When in Rome...

Renting and Riding: Rome, Italy

Editor's note: the following is not intended as a serious travel or motorcycle training guide, so if you follow our advice and hurt yourself it is your own fault. You have been warned.

Ah, Rome. The Eternal City is full of romance, history and plenty of traffic, so          if you're a motorcyclist, you might think it would make a lot of sense to see the city by scooter or motorcycle, avoiding legendary Roman traffic jams as well as maybe fulfilling some kind of Gregory Peck/Audrey Hepburn fantasy.

But where do you rent a scooter? Do you need to get an Italian license? How much will it cost? Is it dangerous? Do I need to speak Italian?

Relax; MO sent your trusty Senior Editor to Italy this summer to answer just these questions, taking a generous tax write-off to sweeten the deal. But before I went, I did a little research on our good friend Mr. Internet to see if I could glean some useful data. Is the Information Superhighway good for anything besides porn? And do I care?

Scooters. You're either with us or against us.A quick Google search of "Scooter Rental Rome" gives you a litany of choices, and most of them have prices and descriptions of their services on their websites. Having a scooter shop operator speak English is a plus, unless you speak Italian (note: learning Italian will save you a tremendous amount of trouble. I know it's not practical to learn a new language just for a short vacation, but you've been warned. In fact, you might want to even apply for Italian citizenship.), and it's easy to figure out who speaks English, as they have a web site in English.

I decided to go with Bici & Baci, a small rental shop near Rome's massive central train station. Owner Claudio Sarra not only speaks English that is far superior to my Italian (actually, there is a trained gorilla named "Guiseppe" in the Naples zoo that speaks better Italian than I do), he also answered the phone when I called him. This attention to detail and superior customer service made his shop an easy choice, so I made the reservations weeks before my trip.

Apparently there is something called an "International Driver's License", and it's very easy to get one. It's basically just a card that has a translation of your entire driver license's information on it in several languages, and not an official government document. I didn't bother getting one, and it was never an issue in Italy, although other countries might not be so laissez-faire . I hear the Germans tend to get pretty worked up over proper documentation.

Oh God it's that same monument again! Although Rome is a beautiful city drenched in history, culture, art and wonderful food, it is also hot and incredibly crowded in the summer. The Wife and I arrived late in June, when temperatures were over 100 degrees with high humidity, and the crowds and pollution were Pink Floyd-concert thick. It was so mobbed with tourists that some areas of the ancient city looked like refugee camps for people with cameras. Next time, we'll go in the winter or spring, or just kill ourselves in the train station rest room.

We navigated the surprisingly good (and unofficially free) Roman bus system (the subway is good too, but it mostly connects the business center of the city to the outlying suburbs) to the train station and found Claudio's tiny shop, which is located on a confusing side street that somehow manages to be one way in both directions (this is something you will understand only once you have been to Rome). It's crammed with scooters of all descriptions, along with tchotchkes, books and other scooter memorabilia.

That didn't keep them from outfitting us in matching helmets and getting us out on the street in a very short time. The mount was a Kymco Movie 125, although I had fantasies of getting a buzzy little high-performance two-stroker to zip around on. No dice: according to Claudio, the days of the two-stroke small-displacement scooter is quickly coming to an end in Rome, and the four-stroke 50 and 100cc scooters are too underpowered to carry passengers safely on the ancient, yet mean streets.

We make a left, a right, go down a block, make another right, and then it's a left, and then we can't go the direction we wanted to because of the bus lane, and then it's a one way the wrong direction, and then we go left, and then right, and then we're back at the giant hideous monument to King Emmanuelle for the third time in ten minutes.

Waiting on the grid to qualify... The Movie 125 is a very functional, solid scooter that isn't available in the USA. It uses an air-cooled 125cc four-stroke single to chug around town, providing ample power to get two adults through traffic and up the fabled seven hills of Rome. Top speed is probably around 50 mph, although this particular machine seemed happiest cruising around 30 or 40 mph. Comfort two-up was passable, and storage space was good; in addition to an underseat compartment big enough for one of our helmets, there was a locking storage box on the back to hold another one.

As versatile as this bike was, for two large adults I'd have preferred a bigger bike with better suspension. Rome has bumpy pavement, potholes big enough to roast a suckling pig in, and its cobblestones look picturesque, but will have you begging for mercy if you attack them at high speeds on a small-wheeled, overloaded scooter. A machine with bigger wheels, like the Kymco People or Piaggio Beverly (which Claudio also stocks), would be a better choice if your companion won't pilot two wheels of their own.

Surprisingly, I see more vintage Italian scooters in the USA than I did in Italy. I did spot this tasty old Lambretta. So we saddle up, strap on our open-face helmets (Claudio doesn't have any full-face helmets, so bring your own if you desire more protection or comfort than the inexpensive helmets he provides) and head down the alleyway to find our first stop, the Piaggio dealer on the north end of town where I need to pick up a Vespa test bike for another story. We make a left, a right, go down a block, make another right, and then it's a left, and then we can't go the direction we wanted to because of the bus lane, and then it's a one way the wrong direction, and then we go left, and then right, and then we're back at the giant hideous monument to King Emmanuelle for the third time in ten minutes.

Rome is confusing. Like many old cities, it was laid out by people building their houses wherever they wanted to, which would prompt other people to build onto their walls. As the city grew, various prelates, emperors and popes knocked streets and boulevards through various neighborhoods, clearing areas and building on top of others to build their palaces, churches and monuments. The result is a confusing array of alleys, squares and long boulevards that veer off in random directions and change names every other block. Knowing the names doesn't really help, as they are long and unpronounceable and the street signs are tastefully inscribed in small marble tablets attached 20 feet in the air on the side of buildings. It makes me wonder why American mailmen go berserk, when their Italian counterparts don't. They must drink a lot. It's expensive to buy European GPS maps, but if you have a portable GPS I heartily recommend getting one, unless you enjoy being lost somewhere where you don't speak the language.

Scooters make up about 20-30% of Rome's total traffic numbers, if not volume. Don't think your high school Spanish is going to help, even if you did manage a C+. It sure didn't help me. Using Spanish to communicate in Italy gets two responses. The first is a blank or puzzled look, and the second is a torrent of rapid Italian accompanied by even more rapid hand gesturing. A request for directions will usually draw several Romans over to join in the discussion, which will result in even more confusion. The best thing to do in this situation is to quietly slip away. Have a good map, have a GPS, and by all means, get yourself a working cell phone with the phone number of somebody who can speak English to talk you down.

Communication settled, let's discuss driving or riding in Rome. To the untrained eye, Roman traffic seems like some kind of full-sized flea circus, a chaotic mass of daredevils, stunt drivers and lunatics disguised as nuns, cab drivers and spike-heeled, scooter-riding fashion models. People ignore speed limits, stop signs, one-way street signs, curbs, and sometimes even the laws of physics themselves; how else can a pair of nuns on a 50cc Vespa pass a seasoned roadracer and motojournalist in a corner while carrying shopping bags?

Here's your sweaty, frustrated author trying to figure out where he is. Seriously, riding or driving is one of the few activities (I think shopping, cooking and eating are the others) that Italians take seriously.

When you are operating a motor vehicle, you wring every calorie of performance potential out of it, be it a Ferrari or a cement mixer. If you choose not to participate in the Grand Prix that is Italian traffic, you will be passed like the roadrace backmarker that you are. You have been warned. Therefore, if you do not feel extremely confident driving in high-speed urban commute traffic on a motorcycle or scooter, you might want to stop reading now and consider a trip to Bermuda. But if you do enjoy lane-splitting at 60mph, or weaving through traffic at high speeds in the rain, or just drink a lot of coffee, you will actually enjoy the experience. Here are some tips:

- Lane Splitting is good.

I think lane-splitting is much safer for motorcyclists than following the fat asses of cars in traffic jams is (California, the only state where it is legal, has the same number of crashes per registered motorcycle, but the mis-guided hysteria-crats and public in our fair nation have banned it outside my enlightened home state.) In Italy, if you don't do it you are looked at like a vegetarian in Texas. To "lane split" in Italy means to just go to the front of the traffic queue, as long as there is     any room, anywhere. Ride on the double yellow line, ride in between traffic and parked cars, get an inch from the bus or street cars, hell, ride on the sidewalk or through the park. Nobody seems to care. Whee!

- Traffic laws are just words on paper somewhere, and lines on the road are just paint.

I know I saw police in Rome, and they have very stylish uniforms, but they don't seem to do much traffic enforcement. Perhaps their institutional will has been worn down after eons of utter disregard for traffic laws, so like a battered spouse, they serve as enablers for miscreant motorists. Whatever the reason, go with it! One-way street? I recommend only going one way at a time. When a sign says "No Motor Vehicles" (although it could also read "No Pizza after 11:30", or "No Neo-Cubism in Green Zones" for all I know), just pretend you didn't see it and hum something from Quadrophenia if anybody tries to stop you.

- Being passed by anybody in or on anything is a direct affront to your man or womanhood.

"Get off the bus, Gus!" Go for it, brothers and sisters! Scooters are good for reckless driving, as they are light, unlikely to break the tire loose under acceleration, and are less likely to accelerate to tourist-killing speeds on city streets. They are also slim and maneuverable, which means you can zip in and out of tight spots that cars and larger two-wheeled vehicles can't. So haul ass!

Scooters, as silly and effeminate as they may appear to some of our less-enlightened readers, are supremely evolved urban transportation tools, which means they are not just fun but incredibly practical as well. With a scooter, a determined couple of tourists can see much of Rome while avoiding the inconvenience of parking or waiting for a tour group. With a scooter, you can discover the tiny, picturesque neighborhoods, markets and restaurants that are off the beaten path in addition to seeing the more popular destinations.

Having your own cheap, dependable transportation in Italy will help you get out and about, and off the beaten path.It is very satisfying to be treated like a local when you are on vacation, and riding a scooter is perfect urban camouflage. Imagine sitting at a sidewalk café enjoying an espresso while you watch the sun set behind an ancient Roman ruin, a stylish motorscooter cooling on the sidewalk behind you. Did I mention you can park on the sidewalk? You can also park in alleys, public parks, or anywhere there's a sliver of room. Be smart about it and you will never have a problem parking your scooter, no matter how crowded your destination.

Just be sure you bring a map, a sense of adventure and plenty of courage. However, despite the initial intimidation, riding a scooter in Rome (or any large Italian city) will be memorable and a fun glimpse at how a different culture tackles urban transportation problems.

Bici & Baci is located at five Via del Viminale in Rome. They may be reached by phone by dialing 39 06 4828443, faxed at 39 06 48986162, or just emailed at [email protected].

They are in their office daily (well, they're supposed to be, anyway) every day from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m, GMT plus two, or nine hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time. Scooter rental prices vary by model, day and season, so be sure to visit their website at http://www.bicibaci.com/.

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