A year of pandemic has stopped international – or really any – travel in its tracks. But the world will soon open up and maybe it’s time to plan something big. Here’s our take: Make it a trip to Rome, and amid the diversity of activities you’ll experience there, take in all things automotive, because it is different. Witness the endless sea of tiny city cars parked nose-to-tail – and sometimes backed at right angles to the curb – into impossibly small spots. See the many scooters and motorcycles passing by and the countless ones parked on sidewalks. Note the electric cars and motorcycles charging at street-side public chargers. In tourist-centric piazzas, appreciate the array of human-powered pedicabs with their lightweight, car-like bodies, perhaps the purest form of zero-emission vehicle.
My wife/photographer and I are into cars, travel, food, art, and wine. Italy is a natural since these interests are served up in abundance. In a pre-COVID trip there, we were set to view historic art in Florence, Milan, and Rome, and of course we would be documenting a variety of car-related activities. While we had a full and diverse itinerary planned, we were also looking for something distinctive in the way of a car experience to complement our Italian adventures. We’ve been to the Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati factories in Italy and also attended the Italian Grand Prix, all exciting subjects for words and images. But what’s next?
As if fate was calling, we overheard someone talking about his recent Rome tour in a vintage Fiat 500, and how this was the best part of his Italian vacation. Out came his iPhone, and he shared photos of his group traveling in a caravan tour around Rome, in a colorful collage of vintage Fiat 500s in pink, red, yellow, blue, and white, all piloted by tourists experiencing what appeared to be enormous fun while seeing the sights and in general having a blast. That was what we were looking for, so we booked a night tour with Rome 500 Experience to cap off our upcoming Italian immersion.
When the time came for our tour, we made our way to a commercial structure just a short distance from the Colosseum where Rome 500 Experience stores its colorful array of lovingly restored Fiat 500s. Here, we met up with Alvise Di Giulio, proprietor of this unique tour. His love of this iconic car is evident, the culmination of a decades-long Fiat Cinquecento (500) passion that found him personally owning many of these once-ubiquitous city cars produced between 1957 to 1975, before he decided to make a business of it.
Nearly four million copies of this diminutive city car were produced during its lifetime, powered by a 500 cc engine for most of its run and a 600 cc engine at the end. The Fiat 500’s small physical footprint and high fuel efficiency certainly qualifies it as vintage ‘green’ car in our book. Still, when presented with an array of colors to choose from, it was no 'green' car for us...we selected a red 500 as our ride.
We set off on our night drive knowing little of what to expect, but with a feeling this was going to be memorable. As owner of Rome 500 Experience and one of the tour’s driver-guides, Alvise is as well-versed on Rome’s history and rhythms as anyone we’ve encountered. His understanding of all there is to know about the Eternal City is impressive, as is his ability to get you around in ways that avoid the congestion inherent in any major urban area. We drove unencumbered streets in our little red Fiat 500 and, at times, were passengers while Alvise tooled around with an air of confidence and purpose that comes from having done this many, many times before, with great joy.
Though we’ve been to Rome before, we visited places we hadn’t seen previously. Of course, important touchstones like the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and St. Peter’s Square were on the tour’s drive-by and park-and-stop itinerary. But so were many historic places that were never on our list, like the ruins at Palatine Hill where Rome was founded, Piazza Navona, the Arch of Constantine, and of course many lesser-known courtyards and fountains of historic importance. Plus, there was the Castel Sant'Angelo, built in 123 BC as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum and later repurposed as a fortress. Many know it today as a scene of dramatic importance in Dan Brown’s film, Angels and Demons.
There were other interesting stops along the way, including a brief time at the Aventine Keyhole, located in an obscure green door at the Villa del Priorato di Malta on Aventine Hill. Peering through this keyhole, as tourists must, provided a view from our stance in Italy, through the grounds of the villa that’s the sovereign territory of Malta, and into Vatican City, the world’s smallest country. Here, we found the keyhole perfectly framing the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. Yes, very cool!
Another off-the-beaten stop was at the Bocca della Verita (“Mouth of Truth”), a marble mask with an obscure face and open mouth located in a portico at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, also at Aventine Hill. Visitors who stick their hand in that mouth had better be confident, since legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars. Truth be told…we didn't suffer that fate. It gained notoriety in modern times as Gregory Peck took the challenge in the company of Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday.
Finally, there was a stop at an unusual site in Rome, the Pyramid of Cestius, built from 18-12 BC as a tomb for magistrate Gaius Cestius. The pyramid was later incorporated into Rome’s Aurelian Walls that surround the city, built in 271-275 AD. Across the way from this pyramid and part of the wall is the dramatically illuminated San Paolo Gate flanked by imposing twin turrets.
Touring a world-class city at night is always an amazing experience. We've done this before in Paris, Washington DC, and New York, so we knew that doing this in Rome would be unforgettable. Monuments are illuminated and more dramatic, while places of interest are uncrowded. Doing a tour in a vintage Fiat 500, though, adds an extra dimension of fun. The car is iconic-cool and an important part of Italy’s automotive history, so it gets plenty of attention and thumbs-up from people you pass by on your drive.
One of the nice touches is that Alvise shares his passion for the city, its history, and his vintage cars in a most enthusiastic way. You just don’t get that from more traditional and structured tours. This is special, and Alvise – as well as all his driver-guides – ensures you see the excitement of Rome through his eyes, and his perspective.
We experienced a lot during our time in Italy, and as it turned out this was clearly one of the highlights. It was also the perfect ending for our adventures before boarding our Alitalia flight back to Los Angeles the next morning and our drive back to our headquarters on California’s Central Coast, reminiscent of Italy with its moderate Mediterranean climate.
We have fond memories of this tour and motoring around Rome’s ancient streets in a vintage car of historic importance. We liked it so much, in fact, we plan to return and partake in one of the Rome 500 Experience day tours, perhaps one that includes wine touring or a strategic stop for a sumptuous Italian meal.
La dolce vita!