Brett Atkinson has a ball following Sophia around the Eternal City .
From the massive dome of St Peter's Basilica to the aptly named Colosseum, Rome has no shortage of grand attractions, but vintage Fiat 500 cars definitely don't make the list.
We'd first seen the iconic Italian super-compacts a few weeks earlier in Sicily, and even then I was concerned whether a middle-aged former rugby player could fit in the driver's seat. Barely reaching my armpit, a Fiat 500 looks more like a car you wear than a car you drive. A few weeks of main-lining gelati and Sicilian food had only magnified my concerns at being able to negotiate one around the storied streets of the Eternal City.
Fortified by straight-up espressos in a stand-up workers' cafe a few blocks south of the Colosseum, we meet Alvise Di Giulio, the owner of Rome 500 EXP, at his underground garage. Inside, it's an automotive lolly scramble, with a spectrum of different-coloured cars gleaming in the half-light. Maybe not hundreds and thousands, but there's at least 10 of the cars manufactured from 1957 to 1975, and still a timeless symbol of Italian retro cool. More than three million were sold, and Alvise explains there are still about 400,000 Fiat 500s on the road in Italy. For generations of Italians, the tiny cars are lovingly known as Fiat Cinquecentos, and Di Guilo's surprised to learn they were uniquely marketed in New Zealand as the Fiat Bambina.
Each of his cars has a suitably Roman name, and today he's behind the wheel of Sophia, a hot pink 1970 beauty. We're driving Trastevere, built in 1971, coloured an equally bright red, and named after Rome's bohemian neighbourhood on the left bank of the River Tiber. After a quick explanation of the car's air-con system — simply pull back the canvas sunroof — and the Fiat's rudimentary four-speed manual gearbox, he commands "Follow Me!" on his handy inter-car walkie-talkie and we're off into morning sunshine.
Inside the car, I'm surprised at the dimensions, and it really is an Italian design classic.
My knees aren't up around my chest, my head's not sticking out the sunroof like a giraffe being transported between safari parks, and despite Rome's spongiest brakes, gleaming little Trastevere is actually pretty easy to drive. Di Giulio issues concise directions via walkie-talkie, "Left! Right! Park here!", and we're soon exploring the city's streets on four compact wheels.
On the road, the affection Romans have for their beloved Cinquecentos soon becomes obvious. Trucks courteously leave us room at traffic lights, kids hang out the windows of school buses, and cool sunnies-wearing Alfa Romeo drivers grab quick smartphone shots when we're stationary.
"Welcome to Rome! You're the attraction now!" we hear over Di Giulio's scratchy mobile comms system.
Our route takes in the neighbourhoods south of the Colosseum, and Di Giulio's love for the little cars is matched by his knowledge of Roman history and culture. Above the sprawling ruins of Rome's Terme di Caracalla bathhouses, we learn the word Spa actually comes from the Latin abbreviation for "Sanus Per Aquam" ("Health through water"). After steering Sophia and Trastevere up the mansion-clad slopes of Aventine Hill, we're treated to the best views in town, the Vatican City and the Victor Emmanuel Monument both caught in the sunlight. On the hill's summit at Via di Santa Sabina, the crowds taking in the famous keyhole view of St Peter's soaring dome are distracted by our arrival, and our brightly-hued mini-convoy soon becomes a paparazzi focus for a global crew of tourists.
All the while, Di Giulio keeps up his thoroughly entertaining commentary of historical and cultural insights, and it feels like we're in a surprising remake of both The Italian Job and The Da Vinci Code. Di Giulio also brings his own cinematic touch to proceedings, producing a movie clapper board listing us as the stars of the show, himself as the cameraman, and the legendary Federico Fellini as director.
It all adds to the fun of the morning but even without Di Giulio's quirky additions, driving the little red car around one of the world's greatest cities is still a brilliant experience. Pulling confidently into a roadside service station, we fill up Trastevere's compact front-mounted fuel tank before following Di Giulio and Sophia on a couple of final thrilling laps of the Colosseum.
Smiles as broad as St Peter's Square linger well into the afternoon.
Qatar Airways flies from Auckland to Rome, via Doha, with return Economy Class fares from $1499.
Althea Inn in the up-and-coming Roman neighbourhood of Testaccio is an excellent value B&B.
Rome 500 EXP offer both self-drive or chauffeured tours, with after dark departures also available. Book in advance online for the best prices. From €170 (around NZ$300) for two people. Children under 12 are free.