of satin, sequins and tulle. When the streets are quiet again, we talk about the walled ghetto that was demolished when Italy was unified and the impressive synagogue with the square dome meant to distinguish it from the city’s Christian churches.
In a single-file scooter line, we then twist and turn past terra-cotta-colored buildings up a tree-lined hill. I inhale wafts of sweet honeysuckle between occasional whiffs of the exhaust from the mid-1950s scooter my husband is riding ahead of us. (Scooteroma uses both new and vintage Vespas on its tours.) We ascend Gianicolo, a hill west of the Tiber and just above the Vatican. I dismount and take in a view of Rome’s skyline that, according to Annie, few tourists see because this spot isn’t easy to get to.
We lean against a low-slung stone wall, and Annie points out where we’ve been and several of the city’s landmark buildings. I ask her which is her favorite. Without hesitation, she says the 2,000-year-old Pantheon.
“I’m a girl from Minnesota, and someday I’ll be gone, but that and all this will still be here,” she says, gesturing at the panorama before us.
An unrestrained adventure
Back in the thick of the city, we bump along cobbled alleyways — equally picture-perfect and pinballesque as I bounce on my seat. We run a final gantlet, swerving to avoid pedestrians, including a group of nuns who’ve spilled off the sidewalk while waiting in line for gelato. As we zoom past, I’m close enough to touch the wooden rosary dangling from one nun’s waist.
At a cafe-lined street not far from the Piazza Navona, we say farewell to our drivers, who zip off and out of sight.
Pulling up a seat at one of the small outdoor tables, we order a round of spritzes — an Aperol and white wine cocktail — and watch our fellow tourists scurry around as we chat about the day. My husband confesses how nervous he was, even after driving a scooter in Washington for 10 years, upon hearing his driver’s comment about the slick stone. “But the ground dried up pretty quickly,” he says, “and then it was just an amazing experience.”
My in-laws nod in agreement. We concur that exploring less accessible sites, popping right up to the entrances and careening through the city on two wheels was a rush.
I think about Hepburn as the AWOL princess in “Roman Holiday,” teetering on her Vespa but relishing the escape and the freedom. I understand why the scene is so iconic: Seeing Rome from the seat of a cherry-red scooter is a slightly out-of-control adventure that made me feel vivacious, young, unrestrained and free.
It was, well, la dolce Vespa.
DiNardo is a freelance writer based in Switzerland. Follow her on Twitter: @kellydinardo.