The film, the city and the car
The tiny, cult classic Fiat 500 appeared in many movies, but none as famous as Roman Holiday (1953). Shot entirely on location in Rome, Roman Holiday is the captivating fairy-tale romance of a runaway princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, falling in love with street-smart American newspaperman Gregory Peck. Peck’s photographer and accomplice Eddie Albert is the one who owns the film’s Fiat Topolino 500B.
Some history or how the Fiat500 came to be
When in 1933 Fiat Chairman Giovanni Agnelli invited designers from all divisions of the company to design a utilitarian car for 5000 lira, he never could have imagined that the iconic Fiat 500 (designed by Dante Giacosa and nicknamed Topolino, little mouse, thanks to front of the car’s similarity with the face of Mickey Mouse) and its successors, the 500 Nuova(1957), the historic Abarth (model 595 and 695 with a baby rear-engine) as well as the Giannini models, would seal Fiat’s 500 place in design history.
Even after almost 80 years in existence, or 60 years if you start to count from 1957 the Fiat 500 Nuova, the Fiat 500 still embodies the true spirit of Italian style. Who doesn’t dream of driving in a real vintage car through La Dolce Vita’s Rome? I can tell you from experience that driving in a sexy Fiat 500 is utterly exciting and fun.
A vintage Fiat500 tour with Rome as a gorgeous backdrop
Our Fiat 500 tour started about 200 meters from the Colosseum in a garage, where we received instructions on how to drive the car. There are two options available at the Rome 500 experience self drive or chauffeured with a driver. We clearly opted to drive ourselves in a guided convoy tour.
Our car was the fiercely yellow, sporty FIAT 500 L Abarth from 1971, called Marcello Mastroianni. No surprise there. The suave Italian actor Mastroianni was particularly fond of sport cars. The other party drove in the FIAT Berlina 500 F Via Veneto, a reference to Fellini’s 1960s Via Veneto, immortalised as the decadent heart of café society in the film La Dolce Vita.
I asked our guide Alexander to customise our tour to places a bit off the beaten track, outside the city centre. The first stop was Gianicolo (or Janiculum), the hill that has the best panoramic view of Rome. Every day since the year 1847, at exactly 12:00 hours, a special canon fires blanks. This daily event was initiated on the order of Pope Pius IX, who was annoyed that the church bells kept ringing at different times despite it being noon. To avoid confusion the pope introduced the custom of publicly announcing midday to set a standard time for all the bells of the Church of Rome to chime at the same time.
Driving in an Italian time machine has some pleasant side effects. People waving their arms in token of recognition, we were waving back of course, like celebrities, almost. At an obligatory stop before a traffic light I started to talk with a perfect stranger, driving in a Fiat 500 as well, about the niceties of driving vintage cars. And, there is lot’s picture taking too, wherever you drive. On Gianicolo square our little convoy of three Fiat 500s drew a lot of attention, with tourists making selfies in front of our cars.
Passing Leonardo Da vinci’s Roman house and the baroque jewel Fontana dell’Acqua Paola we stopped in front of Bramante’s Tempietto (or Little Temple), squeezed into the courtyard of the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio, the spot where St. Peter is rumoured to have been crucified. Unfortunately Bramante’s Tempietto was closed; but instead we witnessed a rather elegant wedding in the beautifully decorated church.
Off again to Monte Testaccio, Testaccio’s artificial mound and dumping ground, where the ancient Romans used to throw their broken pieces of pottery and fragments of amphorae. In the centuries that followed, grottos were dug and used as cellars and stables. Lately the area became a popular haunt for Roman night life lovers.
Sidestepping Rome at San Giovanni in Laterano
We made another notable stop at the immense Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, officially not Italian territory, but part of the sovereign Vatican State. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, the Basilica is dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the oldest of the four major papal basilicas in Rome, and used to be far more important in pecking order than St. Peter’s. The Basilica of St. John Lateran has been rebuilt several times, yet it was not until the latter part of the 17th century that the church took its present appearance, in a restoration carried out by architect Borromini.
Rome, by all means, Rome
When we drove past the Colosseum on our way back, it struck me that I felt in the same way as Audrey Hepburn (Princess Ann) did when asked which city on her tour she enjoyed most. “Rome, by all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.” On this tour you truly are the star of your own Roman Holiday, with Rome as a gorgeous backdrop. Highly recommended!
You can book the Classic FIAT 500 Tour via the Retrome.net website under experiences.