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18th August 2005

Opinion: Roving in Rome

In an attempt to broaden our horizons, Jim Rendell reports on road conditions and traffic conventions in Italy's capital city. (We have to include the obvious quotation next, it's in the contract). When in Rome...

Typical Italian street, typical italian bikes.When in Rome... take great care! The streets of Rome are not paved with gold but granite setts about 120 mm cubed. There are advantages here, if the road needs to be dug up, then the setts are lifted, the work done, and the setts replaced. I would imagine that it was almost impossible to wear out a sett*.

The resulting surface is uneven to say the least and grip, when the rains fall, is limited. Generally the roads and footpaths are in a very poor state and, if compensation culture becomes endemic in Italy, then claimants will have a field day.

That fact does not deter the thousands of two wheelers which serve as the modern Romans' main means of transport. Scooters exceed motorcycles by a ratio of about twenty to one. Protective clothing, Italian style: Helmet, tracky bottoms and a pair of crutches.

Perhaps due to the rough surfaces, large wheeled scooters are popular and are represented by Scarabeos, Pantheons, Majestys, Libertys and Burgmans et al. Parking is wherever you can find room and most pavements are quite convenient.

It is strange to see the suits going to work with collar and tie and briefcase and the only concession to inclement weather being the donning of a small apron which attaches to the leg shields of the two wheeler.

Helmets seem to be universally worn but to what standards they meet is not certain and many appeared to be, shall we say, 'well used' and the fastening of chin straps seemed optional.

Protective clothing isn't popular. To ride on two wheels in Rome you need to understand the basic premise of use. Firstly you have right of way over everything including pedestrians on marked crossings. You need the ability to change lanes rapidly and the facility to swerve around other forms of stationery transport. Your position in society is at the front of every traffic stoppage and you may have to fight others for the privilege. You must be able to use a mobile phone, as its name implies, whilst mobile.

From a pedestrian's perspective the faint of heart should not venture forth. The pedestrian crossings are painted on the setts in white rectangles which seem to wear off quite quickly so the location of the crossings is not always obvious. There are no flashing beacons on the kerbside to confirm positions.

So look to the left and, if all is relatively clear, take that first hesitant step. If the roads are busy no one will stop unless you are on the crossing and in locomotion. Observe the four abreast cars coming unrelentingly towards you and notice the interspersed two wheelers. Each one is measuring your pedestrian pace and deciding whether they will avoid you from your rear or your front. One thing is patently clear! They ain't stopping…

Random matchless Stuff on

Note the presence of at least two scooters on the crossing...

Perhaps that is why at about ten minute intervals a wailing is heard and yet another ambulance hurtles by with blues flashing. You are not even safe on pedestrian crossings controlled by traffic lights; amber gambling is rife and the crossing rules are as previously described although in these circumstances the traffic does actually stop.

As a pedestrian you are also at risk on your right of way, the footpath. The Via de Corsa is one of the main streets and many of the side roads are blocked with raised kerbs and bollards to improve traffic flow. Should there be a dropped kerb not too far away from a chosen, but inaccessible, side road the done thing is to mount the pavement and drive along until you can access your road.

Where does the pavement end and the road begin? Who cares!

The presence of police in Rome is probably higher than in any other city. There seems to be one, or more, on every street corner. There are two main flavours, municipal police and carabiniere. Dress code is vaguely conventional but for traffic duty a white topee and gauntlets are mandatory. Smoking on duty, cigarettes, cigars or pipes seems in order and if you wish to do a little shopping then you carry your designer bag back to the station. Long hair is quite acceptable as are moustaches and beards and exchanging kisses with males and females on the streets seems quite ok.

Side-arms are worn but perhaps the most important accessory is the whistle. This is used in the most arbitrary of fashions and can convey anger or pleasure. Perhaps the strangest sight is to see a carabiniere, on a dark blue BMW twin, wearing jodhpurs and highly polished long leather horse riding boots, escorting VIPs, proceeding at high speed and blowing his whistle. Even stranger is to witness an unmarked police car in rapid transit. Two blue lights in the front grille and another pair at the rear. The key to the velocity is a lollipop shaped baton made of plywood and painted white. The head of the lollipop is bright blue. The driver holds this, out of the window, and aloft, and drives with one hand. The only explanation seemed to be that it was for smiting laggards who did not move out of the way quickly enough.

Is that a squirrel hiding under his hat?

But the stars are the municipal policemen on point duty. They are provided with a raised dais which they mount in style with gauntlets on and whistle firmly in place. They have the elegance of Nureyev and the passion of a Ferrari tifosi. With wide sweeping arms and elegant flowing gestures of the wrist and arm they hold court Inviting one car to come and stop here and another there and, after a suitable pause, set the play in motion with yet another flowing gesture and a blast from the whistle. Woe betide the cocky or pushy. A transgression is signified by the pointing of two fingers of the gloved hand towards the eyes and then at the miscreant. This gesture means 'I have seen what you have done and I am going to make you wait.' Quite fascinating and great entertainment for the tourists.

Motorcycling started at the time of the Caesars and irrefutable evidence can be found on a marble plaque at the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Coliseum). The Romans also invented golf and there is a report of an early tournament on the Arch of Titus which starts DIVOTUS etc

The sign of a spectacular Triumph...

Strangely enough, of the motorcycles I saw during just a brief visit, many were modern Triumphs with a mere sprinkling of Ducati, Moto Guzzi and a few Japanese. I didn't see one two wheeler more than about five years old but I did see some oil spots on the cobbles; they could have come from the chariots.

Rome, the Eternal City. It is arguable that Rome has more historic buildings and monuments than any other city it the world, it is a wondrous place There is so much to see and most of it can be accessed by walking with the proviso that calf muscles and feet suffer badly from the uneven cobblestones. Visit Rome in the relative comfort of a spring or autumn and, if you survive the traffic, you should have a majestic experience - just don't go on two wheels.

No story about Rome is complete without a picture of a furry Aprilia RSV1000

Real Mart visits Rome several times a year on business. Here's what he has to say about traversing the Italian capital:

The funny thing I've found about riding / driving in Rome is that the faster you go, the safer it gets. The Italian drivers around you will think nothing of you using all the lanes to take the racing line on a dual carriageway, but hesitate for a moment at a junction and all hell will break loose. Travelling flat out in a small Fiat will be applauded, while dawdling in a large Merc will see you pushed in to the gutter. Ride a red Italian vee-twin with a little flair and a lot of noise, and the traffic will part in front of you. Truly a country of petrol-heads.

*At RCHQ Bude, we think a 'sett' is where a badger lives. Jim surely can't be talking about the same thing… can he?

And another thing. Who knows where the 'when in Rome' quote came from, and what's the rest of it?



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