Ted Botha discovers the other way of seeing one of the world’s oldest cities – by bicycle. It’s healthy, cheap, and opens up a whole new world that few others get to see.
On the Piazza Mattei ten art students were painting the Fontana delle Tartarughe, a classic fountain sculpted in the 16th century. It was just them and me and Rome. It was a perfect moment in the center of the frenetically busy city, a moment that I hadn’t expected and one that I certainly wouldn’t have had without my bicycle.
For those who think that travel and a bicycle add up to touring the French countryside with a company like, say, Butterfield & Robinson, think again. There is a whole new adventure awaiting you that is more urban and more within reach – cycling the city.
My adventure in Rome happened by chance. The pension where I was staying on the Campo dei Fiori, which had nothing to recommend it besides its location near the Tiber, had a rickety old bicycle for guests to use. Guided by a friend who lived and cycled in Rome, I headed off.
A couple of rules worth following when two-wheeling in a new city: 1) Watch the local cyclists. How do they handle the cars? Is it acceptable to ride on sidewalks or go the wrong way up one-way streets? 2) Watch how cyclists behave in traffic. In Rome, I learned, if you push into a mass of cars on the Piazza della Republica – as crazy as it sounds – they usually let you in. 3) Try find back streets, where there is less traffic and you have more time to sightsee. In this way, quite unexpectedly, I stumbled on the Trevi Fountain at 8 a.m., when hardly anyone else was there. 4) Watch out for car doors opening unexpectedly. And, most of all, use your common sense.
Numerous cities across Europe, although Rome isn’t one of them, now offer bicycle-sharing schemes. Probably the most publicized of these was Paris, which started Vélib’ in 2007. Today tens of thousands of bicycles are for rent at almost 2,000 points around the French capital. The initial payment is dirt cheap – 5 Euros a week – although you have to return your bicycle to a stand within half an hour or pay a small fee every 30 minutes after that. You can immediately take out another one.
Lyon, Milan, Stockholm, London – they all have bicycle-sharing schemes – and New York has announced plans to introduce one by mid-July 2012. Even smaller cities, from Fribourg in Switzerland to Montpellier in France, have bikes parked right outside the railway station, ready to go on your arrival. If a city doesn’t have a sharing scheme, rent a bike from a cycling shop or from stands in the parks. (In Rome it costs an average of ten Euros a day.)
If the desire of any traveler is to have an experience to remember, cycling the Via Veneto or in front of the Spanish Steps will do it. You see much more than you would walking. You come across the unexpected – like the Fontana delle Tartarughe – and even the surprising. The wide banks of the Tiber, for instance, are unlike the Seine and go practically unused. You will have them to yourself. Even the thoroughfares of the Villa Borghese are relatively uncrowded.
A suggested route for any first timer: Start in the Jewish Quarter (after an unbeatable meal at Sora Margherita), head down Corso Vittorio Emmanuel, past the Piazza Venezia and Trajan’s Column, and go up to the Campidoglio for fantastic views across the Roman Forum. After whizzing down the hill, you will be at the Coliseum in about fifteen minutes, and ready for a coffee in the boho neighborhood of Monti.
After that, the rest of Rome lies ahead of you.