Romans complain insistently about the buses. They are late, they are crowded, they are unreliable. For a New Yorker, the biggest lesson to learn was that Roman buses don’t stop at every other corner; rather, they can take you half a mile past your destination should you inadvertently miss your stop. But because our apartment is northeast of centro and a solid ten-minute walk from Metro stations in either direction, we have basically lived our Roman lives on buses. I take some pride in having mastered the system.
In many ways, it is a very efficient system. Each stop is clearly marked; the signs provide lists of all the buses that stop there and, miraculously, lists of every stop each bus makes. You can quickly and easily determine whether any given bus will take you where you want to go, and what the two or three stops before yours are, so you can be on the alert. The posture of choice at bus stops is looking up, neck craned, reading the route signs.
The buses (and trams–huge, glorious vehicles) pretty much blanket the city. They will get your anywhere you want to go. The online site for ATAC, Rome’s transportation agency, helps you plan routes efficiently, and even Google Maps will tell you which bus you need and where you have to change. Buses can be crowded, especially in morning and evening rush hours, but seats open up regularly, and to me, riding a crowded bus and watching the city go by is always preferable to riding a crowded Metro underground.
I will grant that the ticketing system is a bit mystifying. You can buy a 90-minute ticket for €1.50 (good for multiple buses but only one Metro ride), a daily ticket for €6, a weekly ticket for €24, or–for us, of course, the best bargain–a monthly ticket for €35. Once you have your ticket, you must validate it the first time you use it by inserting it into a little yellow box on the bus. (Using the Metro, where you need the ticket every time you ride, also validates it.) Once the ticket is validated, you need never do anything with it again. If you are caught riding the buses without a validated ticket, you are subject to a fine of €50 and, more importantly, humiliation in front of your fellow passengers. But we have been in Rome since February 14th, and we have never–not once–been asked to show our tickets. Presumably we could have ridden for these four months for free. But my sense is, remarkably, that Romans are mainly good citizens and do buy their tickets. I may be wrong.
Our apartment is just off of via Nomentana, the grand boulevard that runs from northeast Rome to the center, the Quirinale Palace, changing its name several times in the process. From our apartment, we have two bus options. We can turn right out of our gate and walk half a block to via Nomentana, or we can turn left out of our gate and walk about two blocks, over the top of a hill and down again, to Corso Trieste, a fashionable neighborhood shopping street. In either case, most buses run to one of two destinations. Some go to the great 1930s railroad station called Termini (not, my husband has just informed me, because it is the terminus or terminal for Rome’s rail system, but because it is located next to the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian–the Terme Dioclezione), and some go to Piazza Venezia, where stands the massive white monument–known as the wedding cake or the typewriter–to Vittorio Emanuele II. Both Termini and Piazza Venezia are capolinea–head of the line–for many of Rome’s buses, and from either place, you can pick up a bus (or from Termini a Metro) to almost anyplace else in the city you want to go.
On Nomentana, the 60 goes to Piazza Venezia, and the 60L, the 82, and the 90 all go to Termini. On Corso Trieste, the 80 and 80B go to Piazza Venezia; the 38 goes to Termini. On both streets, we have one or two other options as well. The 89, on Corso Trieste, takes us into the Villa Borghese, where we can walk uphill through Rome’s Central Park to the Galleria Borghese or the Rome zoo, or downhill (our preferred direction) to the Pincian hill, from which we can look out over Piazza del Popolo and most of the city of Rome. Also on Corso Trieste, we can pick up the 88, which runs east toward San Lorenzo, where John teaches, or stay on the 80 past Piazza Venezia and south to the Porta San Paolo, Piramide, and the cemetery for non-Catholics, where Keats and Shelley are buried. On via Nomentana, we can hop any bus and ride for two stops to Viale Regina Margherita, and there we can pick up the #3 tram directly to the university, or for a looping grand tour of the city all the way to San Giovanni in Laterano, then to the Colosseum, and finally to Piramide. It’s a great ride; we took most of it yesterday on a visit to the basilicas of San Giovanni and San Clemente.
The Nomentana buses run mostly straight down via Nomentana through Porta Pia, when it becomes via XX Settembre, and then turn east to Piazza Repubblica and thence either directly to Termini or south down via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia. Via Nazionale runs sharply downhill and is heavily trafficked, lined with pricey stores, cafes, and small hotels; looking out the front windshield of the bus you can see Trajan’s column looming at the bottom of the hill, in front of the great white whale of the Vittorio Emanuele monument.
The traffic moves fast. One day John was riding the 60 down via Nazionale when another bus pulled up parallel, both buses heading downhill at high speed, avoiding the flood of Smart cars, the scooters and cycles weaving in and out, the tourists in shorts and tank tops scampering across the multi-laned street whenever there was the slightest break. The driver of the other bus, ear buds in place, was clearly talking on his hands-free phone. But in Italy, talking is never hands-free. This driver was gesturing, fingers clutched together, palms up, in classic Italian conversation, neither hand on the wheel, and gazing skyward, presumably imploring the help of God in unraveling some unknown paradox. Whatever God’s role, everyone survived.
The Trieste buses take a more leisurely route to Piazza Venezia. The 80 and 80B (which we call the Bob, because that’s what the numbers look like as the bus approaches us at the stop) head along via Dalmatia, via Nizza, and a bit of the Corso D’Italia, then around the winding curves of the via Veneto–famously the setting for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita–and past the massive American Embassy to Piazza Barberini, with its gleaming Bernini fountain, into via Tritone. They follow Tritone past the tiny streets leading to the Trevi fountain, into Piazza Colonna and past the Palazzo Chigi, which houses the Italian Parliament, and finally along a bit of the via del Corso, which runs a straight shot from Piazza del Popolo in the northwest to Piazza Venezia in the southeast and is always packed with tourists.
And then there is 62. The 62 is one of a handful of bus lines mentioned in many guidebooks, because its route takes riders very close to many of Rome’s major tourist attractions–through Piazza della Repubblica, within easy walking distance of the Spanish steps, the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. It stops by Largo Argentina, one of those sunken ruins in the middle of Rome that tourists tend to walk blithely by, never stopping to read the sign that points to the steps where Julius Caesar was assassinated. And it runs all the way to the Vatican. The capolinea for the 62 is Piazza Bologna, a ten-minute walk from our apartment, and its second stop heading into the city is almost directly across Nomentana from us. Coming back from downtown, we can pick up the 62 anywhere along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, so it’s convenient for returning from some of our favorite haunts, like Campo de’ Fiori or the ghetto.
The 62 is like your first love. It will always be special to you, but it’s guaranteed to break your heart. My husband’s rule for the 62 is that it will come within minutes of when you arrive at the bus stop, or it will never come at all. It is the most erratic of buses. We have waited 45 minutes for it (once early in our stay, before we realized that we had other options if we walked a few blocks, and again later in our stay, when it was the only bus that took us anywhere near where we needed to get to for a dinner date; we ended up taking a taxi). We have sat in it at the capolinea, at Piazza Bologna, for 20 minutes, before the driver decided to return from his smoke and head off, just to avoid the 10-minute, mostly uphill walk home from the Metro. We have joined in little songs of frustration with other would-be 62 riders at bus stops downtown, bemoaning the lives of those who depend on the 62.
Heading to the Hotel de la Minerve for my birthday celebration last week, pulling a suitcase, we braved traffic and crossed Nomentana against the light to get to a 62 that was just pulling into the stop across the street. There was no doubt that the bus driver saw us. He had a red light and couldn’t move much beyond the stop. But he closed the doors and pulled up to the light, refusing to make eye contact with my husband as he pounded on the door and said, in his best Italian, that it was his wife’s birthday, and couldn’t he please let us on, per l’amor di Dio! We got lots of sympathetic looks from the passengers but none from the driver, and the doors remained closed.
John swore at the moment that he would never again ride the 62. (Just punishment, don’t you think, for that unpleasant driver?) Nevertheless, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it. It gets us closest to our home of any of the buses we ride. It picks us up downtown at all the places we are mostly likely to be (if and when it actually shows up). Like our neighborhood restaurant, Pepe Verde, the 62 has been part of our Roman adventure, and I will remember it forever.
Coda: Once again today we ran for the 62. This time, we started from about a block back as it pulled into the bus stop. John ran; I stumbled after him. The driver was closing the doors; he saw John and opened the back door back up. A young man sitting at the stop waiting for another bus caught my eye and, grinning, applauded, urging me on. The driver waited as I panted up to the door. We boarded. All is forgiven.