Take A Vespa To The Vatican

Scootering in Rome

Mostly the locals ride them. But when in Rome, renting a motor scooter can add an interesting twist to the standard sightseeing regimen. For about $40 a day, you gain the freedom to whiz straight to the tourist haunts like the Vatican museums and the Colosseum or detour in search of off-the-beaten-track piazzas and Renaissance palaces. Best of all, as any Roman can appreciate, you'll also look breathtakingly stylish in the process.

The ideal time to hit the road is on a Sunday morning, when the streets are empty and the city plunges back into its ancient silence, interrupted only by the chime of church bells. On the frenetic weekdays, you can get a piece of the action by cruising down ritzy Via Veneto, where celebrity-hungry paparazzi on boxy Vespa scooters chased film stars back in the 1960s. Or you can get access to the city center, which is open only to public transportation and resident vehicles during the day. Rome by night on a two-wheeler can be exceptionally scenic, especially around floodlit sites such as St. Peter's Square and the Roman Forum.

TRENDY TEENAGERS. The best spectacle of all is the scooter scene itself. Buzzing with half a million of the vehicles, Rome is the European capital of motorino riding. At every crossing, intrepid navigators narrowly miss colliding as they slalom through slow-moving traffic, invade sidewalks, and careen up and down one-way streets. Even the mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, zips around on one of those snazzy beetle-shaped scooters with glossy, cherry-red bodywork--the same type that trendy teenagers ride to school. You'll also see double-breasted businessmen steering larger models with one hand while holding a cellular phone in the other, or posh ladies in fur coats running red lights.

For the Italians, scooter riding is more than getting from point A to point B. It's about donning that slick motorino look: dark sunglasses, hair gel, and an attitude are some of the accessories you'll need. It's about bending the rules and getting away with it. (For example, two people aren't legally allowed to ride a scooter, but Rome police tolerate the practice.) It's also about people-watching. Younger riders spend hours perched on their parked two-wheelers as if they were sitting at a cafe, eyeing passersby, tanning, and periodically checking themselves out in the side mirror.

Negotiating the busy Roman streets may sound like a feat better left to hardened stuntmen, but handling a motorino is surprisingly easy. Just suspend your sense of fear and let the Hell's Angel in you take over. You don't need a license or special lessons to rent a scooter. A few tryouts in front of the rental store will suffice. Some centrally located outlets are Scoot-a-long at Via Cavour 302 (tel. 011 06-6780206); Motonoleggio Happy Rent at Piazza Esquilino 8 (011 06- 4818185), and St. Peter Moto at Via Fosse di Castello 7 (011 06-68804608).

Once you set out, the real test of mettle begins. Remember, moped riding in the city is thrilling but can also be dangerous. Although the machines hit a maximum speed of only 30 mph, about 5,000 scooter drivers are injured every year in road accidents, according to Rome police. Luigi Bonini, the owner of Scoot-a-long, says tourists "get a bit carried away," and most neglect to wear an all-important crash helmet, which can sometimes be rented. Most rental stores do not provide insurance for you or the scooter, and your gold credit card won't pay for collision damage, as it will for a rental car. You should check in advance with your health and automobile insurers to see if you'd be covered in an accident.

If you proceed slowly and keep a sharp lookout, driving a scooter can give you the kind of freedom and access that visitors trapped in air-conditioned, double-decker coaches can only imagine. "It was terrific. I was terrified, petrified," said Anna Stracke, a 40-year-old midwife from Guernsey in the Channel Islands who had just returned her rented bike. Stracke says scootering in Rome is "the kind of thing you see in the movies and have always wanted to do," but it's not for the faint of heart: "It's a jungle out there. You have to be on red alert all the time." Hey, you just have to take risks if you want to experience Rome as the Romans do.

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