Definitely the most fun... Probably the most dangerous, but certainly the coolest mode of travel in Rome.
THIS is Rome! - A boy, a girl, a piazza, a fountain, an endless summer - and a scooter! What more could anyone ask?
When Brits hear the word 'scooter', the picture which usually pops up in our mind's eye is of the classic 1950's or early 60's Vespa or Lambretta - The ones the mods all rode, with those bulbous fairings over their rear wheels, half a dozen chrome wing-mirrors on long stalks arraying the front fairing, a fibreglass whiplash tank aerial with pennants flying from the tip, and fake bullet-hole stickers.
Every man for himself on the Lungotevere...No it's not a race, just a typical scene at any traffic-lights, as scooters and mopeds weave through to the front and jostle to be first away from the lights. Notice the unanimous non-observance of the zebra-crossing as a sacred pedestrian safety-zone. Italian drivers park, overtake on and generally ignore zebras, and traffic cops turn a blind eye.
(Click here to skip over a longish, boring intro about scooters in Britain, and instead get straight to the point about scooters in Rome.)
We see this in our mind's eye because these are the only scooters that Brits ever have seen.
In England, scooters were
just some quirky fashion which came and went in the sixties. In
the mid seventies they enjoyed a small revival among Northern
Soul afficianados, and again in the post-punk era of the late
seventies and early eighties, when The Who released their filmversion
of Quadrophenia, and bands like The Jam, the Merton Parkas and
Nine Below Zero echoed mod culture and music, a similar resurgence
of interest in scooters and all things mod was brought about.
In the nineties, Brits are again looking seriously at scooters,
though now this pursuit is cooler than ever, as scarcity of those
early sixties machines in good running order has pushed up the
prices to the effect of making them antique collector's pieces.
A '64 Lambretta is now a status symbol for fashion-conscious young
(and old) professionals who wish to wallow in retro-style.
There are two major national associations of scooter-owners in Great Britain which between them organise a number of annual events when scooter owners can get together and compare tiger-tails... I write all this merely to make the point that Britain has no contemporary scooter culture, but only regards the scooter as an object for nostalgic veneration.
However, (and that's a big however isn't it, and here's why):
The scooter situation in Italy, and Rome in particular, is completely different from that in England. Nobody rides a sixties Vespa or Lambretta anymore! And why not? Because they're all riding nineteen-nineties scooters, not sixties ones!
Yep, that's Hep! - (in all senses of the word). 50's style scooter chic in a still from 'Roman Holiday' But Italian scooters didn't stop evolving there.
Rome culture is a scooter culture because Romans have always ridden scooters, have never at any time stopped riding scooters, and will, for the foreseeable future continue to ride scooters evermore around their fabulously hip city.
Just before I clicked my camera, an old dear poked her head out of the shuttered window at top right - I'm sure you'll agree it would have made the perfect shot but the old biddy declined to make a second appearance so you'll just have to make do with this typical street-scene of red scooter, orange moped and brown walls but minus old Italian biddy instead.
Therefore, the scooter manufacturers, having such a steady demand for their wares in Italy, have never stopped making scooters, and the design of scooters has continued to develop in tandem with car design. Thus, British visitor to Rome, be prepared for a shock when you arrive, for the scooters of today that you will see in their thousands on the streets of Rome have evolved far beyond that bulbous fifties retro shape which you cherish so deeply in your mind's eye. (We do of course see some modern scooters in England, but their numbers are relatively few enough that we seldom notice them.)
Modern scooters come in all shapes and, yes, sizes.
Roman scooter in party mood
Swoopy aerodynamic fairings
and heavily over-styled paint jobs in loud pearlescent colours,
featuring the kind of patterns and strobe-stripes we in England
associate more with Formula One racing motorbikes, powerboats
or jet-skis. There's lots of moulded plastic sculpturing and 'air-intakes'.
It's all a bit naff really. As with most things Italian, there
is style but no taste. There are small, medium and large sized
scooters, ranging right up to machines like the mega-mutha Honda
Spazio which is the scooter equivalent of a stretch-limo.
Think about it; Girls can
get to the cinema on their own or ride with their own gang without
needing an older boy to take them. With such gender empowerment,
Italian girls can therefore demand a higher level of respect,
loyalty and entertainment-value from boyfriends, all in all adding
up to a nation of young people with a far more grown up attitude
towards dating and responsibility in romantic relationships than
their British counterparts.
And not just scooters; Equally
numerous on the streets of Rome are mopeds and motorcycles. Here
again the attitude is in complete contrast to that held in Britain,
where the moped has always been viewed as that shameful little
excuse for a gadget which sixteen-year-olds are doomed to ride
until they can pass a driving test, or as that which pensioners
who cannot afford a car have to ride: In Rome there is no such
stigma attached to moped ownership! It is a wonderfully classless
vehicle, on a par with cars such as the VW Beetle, Citroen 2CV,
or commonplace items like the Zippo cigarette lighter or Doc Marten
boots, all these things having acquired coolness, street-credibility
and thus respectability over the years, for the simple reason
they are cheap, cheerful,and peerlessly fulfill their original
design brief. Ownership of a moped is simply the most cost-effective
method of regular short-distance city commuting. Being a few inches
narrower than a scooter, it is also slightly better than the scooter
for weaving through traffic-jams. Most modern mopeds are actually
hybrid machines designed to look more like a scooter with large
Another reason for Roman indifference to being seen on something as lowly as a moped is that Romans are always impeccably turned out anyway.
Here he is boys and girls, Joe Cool himself. He'd have posed even harder for me if he'd had the slightest inkling that his face would soon be splashed across the Internet, you can be sure. Seriously though, there is a Rome-Look, and this guy has it: Sharp suit with low-key moped. Way to go...
Whilst the average British pleb is used to being anonymously hidden from close scrutiny by huddling in his car, unshaven and hair unwashed and probably wearing some hideous 'shell-suit', in stark contrast, the average Roman is fully bodily visible whilst riding their moped or scooter, and the climate being favourable, will be attired in a shirt and tie and well-tailored jacket, or for women, a smart business suit or some example of the latest street-wear that makes her look as if she's ridden her machine straight off the pages of Elle. The scruffiness or cheap simplicity of the moped or scooter acts as a contrasting backdrop to the elegant dresser astride it, and the bike takes on the role of a photographer's prop in a fashion shoot.
In Rome, cars are only for families, the old, the reclusive, the chauffer-driven, the unhip or those who can't afford to live in Central Rome. Cars are okay for a night out with the gang, or in winter when it's chilly. But if it's spring, autumn or summer and you're young free and single, when you hit Rome, get yourself a scoot!
These are most likely not Romans, but tourists on hired scoots - The crash-helmets area a no-no for true Romans, and also these guys look a little rigid in the saddle and their clothes are not real sharply cut. But one thing's certain, they're having a good time tearing down the Via Nazionale - Just think - it could be you next year...
If you're planning on spending a few months in Rome, you can pick up a clean used machine for under a thousand pounds. But even if you're only holidaying here for a week or two, you can hire a scoot for around twenty quid a day... Go for it!
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