Share the article
Table of Contents
Article by Steve Burgess and originally published in the December-April 2017-2018 edition of the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.
Cycling the eternal City seems a daunting prospect, with the city’s cobblestones, insane trafic and jumble of parked cars.
Roman travel has improved over the centuries. Once upon a time, you got from place to place by whipping the galley crew to row faster while a big dude beat time on a drum. But these days, most Romans prefer vehicles with internal combustion engines. As for me, I’m going back to the human-powered travel of the Ben-Hur era. Unlike Charlton Heston, I will get to wear a shirt and a helmet, I’ll be renting a bicycle.
Cycling the Eternal City seems a daunting prospect, with the city’s cobble- stones, insane traf c and a jumble of parked cars that look like they were deposited along the road by front-end loaders. But I consider myself a mighty centurion of the two-wheeled chariot. I’m sure I can pull this off. Veni, vidi, bici. I came, I saw, I biked.
I get my bike from local rental shop Bici & Baci on Via del Viminale. I consider biking to one of my favourite places, the Pyramid of Cestius and the adjoining cemetery, a serene garden of headstones and owers patrolled by well-fed stray cats, famous as the burial place of poets John Keats and Percy Shelley. But instead I opt for the Via Appia Antica, the ancient highway that led travellers and sometimes barbarian invaders—into and out of ancient Rome. Like Roman travel, Roman tourism has evolved there was a time when visiting for pizza and gelato involved swords and catapults.
First, though, coffee. One of my favourite cafés is located at the Capitoline Museums in Piazza del Campidoglio. On my way down Via Nazionale, I realize there’s a problem. Rather than a bicycle, I seem to have rented a washing machine. Thanks to the cobblestones, I am rattling and bouncing like a six-year- old who’s been chewing espresso beans.
The route to the Campidoglio takes me through Piazza Venezia, the same perilous roundabout Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn navigated via scooter in the classic Roman Holiday.
It looked like wacky fun when they did it. But they had a director who could yell “Cut!” Looking at that chaotic circle jammed with scooters, cars, tour buses, taxis and even horse-drawn carriages, I think I’d sooner do battle in the Colosseum arena armed with a pool noodle.
Luckily, Roman drivers are ready for anything—even a bouncing, weaving bicycle ridden by a guy whose look of terror resembles that of the stretcher-bearer trying to get off the racetrack before the chariots come around again. I manage to make it through and up to the café. That espresso works like a blood transfusion. I am ready to proceed.
My next problem has nothing to do with cycling, it’s just me. I have no sense of direction. I wonder if Carthaginian general Hannibal ever had to ask for directions. When, at last, I find the road leading to Via Appia Antica, it is narrow, long and lined with a stone wall that allows no escape. There are no bleached bones of other unlucky cyclists scattered along its length, but I imagine they clean those up. It seems I may end up at the cemetery after all, carried in feet first in a box.
Hugging the wall, I finally make it, past the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian and the Basilica di San Nicola in Carcere where the old road heads out into open country. There are a few bikes, more pedestrians and a lot of goats. Via Appia Antica is lined with tombs whose inscriptions tell stories of ancient Romans. I can’t read Latin, but surely at least a few of them say: “In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t rented that damn bike.” And me? Thanks to my Roman cycling experience, I have absorbed the true meaning of the Latin phrase, Gerunt in casside, Wear your helmet.