In our new "People You Meet" series, Lonely Planet profiles people you should include in your travel plans, who will help you connect more deeply with the destination.
"Come and put your eye to this keyhole," entreated Alvise di Giulio, a dapper 50-something dressed head to toe in black, including a rather jaunty beret that seems more Parisian than Roman. But Roman he is, born and raised in the city, and, after a career spent working in the hotel industry, is now a charming and passionate tour guide who takes visitors to the city’s lesser-known corners.
There’s no trudging around on foot, or being bundled into a minivan here; no, his unusual tours are conducted in vintage Fiat Cinquecento cars, adding a touch of retro glamour to the proceedings.
"I owned one of these cars myself for nearly twenty years," he explained. "I would take my kids to school in it, go for drives, do errands, and every time I got behind the wheel, people would be staring, waving at me, even taking photos. I realized there was something special about this little Fiat model."
After doing some research, and finding that no one else in the city was operating professional tours this way, he thought it was the perfect way to combine his love for Rome with that for vintage Cinquecentos and set up his company in 2011.
"I had to start buying more cars," he explained. "Thankfully there is a very active market online, sparing me auctions or antique fairs, and I found several in very good condition. These little cars were manufactured between 1957 and 1975, but to me, they’re fairly young, only around 50 years old – my oldest is 53. The secret to their continuing success? Knowing excellent mechanics!"
Seeing Alvise’s Rome by vintage Fiat
We were standing by an unassuming dark green metal door, which is part of the Priory of the Knights of Malta (the religious order of crusading knights founded in the 11th century), which lines one side of the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, on Aventine Hill. I did as Alvise suggested and found my eye focusing in surprise on an incredible view: behind the door lie the Priory’s gardens, and, through a tunnel of manicured hedges, the sightline led directly to the perfectly-framed dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
It was so utterly unexpected that I laughed out loud, causing Alvise to smile, happy with a job well done.
But there was more to discover. "Now I’m taking you to see something rather unbelievable," Alvise’s voice crackled over the radio. "It’s the only Ancient Egyptian-style pyramid in Italy." What, really? However, as promised, we pulled up to a white, pointed, Carrera-marble-clad structure.
The Piramide di Caio Cestio was built as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, an important Roman official, between 18 and 12BC. Again, it’s something I had no idea was here, despite having visited the city several times before. But it seems Alvise always finds something new about his hometown, too.
"Every time I do a tour, I see Rome in a different light," he confided. "The seasons are different, the time of day is different – and I also discover new things, new places I’ve never seen before. I’m going on an exploration just as much as the guests are."
Alvise's fleet of vintage Fiats
After marveling at the pyramid, we returned to our respective vehicles. Alvise has ten of these iconic classic cars in his fleet, and I drove the sexy, bubblegum-pink, aptly-named Sophia Loren while Alvise led in front, communicating with me by walkie-talkie, in the dark red Campo di Fiori (they all have names associated with Rome).
Handling the 1960s gear stick, which protrudes upwards from the metal framework that makes up the car’s floor, is tricky at first, but when you meet before the tour, you get to do practice runs in the underground garage where they’re kept. And if you’re more used to an automatic car (or simply fear other Italian drivers), you can be Alvise’s, or one of his other guides’, passenger.
The thrill, however, really does come from driving the car yourself. As I followed Alvise around the Colosseum, the motor whirred like a primitive lawnmower as I threw Sophia into top gear. It’s exhilarating to spot other tourists, and even locals, stop and stare, pointing their phone cameras at us. No wonder the paparazzi were invented in Italy.
We pootled through Rome’s ancient, cobbled streets, engines revving, exhausts sputtering, bystanders gawping, and finally ascend to a wide, sweeping terrace at the top of Janiculum Hill (perhaps surprisingly, it’s not counted as one of Rome’s famous seven, as it lies outside the boundary of the most ancient parts of the city).
Exiting the cars, Alvise ushered me forward, where I could see dozens of Rome's most famous monuments, spread out below us: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the bright, chalk-white monument to Vittorio Emanuele II – the late afternoon sun picks out their facades, bathing them all in a spell-binding golden light.
"This spot is known as the Balcony of Rome," Alvise said.
No wonder; it felt as if we were on top of the world, never mind on top of the city. "We have a saying here," he told me, sagely, before I reluctantly clambered out of Sophia at the end of our revelatory drive. "One life is not enough to get to know Rome."
I’d say one Fiat Cinquecento tour isn’t, either.
The 7 Hidden Gems of Rome tour costs 370e/£330/$390 for up to four people; book via rome500exp.com or via email: email@example.com.