La Dolce Vita: Bicycling in Rome

I like to ride a bicycle where ever I travel. Pedaling through the streets of foreign lands gives me the ability to explore unfamiliar territory from a different point of view.

And, of course, I can’t help but compare other cities to my home turf. As I recently discovered on a vacation visit to Rome – wondrous Rome! — with my husband, some still have a long way to go before they would be considered bicycling friendly.

When it comes to bicycling in Rome, I think the musician, artist and cycling advocate David Byrne put it best. In his book Bicycle Diaries, he calls the city “amazing on a bike” for the convenience of two wheels in circumnavigating traffic snarls and the ability to travel efficiently from one magnificent site to the next. But he quickly qualifies that appraisal with the following:

“It’s every-man-for-himself vibe hasn’t encouraged the creation of secure bike lanes…but if one accepts that reality, at least temporarily, and is careful, the experience is something to be recommended.”

Indeed, on our extensive walks around Rome, we only once encountered an on-street bike lane. Those who sped along in traffic that made even my hardened-New-Yorker husband wince seemed to possess some of the commando spirit that I associate with New York City cycling in the ‘80s. (Narrow back streets, farther removed from speeding traffic, were where I observed more relaxed riding on upright city bikes.) And despite media reports of a reboot, evidence that the city’s bike share program has encountered problems abides in empty and disused stations.

Still, Rome’s Mayor Ignazio Marino, who was elected in 2013, has expressed his commitment to sustainable transportation, including bicycling to help address urban congestion. Among Romans, who love their cars and motorcycles, his recent decisions to limit traffic on the roundabout at the Coliseum and to close the Via dei Fori Imperiali to non-essential vehicles, have been less than popular. “He wants everyone to ride a bicycle!” exclaimed one taxi driver, with a disdain usually reserved for discovery of something distasteful on the sole of a shoe.

Mindful of all this, we followed David Byrne’s advice to embrace La Dolce Vita – conservatively.  On the final day of our trip, we borrowed the two bicycles that our small hotel stocks for guests. The concierge seemed to hand over the black, three-speed city rides with a touch of trepidation.

Our traffic avoidance and safety strategy amounted to this: Ride early on a Saturday while most of the Eternal City still dozed. Our meandering and slightly unfocused route led  through the short, narrow streets of the Old Town (there’s no grid here; it’s the West Village writ large), past the Piazza Navona and across the Tiber.

At the Castel San Angelo, we observed road cyclists out for a spin on the cycle  and jogging path that runs along the quay. Then, one final peek at the Vatican before returning to our hotel.

After days of take-no-prisoners tourism by foot, pedaling across the basalt cobbles felt liberating. We were able to cover so much ground – and revisit a few favorite spots — in the short time that remained before we had to depart for the airport. In the golden light of the morning on a day that still spoke of summer, our breezy ride, with its layered hints of ancient beauty at every turn, became one of our most memorable experiences. As Byrne would say: “Something to be recommended.”

Photos: velojoy

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