Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, January 24, 2011

A Scooter in/to Rome: Our Story

Bill on the Piaggio Hexagon, surveying the Futa, looking South 

It's been almost a decade since the idea of riding a scooter in Rome came into our heads--or, should I say, my head.  We had lived in the city for 6 months in 1993, and by 2001 we were taking shorter but regular trips.  Getting around efficiently--and stylishly--on a scooter had considerable appeal.  I thought it would be great fun.  Dianne knew the idea was insane, and she almost immediately announced what I'm sure she thought was an insurmountable barrier to my ambitions: she would consider a scooter, but only if I learned to ride one, officially--that is, only if I was certified to drive a motorcycle.  I had to have a motorcycle license. 

I had been on a scooter for two days 30 years before--the entirety of my experience--and I wondered if, at 59, I was too old to learn.  That summer,  I took a three-day motorcycle course:  on Friday, classroom instruction, focusing on safety, followed by a sleepless night, repeating in my head the complex, intimidating sequence of hand and foot actions (using both hands and the left foot) required to shift and downshift a cycle's gears; on Saturday, in a parking lot in the back of a derelict suburban shopping center, morning and afternoon sessions on a Honda 250: riding in ovals, turns, abrupt stops, "posting" while going over a piece of wood, figure 8's at agonizingly slow speed, hoping not to fall over; on Sunday, a parking lot driving exam (putting the bike down meant automatic failure) and a written exam.  I passed, and--the great benefit of this special program--earned my license.  But I had never had a motorcycle on the street.  (The following year, Dianne took the same course and earned her license - to her shock.)

Where could we find a scooter in Rome?  We could rent (see our previous post on Renting a Scooter in Rome), but that option seemed so expensive that we were unlikely to do it for more than a few days.  What happened next was pure serendipity.  I was teaching history at a state college near Buffalo and a colleague--native Italian, but a professor of Chinese history (let's call him Giovanni)--offered to "sell" us his Piaggio Hexagon, a heavy, powerful, 2-cycle machine (the kind that mixes oil with gasoline) that he was storing in Bologna, 250 miles north of Rome but also, coincidentally, a place we knew well; we had lived there for six months in 1993.

Because it's illegal for non-residents to "own" vehicles in Italy, our agreement was an unusual one: we paid $1400 and took informal ownership of the scooter; Giovanni remained the legal owner and agreed to be responsible for insuring the vehicle (at our cost).  He drafted a brief note, in Italian, granting us the right to use the machine as long as we did not do so under the influence of alcohol.  Giovanni gave me some basic advice about driving on Italian roads.

In Rome the following spring, we purchased helmets at one of the Porta Portese motorcycle shops, caught the train to Bologna, and found our way to the complex where the Piaggio was stored.  A friend of Giovanni's was waiting for us.  He started the scooter (we wouldn't have known how) and I, not wanting to put Dianne at risk until I had a little "practice," took it around the block--once.  After the three of us had a celebratory beer at a small cafe, Dianne took her place on that very soft and comfortable Piaggio back seat (the seat was comfortable; she wasn't), and off we went, pulling onto the busy multi-lane thoroughfare that circles Bologna's medieval core.  I think we were both anxious and tense, and I know I drove those first few miles in a posture of rigid determination, but we survived the first day.

With friends in Vado, ready for adventure
The following morning we ventured to a friend's house in Vado, in the mountains south of Bologna (photo at right), though how we got there--how we climbed those hills--I can't fathom.  Over the next three days we worked our way over the mountains and down the boot.  We survived the Futa (photo at top), a pass infamous for its dangerous curves, Dianne exhorting her driver to slow down and hug the shoulder.  When, even at that slow pace, this centaur crossed the center line and had to swerve to avoid an oncoming semi, the trucker blew his horn and wagged his finger.  Shame on me.

Dianne, in Vasari's loggia,
in Arezzo

We spent that night outside Firenze, totally psyched; the next  in Arezzo (an unplanned stop but necessary because of the cold rain), still psyched, celebrating our 2-wheel adventure in a romantic, wine bar below street level off Vasari's loggia (photo left).  Because of the limited storage space on our scooter, we carried our helmets everywhere (the "box" held underwear and toothbrushes and that was about it).  We stopped at Lake Trasimeno to track Hannibal's battle with the Roman legions, then turned west to the overlook at Montepulciano (yes, a glass of red wine) and the gardens of Iris Origo's La Foce before heading to a one-time luxrious hotel in hilltop Orvieto, where we got more practice in ascending and descending absurdly steep roads and parking our scooter in a real garage.  Then through medieval Viterbo and along the eastern ridges of volcanic lakes Bolsena, Vico, and Bracciano (amazing views, for Dianne only) to the outskirts of Rome, where in the late afternoon we found the frightening tangenziale (a fast-moving urban highway) and held ourselves together until we reached our exit and our destination: Piazza Bologna.  Minutes later, we asked a passer-by to take the picture below.    Bill

We felt like Hillary and Tenzing

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