Tour de Roma

The guy handing us our bikes at Topbike rentals in Rome looked at our group, calculating the odds, and he seemed to give an unconscious shake of the head… He was about 25 and looked like he could bike the Apenines without breaking a sweat. Our group was made up of fifty and sixty something retirees, empty nesters and grandparents who apparently did not appear to be regular cyclists. “Perhaps you would like the motorized bikes? Ha ha, I am only joking!” Others in the office laughed conspiriatorially, trying to appear like they knew he was teasing, but coming off as young and fit and somewhat concerned for our safety. The very people who stood to make money conducting our tour seemed to be trying to give us a way out! Maybe they were concerned that when several members of our group did not return, it would damage their reputation. I asked, “will you be our guide?” He paused, and then spoke rapidly in Italian to the girl in the office. They seemed to be disagreeing on something, and he seemed to be protesting; then I heard them say something about Simone, and he turned to me with a big smile on his face. “No, unfortunately I have another tour today. Simone will be your guide.” Reading between the lines, I sensed that Simone was late coming in, and had drawn the short straw. We were his penalty for being late. When Simone arrived, he too looked us up and down…. “You realize that this tour is over bumpy roads, yes?” we nodded. And you realize that you will be on the bike for 6 hours, over 40 kilometers, yes?” Our entire group put together had probably not been a bike six hours in the last 3 months combined, but we all said yes. Simone looked skeptical. “And you know the roads will be the cobblestone-ahs, yes?” as we nodded, he said, “we will go to the parking lot across the street and do the skills test, and learn the ways of the bicycle. Then we will go, ok?” Amazingly, we passed our skills test, emerged from our practice braking unbroken, and were able to proceed. Simone was possibly late thirties, maybe early forties, but he is a lean, tanned, good-looking man with attractive features and striking salt and pepper hair. Since he bikes 50 miles a day, his legs appear strong, tanned and muscular, unlike any other man’s legs displayed within the group he is guiding. Starting out, he seems thoughtful, but then I realize he seems to be doing more calculations than a CAD computer executing a 3d design. He suddenly announces that he knows a shortcut that will not only give us an amazing view of the City wall, but is flatter and shorter than his usual route. (for all we know, he has redirected us from riding through DaVinci’s front yard and is now taking us via an alleyway instead, but then he did use the magic words flatter and shorter). Having said that, he doesn’t really have to sell us on this idea. We begin, pedaling along at a leisurely pace. Today is May 1, National Workers’ Day, and because it is a holiday, light traffic conditions give him some options. I think he figures he will need them all to help us complete this bike tour on the Appian Way. Simone stops often to show us details and give us lessons on history and background of what we are seeing. (I’m not sure if he is really explaining something important or just giving us multiple opportunities to rest.) We seem to pedal forever, leaving the massive City wall behind, and after what feels like an eternity and the beginnings of saddle sores, we see a street sign that clearly says “Appian Way”. We are cheered by this until Simone says, “Ok. Now, we can begin.” I was thinking we were hopefully about halfway through until this, and checking my watch I realize we have only been gone about 25 minutes. This group of grandparents is game, though, and on we pedal. We do get to make a pit stop at the Catacombs of San Sebastian, and it is amazing to see the care and effort taken by folks to deal with the remains of loved ones. Uncertainty about eternal life is a powerful motivator, and we see signs of that effort displayed poignantly in the tombs of babies and children, extravagantly in the eternal dwellings of the wealthy. If I have learned one thing in Rome, it’s that even as it relates to eternal life, money is still considered as a means to an end. Or THE end, in this case… People have been hoping to buy or work their way into heaven for centuries, when all they need to do is discover Grace…
Our intrepid group remounts the bicycles, sobered now by viewing all those burial plots, and even more sobered by the cobblestone-ahs and the off-road alternative. After bumping along for awhile, we ask Simone how far we are from our wine and cheese stop. “Is not far. Ten minutes.” onward we ride. We hop curbs into dirt paths along the Way, or we bump and stutter over the ancient Roman road. To think that Paul and perhaps Timothy may have once walked this road! If they did, they were certainly more comfortable than we are on these bicycle seats! This change of pace does not daunt our group, although poor Buddy is stricken so badly with hay fever that his primary means of transport has become sneezing down forcibly to propel himself along by the force of the sneezes alone. We have a couple of accidents while negotiating terrain, and there are several bumps and bruises among our riders. After a scrape with some rocks, Cindi’s leg looks like it has been put through a meat grinder, but she is one tough cookie. The ladies help to clean up the blood, and Simone breaks out the first aid kit, and onward we go… As the lean, attractive guide helps to bandage Cindi’s wounds, I swear that some of our other ladies are calculating the risk-reward factor in crashing just so that Simone would have to bandage THEIR legs! We keep riding. “Ten minutes” has stretched into an hour, and still we pedal. Our reward is to see the amazing Roman aqueducts, which run alongside the Appian way. (There is even one that is still in use today! ) Seeing how people lived 2000 years ago is interesting. What is fascinating, though, is seeing how people live TODAY. For the Holiday, it seems that every family in Rome has come out to this park to cook out, to gather with friends and family. They have beaten down little patches of grass, parked under sections of the aqueduct, and filled every conceivable space with family and fellowship. There are impromptu soccer games, parents doting over their bambinos, women talking animatedly in small groups, small children running and playing, and people gathered for fellowship everywhere, as far as the eye can see. They are flying kites, playing pickle ball and bocce ball, smoking cigarettes, playing foot-ah ball, and enjoying being together. If we had wanted to get a glimpse of life in Rome, this is a perfect place to start. Simone tells us that if he were here by himself, he could just ask anyone cooking out and they would give him a sausage from the grill, but since there are nine of us, it would be too much to expect. We totally understand, but that doesn’t keep us from eyeing every grill with a bit of longing as we head towards our wine and cheese… As we dodge happy children at play, and pedal through family reunions and barbecues, one thing is clear: in Italy, the family is still alive and well! The entire park is a testament to multi-generational love, and to the resilience of Italy’s families. When we reach the farm, we are charmed by the ancient, rustic surroundings (the large building there is being renovated, and the signs illustrating the project say it was to be finished in 2011. It looks barely started: Italy!), and we enjoy the hospitality there. Buddy is still suffering, but he’s a fighter, and coming back; Cindi is bandaged but chipper. I am so impressed with our group’s toughness and spirit. There at the farm, our hostess Anna shows us how they make cheese, and we drink our wine. We are given some fava beans to try, and Simone says that should help us on the way home by providing us with some gas-powered jet propulsion! A family group connected to the farm somehow is sitting nearby, having a private cookout as well. They are grilling lamb, and we are famished. As lovely as our wine, bread, and cheese are, that lamb smells GOOD! When we compliment the cook on the aroma, he says something to his party, and then brings our battered little band of bikers a few slices of freshly grilled lamb. It gives us true refreshment– not just from the protein in the meat, but from feasting on Italian generosity. We managed to complete our bike tour, and carry with us indelible images: The City wall, the sights along the way, the Catacombs, the aqueducts; for some, Simone’s tanned Italian good looks; and for all of us, the scene of thousands of Italian families living and loving, and the generous Italian spirit, and the satisfaction we got from spending seven hours bumping along the Appian way.

2 thoughts on “Tour de Roma

  1. I enjoyed reading your posts about the trip to Rome! You’re a skilled, entertaining writer. I laughed out loud at the image of my dad propelling himself on his bike with his gigantic, earth-shattering hay fever sneezes.
    Katherine (Echols) Deutsch
    Buddy and Susan’s daughter

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