When you’re newly arrived in Rome, after that long flight, part of you just wants to stay in your hotel bed and snooze.
The other part, of course, can’t wait to get out and explore one of the world’s most exciting cities.
Pete and I had no choice in the matter; we’d enrolled to go on a guided tour, “Rome in a Half Day with Electric Bikes.”
Which is why at 9 am, we’d walked across town, past the incredible sculptures and churches and piazzas and bustling craziness that is Rome, and were waiting outside a bicycle shop at the famed Circus Maximus.
“You here for the tour?” the bicycle shop proprietor asked us in halting English. We nodded, and he swiftly ducked into his shop and came out with bikes that were the right height.
Soon a tall, elegant young woman with long blonde hair had arrived. “I’m Monika, your guide,” she greeted us and another middle-aged couple from the US hovering shyly close by.
“Welcome to Rome. In the next few hours, you’re going to see more of this city than some people who live here have ever seen!” Monika flashed a dazzling smile.
She quickly showed us how to activate the bike’s engine when going uphill, and soon we were gliding through the ancient metropolis on our wheels.
I found myself goofily grinning as we went. It was just such fun, to be whizzing past the same stadium ancient Romans had raced on chariots.
“We’re between the Aventine Hill – the southernmost of Rome’s seven hills – and the Palatine Hill,” Monika, an art historian, halted us to explain.
Though she’d possibly delivered this spiel hundreds of times, she sounded as enthusiastic as if she’d only just stumbled on this knowledge herself.
After a small history lesson, she had us back on our bikes, heading up a steep road – but with the flick of a switch, we were zipping faster than lizards up a fence.
“This is the Giardino degli aranci – Orange Tree Garden- Monika halted at a beautiful little park with sweeping views of Rome below us.
“And now I’m going to show you a little secret.” She pointed at the St. Peter’s Basilica dome, which looked quite close – then led us through the park, closer to the dome, which, mysteriously, began to look way more distant. “An optical illusion,” she nodded.
Monika had other little secrets to divulge. She took us to an ancient monastery where we took turns peering through the keyhole, only to see: well I won’t tell you, just in case you ever do this tour!
After taking a few pictures, we found ourselves whizzing down to some of Rome’s most iconic landmarks: the Forum, Trevi Fountain, Campo de Fiori markets, Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and the Pantheon.
I had worried, when first signing up for this tour, that we would risk being bowled over by Roman traffic, but Monika knows the city like the back of her handlebars. She frequently took short cuts, leading us along ancient narrow streets, not wide enough for cars and charming to explore.
“Now we’re at the Pantheon. I’m going to let you have 15 minutes. Go get a coffee, or wander into this incredible building. I’ll mind the bikes,” said our friendly guide.
Pete and I found the nearest café and sat down for a quick espresso. There’d been so much to take in and the tour was giving us a delicious taste of what this exciting city has to offer.
I had been here before, with my mother, but that was 21 years earlier, so everything felt new to me, and it was Pete’s first visit.
The tour is not only a brilliant introduction to this great, mysterious and chaotic city, but the information we were getting from Monika added an extra depth and dimension that you just couldn’t get from a guide book.
Soon we were back on our bikes and whizzing past splendid windows of designer shops like Gucci, Pucci and Dolce e Gabbana, toward the Piazza Navona.
“There must be someone important going past,” Monika nodded as we saw a limousine rock up outside an embassy in the square, flanked by about 15 bulletproof cars with guards.
(We noted the cars were heading for the Brazilian embassy; no doubt security is tight since that country’s underwhelming leader allowed much of the Amazon to be torched.)
The distraction was a timely reminder that even while concentrating on the city’s ancient history, it’s foolhardy to ignore all the modern-day action around us: tourists gobbling gelato; locals squabbling loudly on mobile phones; fantastic street musicians performing on electric violins, street people motionless with their puppies outside high-end fashion stores.
Monika then explained to us how one of the sculpted figures in the piazza’s famous fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was giving the up-yours to the adjoining church. “Bernini didn’t like the architect Borromini who designed the church,” Monika told us. (Though I later read that the church was actually built later than the fountain.)
Monika then led us across the Tiber to the colourful Trastevere district, Rome’s famous food neighbourhood, pointing out more objects of fascination and beauty. Then we crossed the river again on the Ponte Cestio and Tibernia Island. Here she pointed out the ancient hospital and Jewish Ghetto on the east bank.
Her voice shook with emotion as she relayed how poorly the Jewish people had been treated in Italy.
Finally, it was time to return to Circus Maximus, hand back our bikes and say goodbye to Monika. We felt sorry it was over already. For me, the tour was a wonderful re-introduction to this vibrant treasure trove of historic monuments and lively inhabitants.
Having used electric bikes, we felt we’d burnt off some energy, but were by no means exhausted, as we readied to tuck into lunch at a locals café Monika recommended near the bike shop.
I strongly recommend this tour for anyone heading for Rome, whether you’re a regular visitor or a first-timer; and you only have to be moderately fit!
It costs $67 US per person.
For details go to: