Halima Ali clings on tight on a whistle-stop tour of the Italian capital
“This is how you can spot the tourists,” says Valerio, my Vespa tour guide, as he swiftly navigates around a family walking in the middle of a narrow cobbled street. “Tourists move to one side to let us pass, but Romans stay in the middle — they know I will go round them.”
It’s Good Friday and I’m in the Eternal City trying to do my best Roman Holiday-era Audrey Hepburn impression, and failing. But I don’t care. The air is crisp on this beautiful sunny day and the light bathing the buildings and walls is bringing out the warm hues of the city.
Rome looks spectacular today and on this very busy Easter weekend, we’re leaving the tourists behind as we steer clear of the Colosseum and set out to discover the lesser-known sights of the Italian capital.
After a brief stop at Piazza Venezia, where we learn more about the imposing marble monument Il Vittoriano overlooking the square, we make our way further out, passing the distinctive maritime pine trees surrounding Capitoline Hill. As we pick up speed and continue up the steep main road Valerio refers to as Clivo Palatino, I cling a little tighter to him before we stop and pause for breath on a bench overlooking what used to be the Circus Maximus.
Once the scene of dramatic chariot races, and able to accommodate more than 150,000 spectators, the site is now a public park. Though the green valley looks a little rough around the edges, with overgrown grass and patches of dirt resembling a race track, its history is easy to visualise as Valerio begins to paint a vivid picture of what went on here.
Riding to our next location, we wave at Valerio’s sister, who is leading a Segway tour on the other side of the road. My guide is dressed to perfection this morning in a tightly fitted navy trench coat, with Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses and a neat side parting — which he straightens with a comb pulled from his pocket. He refuses to wait at the back of the queue whenever we stop at traffic lights and expertly weaves through to the very front. Vespas rule the roads in Rome, he tells me.
As we move easily through the traffic, we discuss the effect of the recession, football (“Totti is my god,” he tells me), coffee (“espresso is my drug”), how to eat pasta properly (very simply, I’m informed, with just a little olive oil) and, of course, his first love — the Vespa he’s been riding since high school more than 20 years ago.
We stop at the gigantic Baths of Caracalla, which once hosted 1,600 bathers, then at the portion of the Via Appia accessible by bike. One of the earliest and strategically important Roman roads of the ancient republic, it spanned some 330 miles, extending from Rome to the port of Brindisi on the Adriatic coast, where boats left for Egypt, Greece and North Africa. It’s why we say all roads lead to Rome.
Here we climb the city walls for panoramic views of this city of four million inhabitants. We’re the only people at the top, and listening to the wind blow through the trees, it feels so tranquil here — a stark contrast to the city centre we’ve left behind.
After a quick refuel with coffee, cannoli and Roman bignè (custard filled pastry), we ride to our final location and take a walk through the picturesque Parco Savello — known as the orange garden — on Aventine Hill, which offers a breathtaking view of the River Tiber and cityscape.
On the way back to my hotel, we pass Valerio’s wife, who shouts “Ciao” and gives us a wave. “I feel like the luckiest man in the world,” says Valerio. “To me, this is not work, this is just a great day out.” With the sun beating down and the wind in my hair, I have to agree.
This blog was published on CountryByCountry