Correction: An earlier version of this story contained several errors. It misspelled the name of a hill in the city as the Gianciolo; the correct spelling is Gianicolo. It also incorrectly identified the monument to Victor Emmanuel II on the Piazza Venezia as the Palazzo Venezia. The Palazzo Venezia is a different building near the piazza.
Sitting on the back of the Vespa, I watch the dark green sedan inch closer and closer. We’re stopped at a traffic light, and the car’s Italian driver, chatting busily on his cellphone, isn’t paying attention. Just as his vehicle drifts across the lane and threatens to knock into us, the driver of my scooter slams her palm down on the hood. Startled, the man snaps back to reality and hits the brakes.
The light changes, and our Vespa hurtles forward, leaving the chaotic knot of Roman traffic in the dust.
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.
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.
The clouds have cleared and the sun is shining as we wind around behind the monument and up a short paved hill. Over the buzz of the scooters, Annie and I chat about our respective moves abroad, adjusting to a slower pace of life, and our Italian heritage. We stop at a park overlooking Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot-racing stadium that Annie calls the “NASCAR of its day.”
Annie is engaging and funny as a guide and aware, without being tortoiselike, as a driver. It puts me at ease, and as we meander over to Aventine Hill, a posh residential district dotted with gardens, I let go of the center seat strap I’ve been holding and snap pictures of my family riding behind their guides. They smile, wave and flash two thumbs up, and I’m happy that they’re enjoying this adventure as well.
We scoot past a bus and a smattering of cars jockeying for the limited parking spots and pull right up to the walled entrance of Giardino degli Aranci, or the Garden of Oranges. Hopping off our scooters, we stroll under a canopy of Roman pines and take in citrus-perfumed air and sweeping views of Rome. When we return, a few tourists linger and try to surreptitiously snap some pictures of our little posse. Despite their omnipresence in Rome, Vespas are still a curiosity, and each time we pause, fellow tourists gawk, take photos and occasionally ask about the tour. “Are you having fun?” they want to know. “Is it scary?”
Back on our scooters, we tootle just a few blocks over to the Piazza of the Knights of Malta. Far from the grand piazzas of downtown, this concrete square is completely unremarkable, save for a few tourists clustered outside a marble arch with a large wooden door. We join the group and look through the keyhole, where we see the dome of St. Peter’s in the distance, enchantingly framed by perfectly manicured shrubs within arm’s reach.
While Annie and the guides chat in Italian, I take off my scarf, the sun now bright and the day warm, and watch the other tourists being herded back onto a cramped minibus. Glad that I’m not one of them, I gleefully swing onto the back of the Vespa, and we zip past the lumbering coach. This is what I’ve always loved about a scooter — the efficiency, the freedom, the slightly rebellious and dangerous feeling that comes from darting around a city on two wheels.
We drive along the outside of the thick, ancient city wall that rises more than 30 feet above the modern road and park outside the main gate of the Via Appia. Wandering down the road, our guide points out the wheel markings of chariots that once traveled from Rome to the Adriatic Coast along this route. I imagine the punishing journey — being jerked and jostled along uneven, bumpy roads long before the invention of shocks — and I’m grateful for my modern-day chariot.
We dash back toward downtown, waving and tooting our horns at fellow scooter riders, and weave through Testaccio, once a working-class neighborhood but now a trendy hot spot, where we pop into a cafe for a thimble-size espresso and biscotti.
Revived, we make our way toward the Great Synagogue of Rome. For the first time, we’re traveling along busy, multilane roads, and the kamikaze driving makes me glad that I’m not behind the handlebars. Romans drive as though they’re playing a video game: They’re fast and aggressive, taking turns as if they’re in Super Mario Kart — and the winner is the one reaching the next traffic light first.
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.
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.