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Italian job: my road trip on a Harley-Davidson

A two-wheeled tour of some of Italy’s greatest cities and prettiest landscapes

Look closely and you might still spot Audrey Hepburn on the back of a scooter in the centre of Rome. The star of the romantic comedy Roman Holiday regularly whizzes past the Colosseum with her co-star Gregory Peck, or rides on his Vespa to the Spanish Steps. The lookalike guides, who offer rides around the Eternal City on a 1950s scooter, even dress like the two characters from the Oscar-winning film. Holidaymakers swarm to have their photograph taken beside them, selfie sticks clashing like gladiators’ swords.

My hired Harley-Davidson looks enormous parked beside them. It may be equipped with a music system and lashings of chrome, but in Rome it simply can’t compete with the cachet of a simple scooter. The iconic American motorbike was designed for cruising the freeways of California, not weaving in and out of traffic on the cobbled streets of Italy.


Jeremy Taylor astride his Harley

And right now I’m melting faster than Hepburn’s gelato. Peck rode in a lightweight suit and tie on screen, but I’m overheating in my thick leather jacket and clunky boots. British riders aren’t used to these temperatures, or Italian car drivers who turn every journey into a chariot race.

Rome is just the start of my five-day, 500-mile self-guided ride through Italy, organised via Harley-Davidson Authorized Tours. The circular route will take me north up the coast road to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, then back via the sweeping bends and beautiful scenery of the Umbrian hills.

Hiring a Harley-Davidson for a riding holiday makes sense if you’re a fair-weather biker like me. A Harley costs up to £30,000 and the economics of owning one in a British climate don’t always add up, especially for occasional riders. The company’s tour programme provides travellers with a bike of their choice and dozens of route suggestions, mostly in warmer climes across Australasia, Africa, mainland Europe and the Americas.

The average age of a Harley owner is about 47 — which means the tours are popular with born-again bikers, riders who passed their test decades ago, only to return to the saddle in later life with disposable income. You don’t need a pointy beard, tattoo or oily bandana to qualify. It’s a 30-minute taxi ride from Fiumicino airport to the motorcycle store on the outskirts of Rome. Renting a motorbike is the same form-filling exercise as a car, except it pays to pack prudently. My Street-Glide Special is equipped with two deep side panniers, so I can decant clothes from my suitcase (which is stored at the dealership).


The Hotel Lungarno, Florence, with its splendid view of the Arno

If you grumble about potholes in Britain, Italy will leave you seething. All roads might lead to Rome, but even the main thoroughfares are riddled. My first big test is riding the Harley down a cobbled hill to Hotel d’Inghilterra. It’s deeply rutted and at the bottom I’m confronted by thousands of tourists, gathered around the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza de Spagna.

The next day I attempt my own two-wheeled tour of central Rome, but the city appears to be in a state of building upheaval, with roadworks foxing the bike’s satellite navigation system at almost every turn. The Harley is also too big to filter between traffic in the vibrant lanes around Via Condotti. In the end I admit defeat and set off to see the main sights on foot.

The next day, however, the heavyweight Harley comes into its own when I head north up the SS1 coast road. I barely clicked out of second gear in Rome, now the 1700cc engine is purring along.

The west coast north of Rome proves to be a mix of modest seaside towns such as Santa Marinella, and busy working ports such as Civitavecchia. Yet with the smell of the sea and the sound of gulls, I’m starting to enjoy this back road to Florence.

Lunch is in a roadside café by the Orbetello Lagoon nature reserve, before I turn inland to busy Grosseto. As I round a corner on the outskirts of town, a pack of 20 or so Harleys roars towards me from the opposite direction. As each rider passes, he lowers his left hand in the “motorcycle wave” of friendship. It’s a wonderful moment of camaraderie that has me grinning for miles — and how many times does that happen in a hire car?

Blackadder famously lamented: “Baldrick, to you the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people.” Florence may have been the birthplace of a historic cultural movement, but the road network is still stuck in the Middle Ages. The cobbled streets are more uneven than in Rome and rammed with tourists. Hotel Lungarno is right in the centre, by the edge of the Arno River. Dante once admired the Ponte Vecchio from here (though he probably arrived by horse). I struggle to locate the underground car park.

Florence overflows with beauty and is a perfect pitstop. I make a beeline, by foot, for the magnificent Uffizi art gallery, with its works by Leonardo, Botticelli and Michelangelo. Vasari’s jaw-dropping fresco of the Last Judgment fills the cupola of the cathedral — it’s a visual assault on the senses.

Leaving the city, I take the A1 south before turning east through Perugia and on to Gubbio, an ancient walled town in Umbria. Unlike Rome and Florence, the streets are clear and I check in to an old monastery, recently converted into the Park Hotel Ai Cappuccini. By now the Harley and crash helmet are splattered in dead flies. The doorman kindly offers to clean them off, then talks non-stop about Marlon Brando in The Wild One. I don’t have the heart to tell him Brando rode a Triumph in the film.


The Hotel d’Inghilterra, Rome

The ride to Rome covers the best scenery yet and traffic is light until I reach the city. At the Harley-Davidson store I realise I’ve forgotten that Italians take three-hour lunches, so my tour ends in a biker’s café next door waiting for staff to return, heat shimmering off my exhaust pipes.

Italy has great roads outside the big city centres, and Authorized Tours offers full back-up if the worst happens, such as a breakdown or an accident. Traffic jams are rare and the Italians love motorbikes, so your Harley goes down well wherever you ride. Not only that, but I didn’t get wet all week — just what a fair-weather biker like me craves.

Need to know
Jeremy Taylor was a guest of Harley-Davidson Authorized Tours (harley-davidson.com), which has Harley-Davidson motorcycle rental from Rome from £75 a day. BA has flights to Rome from £78. Hotel d’Inghilterra (niquesahotels.com) has doubles from £210; Hotel Lungarno (lungarnocollection.com) has doubles from £165; Park Hotel Ai Cappuccini (parkhotelaicappuccini.it) has doubles from £120.

Edward Thompson
Edward Thompson

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