Adventure on a Bus, Rome

There’s much in Rome to fall in love with; its glorious ruins, majestic architecture, and sensuous cuisine being good places to start. I concede however, that it would be wholly impossible to do justice to Rome within the confines of a post on this humble blog, whose smattering of disinterested visitors tend to arrive here by accident, doubtless on the way to somewhere else far more their cup of tea. So I’ll begin by restricting myself to making brief mention of the spectacle of the forum at sunset, the revelation to me that was the elegant and timeless purity of the Pantheon, and a wondrous Tuscan restaurant, Il Buco Cipriano Nicola (a recommendation from Khan’s City Secrets of Rome) that serves the loveliest plates of antipasti and Parma ham.

I want to elaborate in more detail one particular aspect of Rome that charmed me a great deal, namely the city’s petite electric buses that scamper across chaotic piazzas and down winding side streets with the kind of tenacity and enthusiasm usually reserved for boisterous small dogs. Not an obvious highlight of Rome I’ll agree, being neither picturesque nor awe-inspiring, but one that seems very appropriate for present-day Rome; an appropriate solution to the modern problem of road traffic in an ancient and often serpentine city.

For those unfamiliar with Rome’s fleet of electric minibuses, try to imagine a bus so small that its footprint is barely larger than that of an average-sized family car. They can seat up to ten people on its poky seats, with more standing if required. These diminutive vehicles come into their own on the city’s labyrinthine, often undulating cobbled backstreets, helping to serve neighbourhoods that buses of a larger size could have no hope of reaching.

It must have been on the fourth day of our five-day stay in Rome that we took a ride on one of the city’s electric buses. Why am I so sure it was this? Because having the confidence to fathom out and tackle the more idiosyncratic features of a foreign city’s transport network doesn’t come easily to me. No, it has to be earned. First by walking about and familiarising myself with the geography of the alien place. After that comes a series of challenges: buying tickets for and plotting journeys on the buses and coaches rides plying tourist routes, metro trains and trams. Only once I have mastered the basics of a foreign city’s urban public transport system do I feel ready to attempt to use those of its aspects generally reserved for the infinitely more experienced local inhabitants.

So for argument’s sake let us say that on the fourth day of our break in Rome, Lizzy and I have felt bold enough to use the city’s electric minibuses. Our aim was simple: to get from one end of the Via del Corso at the Piazza Venezia, to the other end at the Piazza del Popolo, so that we could take a leisurely spring walk with fresh feet through the Borghese gardens. We’d brought our one Euro tickets from the newsagents in advance, and we had even gone so far as to check in at a small tourist information office on the Via del Corso, to ascertain the number of the bus we required.

So it was not with an entirely misplaced sense of confidence that we clambered on board our carriage (the 117) when it pulled up at its stop. Once on board however, it quickly became apparent to us the scale of the challenge we faced, for there were no route maps, digital displays, or announcements on the the bus in which we were travelling. For this journey, we’d have to rely on our senses of direction and observational skills to establish whether we’d arrived at our destination. All of which would have been (literally) straightforward, had we pursued a straight line down the Via del Corso. But the raison d’être of this bus was the thread its way through the backstreets of the city, perhaps in the hope of catching the Piazza del Popolo by surprise when it finally arrived there.

And so, it wasn’t long before our bus had turned right and immersed itself in the rabbit warren of backstreets leading off the Via del Corso. It’s clear to see that on streets such as these, Rome’s pint-sized electric buses come into their own. They’re quick and nimble, and are able to negotiate tight corners and narrow passing places with ease. The undulating cobbled streets do not appear to bother them either. Moreover, being practically silent, they’re also good at catching tourists unawares, who wrongly reason that it’s safe to consult one’s map in the middle of such out-of-the-way streets.

After a two or three corners and a couple of stops to pick up the occasional victim, we had lost all sense of direction, and all we could do now was hope that the Piazza del Popolo would magically appear from around some corner like some great theatrical reveal. But there seemed little hope of that. In fact, we were becoming increasingly of the notion that it wasn’t just us who were lost. By this stage there were five of us passengers on the bus: an elderly couple—wizened local specimens—who looked as bewildered as we felt, a camera-toting, cap-wearing American tourist who seemed genuinely terrified by the sudden and strange turn of events that his life was taking, and ourselves. From the expressions barked between the ancient locals and the driver, all was not well. “Destra, sinistra?” enquired the ageing gent. “Sinistra!” the driver barked back, as if it were obvious even to the most illiterate, ignorant tourist of Rome, prompting the old couple to depart hastily at the next stop.

But still we persisted, waiting in vain for the appearance of the Piazzo del Popolo. “I’m sure we’re going back the way we came” Lizzy whispered into my ear, and though deep down I was of the same inclination, a small part of me was stubbornly insistent that everything would turn out fine.

But it didn’t, because the next left-hand turn found us on the Via del Corso once more, but headed back in the direction we had come from, towards the Piazza Venezia! Panic ensued as we reached for the bell and shortly thereafter clambered hastily off our bus. And as it pulled away, we found ourselves confronted with the very same stop at which we had embarked five minutes earlier. All we had achieved from our adventure on one of Rome’s miniature electric buses was to cross to the other side of the street.