Cycling the Streets of Rome
Copyright © 1998 by C. Anderson
In early May of 1997 I bicycled from Brindisi to Pompei, and after three days at Campeggio Zeus, near the Porta Marina entrance to the ruins, I bicycled to Napoli (25km) and took the train to Roma. You have to find out which trains allow bikes — and then you usually have to yell at the conductor, flail your arms, and point to the bicycle logo on the train schedule. Then you load your own bike onto the baggage car, packs and all.
I arrived at Stazione Centrale Roma Termini on Saturday afternoon, May 10, 1997. After getting my fear of thieves in check I walked over to the tourist information window. It's out by the platforms. There was a short line and once at the window I was given a free map of Rome printed by McDonald's (seemingly the most popular tourist map in Rome). The woman working at the information window said I was brave to bicycle through Rome. Then she showed me a vague route through town and mentioned a bicycle path that would take me to the youth hostel at the north end of town, by the Olympic sports facilities.
I left the station without incident and rode across the huge six to eight lane streets north of the station, toward the Piazza della Repubblica, where there were hundreds of people taking part in a labor demonstration. It appeared too crowded for me to get through. I stopped and asked one of the several uniformed Carabinieri if I could get through the crowd. He said, "is no problem, just walk your bike." Then he asked where I was from and we shared niceties. He was as impressed as most people are when they see I am carrying four panniers, a tent, and a sleeping bag on my bike — and traveling more than just a few hundred miles.
I walked through the mob in the Piazza, remounted my bike and began making my way north along the west side of the Villa Boughese, a large, richly wooded park in north central Rome. I rode on park roads and paths as well as main roads and side streets. I got lost or disoriented a couple of times and either asked directions or consulted my McDonald's map. In this serendipitous manner I began to see the interesting sites of Rome.
I crossed the Tiber river on Corso Francia going north. Once across the river I turned west toward the youth hostel on one of Rome's main traffic arteries (Via del Foro Italico). If you can ride in traffic in a US city, you can do it in Rome. Remember, cyclists are sports heroes in Italia.
It was about 6 PM (18:00) when I got to the youth hostel. It was, of course, full and the desk clerk, a crotchety, round, balding, grey haired man, offered little help. When I asked him where else I might look, he gazed up and down at my bicycle and my belongings and said to try Camping Seven Hills, somewhere north on the highway.
"How far?" I asked.
Suggesting I go to Camping Seven Hills was bad advice. As it turned out there is another campground very close-by called Camping Flaminio. Noticing a bike path along the Tiber, I started riding back to the spot where I'd previously crossed the river. I was looking for the highway, Via Flaminia. I was beginning to feel anxiety over my lack of accommodations in this large City. While still riding along the bicycle path, adjacent to the Tiber river, I stopped and asked a nice looking, middle aged couple, who were on an evening bike ride, for their assistance — for directions. "Dov'è un campeggio?"
Before I knew it the husband had pulled out his cell phone and was calling information to get the number of the campground. He got the number for the other, closer campground, Camping Flamnio, and called them. No one answered. His wife and I, in the meantime were having a beautiful conversation with the few words we could both understand (in English and Italian). She has friends that once visited Colorado and was as curious about Colorado as I was about Rome.
The husband assured me that the campground was not far and to keep heading north. As we parted company they pointed to a nearby bridge with an ancient, weathered stone archway (Ponte Flaminio) and told me it was the oldest bridge in Rome. What kind, kind people. This was my introduction to the general sort of atmosphere and the kind of people I would meet while in Rome during my three day visit.
I turned north to look for the highway. Via Flaminia is one of the oldest routes in Europe. It goes north through Tuscany and Florence. I saw a side street that paralleled the highway (Flaminio North) and began riding up a hill. I spotted a small cafe bar and could not resist stopping for a quick cappuccino as I had become so accustomed to doing. I never drank coffee regularly until I got to the land of $1 cappuccinos — on every corner, served in less than a minute.
There were a few younger men there, including one who spoke pretty good English, so I began asking questions. These guys were very helpful. They assured me that the campground was only one or two kilometers north and drew me a map on a napkin (these kind of things make the best "souvenirs"). I noticed it was past the cocktail hour (it was approaching dusk), so I relaxed and had a couple of beers while enjoying the company of my new paisans. One of them was leaving the next day to fly to Colorado (synchronicity) on a temporary computer - telecommunications engineering assignment (that was my old field of expertise).
I stayed at Camping Flaminio one night. It cost 21,000 lira as opposed to 24,000 for the hostel - about $12.75 as opposed to $14.50. Camping Flaminio is typical of the major Italian campgrounds. There are large, clean toilet and shower facilities, an expensive camp store, and here there were two restaurants. One, the expensive ristorante, seemed quite popular with the locals. The other, where I ate, was a trattoria with pizza, sandwiches, beer, and a copy of USA Today. I did the crossword.
[FYI: There is a train and bus stop right next to the campground for easy access to the city, and an ATM right across the street.]
The next morning I headed back to the hostel and secured a space. The hostel is in a great location near the Tiber river bike path and only a mile north of the Piazza San Pietro - the Vatican.
I put away my things and prepared to see the city. I asked for advice from people working at the Ostello. The first fellow I asked said, "don't bike." Another warned me, "be sure and watch your bike - you are in Rome and someone will steal it just like that," as he snapped his finger. When I showed this last fellow my cable lock he thought it adequate - "just ALWAYS use it!"
I decided to bring one small pannier with me and take it off the bike to carry when I locked it up. This turned out to be all the precaution I needed. And I never thought about bicycle security or my own security again. I kept my money belt around my waist (passport - credit cards - traveler's checks). This didn't even seem necessary but I thought it safer than stashing that stuff at the hostel (I didn't have a padlock with me).
I headed north to St. Peter's, filled my water bottle at the fountain just inside the north gate to the square, locked my bike to a metal rail, and did what most people do in St. Peter's Square — I sat in the shade and watched people. Wow. Città del Vaticano and Saint Peter's Basilica. Yep, this was Rome all right.
Over the course of the next couple of days I rode my "bici" [BEE-chee] all over Rome. I got lost many times, but it was always a serendipitous blessing as I'd end up in some magnificent Piazza that I could then find on the map. Or I'd play "spot the American," approach them, and then ask if they knew where they were. By the second day I was finding my way around — my own way, but I could still get where I wanted to go.
Rome traffic was busy, fast and assertive (I wouldn't call it aggressive). The simplest way to explain how to ride in Rome traffic is — follow and mimic the Vespa riders.
It is easy to keep up with traffic. As you approach a red light do whatever it takes to get to the front of the line - with all the motorized Vespas. That includes crossing the double yellow line, or riding right on it, in order to pass everyone and get to the front. When the light turns green, sprint across the intersection and fade over to the right so the cars and other traffic can pass you. I never once felt threatened, got honked at, or even noticed an ounce of hostility. It's just fast and assertive. Rome drivers will NOT hit you.
And on a bike you get the best of both worlds. If you ride
assertively in traffic the Rome drivers seem to understand you better,
they can predict your actions. You are given the respect due any
other vehicle on the roadway. And then, since you are on a bike, if you
feel the need to you can go the wrong way down a one way street.
I'm not recommending the use of these one way (senso unico) detours all the time. There were just times when I was lost and the only thing I knew how to do was retrace my steps.
One evening - after dark - I attached my head light and tail light, jumped on the Tiber bike path (I don't know what it's really called), and rode into the streets around the town center where there are lots of pedestrian only districts (ride courteously). I went to the Trevi fountain and joined the crowd of Italians and tourists there. I was surprised at how good everyone looked. How can I say this right, . . . ummm . . . besides being the fashionable, beautiful people they are, I felt safe, comfortable . . . at home. I met and talked with total strangers, sometimes neither of us understanding a word. I locked my bike and never worried about it. There were many families (I noticed lots of baby strollers - perhaps a Roman baby boom?) and, as is the custom in Italy, elderly gentlemen, dressed in fine suits, taking an evening walk and chatting — slowly strolling along with hands clasped behind their backs, still waving in gesture.
I hope I've conveyed the feel of this city. I would not see Rome any other way after that experience. The only difficulty I can imagine would be riding with someone else. You have to make some fast decisions and know how to ride together — ride alike. Make sure you have a destination in case you happen to get separated. It was a breeze for me alone. It may take more work to keep track of each other.
I rode to St. Peter's square, to the Coliseum and the Forum, through all the major Piazza's, in the parks, and even back to the Centrale station once. There is a store in the basement that is the only store open at night (that means after 6PM) - 24 hours, I think. They had beer. Oh yeah, and food and stuff like that, too.
Riding in Rome is not like what I'd imagine it would be in Los Angeles or New York — more like San Francisco (without all the huge hills) or maybe Denver (near where I live).
On Tuesday morning I replaced my well worn chain with a Sedis ATB chain I'd found at a little bike shop in Pompei (an amazing find) and began cycling north towards Florence — three days across Tuscany. I saw "Campeggio Seven Hills," the campground that the crusty old hostel clerk had mentioned to me on my first night in Rome. It's about 10 kilometers north of town, on a smaller road, route 2, not Via Flaminia.