The famous Italian director, Federico Fellini, was often known to frequent one of his favorite cafés, Canova, in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The hefty bar sits on the edge of the piazza, surveying the gaping hole below the Borghese gardens that circulates traffic, careening cocktail tables, and, of course, people. The recent influx of city cyclists—many more noticeable than even two years ago—has only exacerbated the mollified confusion that constitutes Rome’s atmosphere: bicycles seemingly surpass the number of bent-up fiats, and even scooters, the classic Italian mode of transportation.
This was my first observation on my most recent trip to Rome, one of the many musings of someone who has spent time away from a place they think they know well. I realized this inundating presence of casual city cyclists when I sat at Canova on a particularly warm day, drinking an Aperol spritz in the early afternoon sun while attempting to conjure the spirit of Fellini himself. I had recently finished my Masters degree at a university in the DC area where I taught film theory and history as part of an assistantship, and the existential ghost of Marcello Rubini from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita seemed to be purposefully haunting me: with no foreseeable or immediate employment, I felt adrift, floating, like I had no clear direction. At the time, there seemed no better reason to visit Rome—a place of reflection, of desire, of purpose—to decide what my next step would be.
It was during this nameless, blazing afternoon in June when I saw a young woman glide by on a turquoise cruiser, blonde hair and white dress billowing in the wind, with a coiffed gelato perched in her left hand. She navigated the chaotic traffic of the piazza with some kind of apathetic grace: such a scene was so iconic of Rome’s idealistic stereotypes, one might only be able to locate its equivalent in a scene from Roman Holiday—or, even La Dolce Vita.
Ah, yes—la dolce vita. The sweet life of the eternal city is easily romanticized, often to the point of exhaustion. This is one of the few things that expats and Romans alike can agree upon. But, such a scene laps up the many contradictions Rome presents. My extended time in Rome—first as a student, then as a partial resident—has only tightened the screws on my cynicism about the city, which survives on abstract rules and the sheer determination of its tourists. I often deride the sentimentalizing of scenes such as this, and my relationship with Rome has proven to be lovingly contemptuous. Thriving off of its historical drama, the revenue of overpriced cappuccinos, and the conflation of cigarette smoke and scooter debris, Rome seems to cackle at its amorous portrayals, swooping in from a distance like Nero’s ghost in the form of a crow. I’ve come to adopt this self-reflexive amusement, and can’t help but laugh deliciously when I see others idealize a city that I find so repulsive, but at the same time, so wondrously surprising.
Still, Rome’s invigoration of bicycles piqued my interest on this particular trip. I was with my mother, a nearly expert cyclist, who reiterated her desire to see Rome from the seat of a bicycle more than once just two days into our time together. The blowtorch heat of mid-June only made the thought of a leisurely excursion in the shady Pincio—the gardens of the Villa Borghese—that much more attractive. Our minds made up, we committed to renting bicycles from the shop down the street.
The route from our apartment to Borghese was a fairly straightforward, twenty-minute ride: after passing through Piazza Navona, it was up via Ripetta to Piazza del Popolo. From there, we would climb the brief hill to the Pincio, where the real riding would begin. Off we went with our half wits and precarious perseverance.
Four minutes into the ride proved to be less than straightforward. “Just follow me,” I yelled shakily back to my mother as we turned down the via of the bike shop onto a much larger street. Right, just follow me, I thought, as we brushed hairs with a large black van barreling towards us. I imagine that Cesar’s men felt the same sense of foreboding when they crossed the Rubicon, and my nerves clouded when I saw the blur of the corso, the busy street that runs from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia.
Like gelato and darkly clad Italian men, cobblestones tend to be an oft-romanticized component of the Italian picturesque. But in true Roman spirit, they demonstrated themselves to be the most threatening: gawking holes struck our wheels, and piles of stones assaulted us as we turned corners, making navigation impossible. The hollow sound of vehicle tires against cobblestone only amplified our anxiety as we headed towards Piazza del Popolo down via Ripetta. I quickly identified a woman in front of me navigating traffic and pedestrians as seamlessly as previous “gelato rider” (which I now took the liberty of calling her). Like a servile puppy, I followed graceful female rider number two down the via Ripetta, praying silently that my mother was still behind me—I was too afraid to turn my gaze from directly in front of me.
We arrived at the Piazza del Popolo once again, breathless from heat and anxiety. We rode by Canova, and I realized with muted incredulity what turns of fate had now put me in the bicycle seat, riding by Fellini’s old haunt. I exhaled, relieved to be looking up at the green of Borghese: the white-knuckle portion of our excursion—I thought—was over. We were now to be liberated in the serenity of the garden’s shade.
To be fair, our desire to ride to the garden was not unfounded: the view from the Pincio is one of the best in Rome. The dome of St. Peter’s looms in the background like a far-flung dream, quivering under the haze of the city’s heat. The palm trees drape like fingers of a manicured oasis, and the sound of water flowing from the fountains is enough to make you forget—even if just very briefly—about the raging mechanical gush of automobiles from below. But like every harsh mistress, Rome instructs that no reward can be sought with ease. The hill to the Pincio grew brutal, the heat from the sun as crushing as the acidic, jellied rush to our legs.
We were forced to dismount, and walked the bikes up the hill, arriving at the overlook in late afternoon heat, dizzied but relieved, living some ironic variation of Stockholm syndrome: the imagined, leisurely ride around the gardens now seemed like an extension of a current predicament rather than a democratic choice we had made hours earlier.
Still catching our breath, I bought us undersized, overpriced waters from the park stand. We drank them—the one respite from the heat—and laughed about our intrepid journey up the hill while listening to the sounds of screaming children romping in the grass, and the repetitive “no! no! no!” chants of couples fending off intrusive rose sellers. We finished off our waters with gusto, now only craving a Roman meal reserved for those who forayed through the centuries of the city’s streets on bicycles.
Our ride down the hill proved far less challenging, and we embraced the warm breeze on our faces. Only spending a total of two hours on the bikes, Sylvia at the rental shop refused to charge us for the whole day. “It’s too hot today for you to pay for the full day’s amount,” she said to me in Italian while smiling sweetly. I didn’t even try to process this non sequitur, but returned Sylvia’s smile and thanked her, hoping she would sense our gratitude.
Later, I sat on our terrace listening to the clang of evening bells. Still brushing dried salt crystals off my face, I realized I would welcome romanticizing this city to the point of exhaustion, like so many others have done. These abrasive contradictions and contrived scenes—as idealized as they are—keep us hungry for more. They beg for us to return, on a bicycle or otherwise.
Maybe, I thought, I should blame Fellini.
Arielle LaBrecque is a writer and editor living in the DC metro area. She received her MA in English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park, and received her BA in English from Michigan State University. You can find her at a lake in northern Michigan, a cafe in Rome, or attending to her lemon plant in her backyard while listening to NPR.