I recently vacationed to Italy, and while I was in Rome, I booked a guided tour of the city on a Vespa scooter. Having previously visited the bicycle-friendly city of Copenhagen and taken an amazing bike tour, I realized the best way to see a city is by using the most popular form of transportation. While Copenhagen was designed around the bicycle, Rome’s narrow cobblestone roads originate from, well, the Roman Empire. While horse-drawn chariots no longer run down Rome’s streets, they’ve given way to the Vespa, a modern chariot.
My girlfriend and I booked a 4-hour private tour with Scooteroma, a rental and tour agency based in Rome. Early on a Saturday morning before traffic began to clog Rome’s streets, we arrived at Scooteroma’s shop to meet our guide and pick out our scooter. We selected a shiny red 125cc modern Vespa with an automatic transmission, we were fitted for 3/4-shell helmets, we got a quick rundown on the bike and we were off, following our guide on a bright yellow Vespa down the cobblestone streets.
While I was initially a little nervous driving a motorcycle in a new city with its own unspoken traffic rules, my fears quickly yielded to the joy that comes with scootering. From a combination of the fresh air hitting my face and my girlfriend holding on tightly as I piloted the buzzing Vespa down the narrow historic streets, I got a sublime joy from taking it all in.
Our tour took us all over Rome in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. While we mostly walked during our trip and took taxis when our aching feet couldn’t take it anymore, the ease of the Vespa with our guide helped unlock the mysteries of The Eternal City.
One of the most interesting sights on our tour was riding on the Via Appia, or Appian Way. Via Appia is the oldest highway in the world, constructed in 312 BC. Think of it akin to U.S. Route 1 — except over 2,000 years older. While U.S. Route 1 was America’s first interstate highway connecting the East Coast from Key West, Florida, to the Canadian border, Via Appia originated from Rome and extended to Brindisi on the southeastern coast of Italy. It served as a militarily strategic road, providing Rome with soldiers and supplies from other parts of the Roman Empire. Constructed of tightly fit pieces of large stone, this road provided a direct route to Rome, culminating at Rome’s south entrance: Portia San Sebastiano, a gateway through the formerly fortified Aurelian wall. It’s the origin of the phrase, "All roads lead to Rome."
Speeding around the Coliseum with the wind hitting my face, it was hard not to marvel at the colossal scale and age of the still-standing structure. I was impressed by the stoic presence of the ancient buildings and the roads laden with history. While these roads once carried Emperors, their presence today is a testament to masterful Roman civic engineering. Driving the Vespa, I could feel the age of The Eternal City around me — and I could almost picture myself trading the scooter for a chariot and racing around the Circo Massimo, a NASCAR-meets-death-race style track.
In my opinion, the Vespa is Italy’s greatest contribution to 20th century transportation design. It is easy to operate and inexpensive to maintain — and while it was designed out of necessity, in typical Italian fashion, it is stylish. Although the Vespa enjoys global popularity, Italy remains Vespa’s largest market. After taking one for a spin through the streets of Rome, up hills and through alleys I wouldn’t dare to in an automobile, I understand why. As the saying goes: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.