Swatting Wasps in Florence

Vespa parked with driver, Pienza, Italy
Italian Vespa riders turn city streets into a fashion show on wheels.
Vespa driver, Florence, Italy
Pedestrians beware: These buzzing bikes dart with abandon through Italy's streets (and often sidewalks).
By Rick Steves

Italian good living may be a pleasurable assault on the senses. But stepping out of the cafe and back into the streets, with my friends Roberto and Manfredo, it's clear the Italian vita is not all dolce.

Manfredo hollers above the drone of the motorbikes, "What is yellow and black? It makes a buzz like a mosquito and flies more than 80 kilometers in one day — not too fast but with no problems."

I guess, "A bee…a honey bee?"

Manfredo says, "No. It looks the same but makes no honey. It is a wasp — vespa in Italian."

Florentine streets swarm with pesky Vespas: frail-looking motorscooters with small wheels, a flat floorboard big enough to rest your feet side by side, tall windshield, and a black seat long enough for two. As pedestrians slip gingerly by us on single-file sidewalks, the streets are teeming with motorcycles and Vespas.

As we skirt a construction site that takes up the sidewalk, a fearless Vespa passes a lumbering city bus, sending the three of us up against the scaffolding. A block later, tightroping between too-big buildings and bully traffic, Manfredo points to a line of 12-foot-tall doors. He says, "Long before the Vespa, Renaissance giants walked these streets."

At a stoplight, Manfredo says, "Before, we had too much traffic in Florence. We make a new law: No cars in the center. So today, we have traffic even worse...no cars, yes. But too many Vespas. In Florence, motor scooters are higher on the head [Roberto interprets: "per capita"] than anyplace. Vespa is easy parking, fast in town, easy repair, not expensive. In Italy the typical family dream is two cars and a Vespa. Fifty cc is normal in city — with 125 you can go to the top of Norway."

Vespas motorized Italy after the war. Like America's Model T, this was a revolution, bringing mobility to the working class. Anyone could afford one. Anyone could drive one. The signature photo of Italy in the 1950's, symbolizing the birth of a modern and prosperous Italy, is a suburban family of four packed onto their Vespa, taking a picnic basket to the beach. Back then, women usually sat sidesaddle, wearing a hat…and never driving. Surveying the street — a fashion show on wheels — it's clear those days are long gone.

Just as a Marine might throw himself on barbed wire to clear passage for his comrades, Roberto ventures bravely into the street. Sidestepping a couple on their motorbike, he beckons for me to cross — waving the palm of his hand down toward his knee as Italians do — saying, "Especially in Florence, the motorbike is independence. It is sexual power. To be modern, you must have a motorbike." But then, darting ahead of me, as he shoots his head and hands up in exasperation, yells, "Vespas! If I can, I want to kill anyone on a Vespa."