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Roman holiday short and sweet

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It's not exactly the stuff of gladiators, but cycling Rome will still get your adrenaline pumping.

You think skydiving is exciting?

Try riding a bike through Rome for four hours: With your kids.
“Roman motorists tend to think of pedestrian crossings as just another hurdle to be navigated,” said Roberto, our guide. “In other words, don’t expect them to stop … for anything.”

Roman motorists probably tend to think of cyclists as ‘another hurdle’, which may explain why we saw so few bicycles during the two days we were there. But with less than 48 hours in Rome, a bike tour made sense. Riding plugs you into a city’s arteries and its heartbeat. When those arteries get as clogged as Rome’s, two wheels keep you moving and come with a breeze — more than welcome in 35-degree heat.

We mounted cruiser bikes on Via Ostilia, a back street a couple of blocks from the Colosseum. A minute later we were pedalling past the most iconic symbol of the Roman
Empire. Over the course of six centuries, half a million people are estimated to have lost their lives fighting in the Colosseum. “Sometimes it would be flooded to stage water battles,” Roberto told us.

My mind wandered to Russell Crowe, gladiators, executions and exotic animal hunts.

“Wouldn’t it be great if they converted it into a soccer stadium,” said my son Ryan.

“Vancouver library looks like that,” said my daughter Emma.

Watching the hordes sweat in lineups to enter the Colosseum only made me happier to push on, following closely behind Roberto as he sailed past tour buses and taxis to Circus Maximus.

This used to be the largest man-made venue in the world. Where did everything go?

Considering it was the greatest arena ever built, once accommodating 330,000 people, Circus Maximus today is an anticlimax. Dog walkers and joggers use the greenery where chariots once thundered. The only evidence of the venue’s illustrious past is the spina, a raised median in the middle of what was once the racing track.

“Much of the Rome you see today was built with material looted from Circus Maximus,” said Roberto. “They say parts of Circus Maximus are all over the city.”

The venue between the Aventine and Palatine hills still serves as a useful meeting place for Romans. More than 700,000 of them gathered here to celebrate Italy’s soccer triumph in the 2006 World Cup. And those who weren’t there packed Campo dei Fiori, where we cycle a little later.

“It was chaos in here … anarchy” said Roberto, recalling the night Italy beat France on penalty kicks.

A few market vendors were quietly selling fish and veg in the piazza, which is fronted by bars and cafés. But it was easy to imagine several thousand soccer fans funnelling
through narrow surrounding streets and conquering the piazza for a night. And they didn’t have to go far to gloat. Just around the corner is Palazzo Farnese, 150 feet of
Roman Renaissance splendour and the home of the French embassy.

“There were a few hundred French fans gathered outside,” said Roberto. “They left pretty quietly afterwards.”

Nap time in Roma.

We refilled our water bottles from an antiquated cast-iron water fountain. You’ll find a municipal water fountain on almost every street corner in Rome. They all bear the initials SPQR, ‘Senatus Populas Que Romanus,’ or ‘the Senate and the People of Rome’. That’s if you can see past the graffiti, which taints almost every public space in
Rome. Thankfully graffiti is harder to spot in Piazza Navona, a square so beautiful cyclists tend to spontaneously dismount.

Emma walked off to watch sketch artists at work while the rest of us sat and gazed at the Fountain of the Four Rivers, Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Baroque Roman masterpiece. Four Gods frame the centrepiece of the fountain, the Obelisk of Domitian, which is crowned with a dove. They represent the Nile, Danube, Plate and Ganges, the world’s known major rivers in 1651 when Bernini created the landmark.

What little shade cast by the Obelisk had been taken so we admired the Gods, all sinew and marble menace, while cooling our wrists in the water. Moments later we were back on our bikes slaloming between pedestrians ambling through Piazza Navona. The more we cycled the more comfortable we became navigating traffic. Perhaps it’s the raised saddle of a cruiser bike, but we couldn’t help feeling somehow superior to the other tourists trudging along baked cobblestones.

Water fountains are everywhere in Rome. So is the graffitti.

We had no choice but to join them at the Trevi Fountain where, unable to carve out a cycle path, we parked our bikes with Roberto and walked. It’s probably fitting that
seemingly half the world’s tourists would besiege one of the world’s most famous fountains. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown in the fountain each day and anyone thinking of diving in to steal ready cash had better be prepared for a slow getaway.

It’s easy to see why so many people come: Almost 26 metres high and 20 metres wide, the Trevi Fountain is hard to ignore, especially with Neptune, God of the sea, taking centre stage on a chariot pulled by rampant horses. But it’s also hard to linger, surrounded by so many people, who probably all feel the same way.

Stopping for another drink might have been sensible thing to do. Roberto had other ideas. Not far from the chaos of the Trevi Fountain is Giolitti. In a city full of gelateries, Giolitti stands out for one simple reason. It has more than 100 flavours to choose from, and some of the recipes are almost a century old. The Coppa Giolitti, which combines chocolate ice cream, custard, chilled zabaione, and is topped with cream and hazelnut shavings, has been responsible for ice cream headaches since 1920.

For cyclists young and old, the restorative powers of ice cream cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes in flavours like Nutella, English Trifle, kiwi and Kit Kat.

Being North American we naturally chose to cram three flavours on top, since customers pay by the cone, not by the scoop. The gluttony delayed our progress by a full 15 minutes, but, according to Emma: “This is the best part of the tour.”

Second best might have been us cycling along the Tiber River, past the imposing cylindrical fortress Castel Sant’ Angelo and up Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Square.

So many confining streets, narrow alleyways and busy piazzas only serve to emphasize the vastness of St. Peter’s Square and the basilica. Amid the chaos of the tour buses,
the taxis and countless buzzing scooters, we drank from a water fountain and watched the world go by.

It may have been chaos, but it was beautiful chaos.

Visit for details about tours of Rome.

Hard to believe 5,000 tourists are two feet from Ryan and I.

Written by nevjudd

December 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Posted in Cycling, Italy, Rome

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