If a buddy asks you today where your next riding holiday will be, then I doubt many will be thinking of Rome. This ancient city is definitely worth a visit – but you’ll need more than a guidebook and Italian dictionary in your suitcase. We found out that bikes come in pretty handy too.
The extent of my knowledge about Rome mainly comes from Dan Brown, whose books piqued the interest of my teenage mind more than my monotonous, gray-haired history teacher. Looking back now, I was probably only there in body while my mind played in the woods with my bike.
Right now, I find myself in a similar state of lethargy after eight hours in Julian’s VW van. We’ve done several bike trips together – like the Czech Republic and Poland, as well as a weekend with E-MTBs in Austria’s Stubai Alps, so I’m fairly used to his passenger seat. This time our joint friend Naima has joined us, hoping to ride, explore the Eternal City, and get to know its nightlife.
Guidebooks are a thing of the past
Where are the best bars? Who can whip up the best pizza? These are the sorts of questions that a regular guidebook fails to answer. These call for local knowledge, so we turned to our buddy Giulio. Born, bred, and educated in Rome, Giulio has now wandered north of Verona, but is stoked to hear we’ll be visiting his old haunts.
Not quite how we imagined
The rain wakes us by hammering on the windowpanes of our hotel room, an unexpected welcome after a late arrival the night before. It comes as a brutal wake-up call. We hadn’t really considered the possibility of rain, as Rome is a place you picture with rose-tinted glasses: sunny, dry, and, well, Italian. But there’s no use moaning, we reason, and trundle down to meet Giulio in the hotel lobby. We’re clad in our bike kit, but instead of surfing trails today we’re going into the urban sprawl. We roll through narrow alleyways, past ice cream trailers and umbrella sellers. The cobbles are strangely reminiscent of the wet roots on my home trails, and it turns out that the guidebooks are right about one thing: the traffic is mad. Madly busy and chaotic. The cars are bumper to bumper in every street, and the Italians give an impressive demonstration of shared spaces – why shouldn’t you fit three lanes of traffic into two?
Cruise, cruise, cruise
We near the first official ‘sight’ of the day, and are thankful that the bad weather is keeping many of the tourists at bay. First up is Castel Sant’Angelo, then along the Tiber to another grand square, whose name now evades me. I’m unlikely to forget the hordes of tourists, who remind me of riot police tumbling out of vans (except for the fact that they had selfie sticks instead of weapons). They know exactly what they’re shooting. Click. Click. Duck lips. Peace fingers. Click. Click. After roughly a hundred photos (each, obviously), they disappear as quickly as they came. Mission complete. We keep to the peripheries, a slightly bemused expression on our faces. Is that how to explore a city these days? Seen through the screen with the sharpness slightly adjusted and a filter on hand to brighten up the view? Our eyes dart everywhere with curiosity. Giulio tells us about the history of each area before we move on. If Russian roulette isn’t on your agenda, then it’s a good idea to keep to side streets and follow the bike path along the river. However, once we hit the Coliseum, even we are unable to resist a quick photo on our smartphones. Social media has a big appetite.
The more uncomfortable, the better
One positive side effect of bike travel in global metropolises is that you’re sufficiently filled with adrenaline after cruising round all the sights, and therefore more than ready to hit the city’s diverse nightlife. Giulio’s guide credentials prove incredibly useful here, and he ducks in and out of all the coolest bars and restaurants in the Trastevere neighbourhood with the poise of someone who knows what’s hot. Over the course of the evening we discern that a good restaurant can usually be weeded out simply by looking at its neon signage (the brighter the better) and the interior standards (the more uninviting-looking the better).
And another thing…
Oh yes, there was something else: the real reason we came to Rome wasn’t just to cruise through the city checking out sights and indulging in tasty Italian cuisine (although we wouldn’t argue with those aims). We also had big plans for mountain biking, and we’d heard that Rome had some hidden gems. In the northeast of the city, there’s the Parco del Pineto, which has a select number of superb trails with constant steep, sharp ups and downs and brief, fairly easy routes. The faster we ride, the more fun we have. For more mellow riding, the Villa Pamphili’s park is a great, fun option, and if you’ve got a full day then it’s worth driving forty minutes out of town towards Monte Cavo in Castelli Romani, where you’ll be met by a widespread trail network with some super-fun tracks.
A long way home
There’s audible grumbling on the way home as the Italian motorway charges us € 53.20. Was the trip worth it? Eight hours and a lot of pennies for a stay in Rome? We rapidly begin comparing the trips we’ve taken together: the landscape in Austria’s Stubai Alps was definitely more enticing, the trails in Eastern Europe were far better, but Rome had something else. Exploring the city by bike had been unforgettable, and the same applies to the nightlife. So, would we go back? Hell, yeah!
How to get there
Rome has two airports, or there’s a really quick train from Milan, which has three.
Where to eat
Follow our neon light theory, or check out Pizzeria Ai Mari or Restaurant Da Felice – so popular that you should certainly make a reservation.
Where to find the best trails
This is where Strava comes in handy. There are lots of options in Parco del Pineto, so just take your pick once you’re riding.
The best time to go
All year round. The temperatures are ideal from March to November, although it’s wise to avoid the stifling heat in high summer.
Words & Photos: Christoph Bayer