Vespa Club of Chicago with Vespa Club Alpalgo in the beer tent.
With Vespa Club Alpalgo in the beer tent.

The Vespa first appeared in 1946, and was followed immediately by the formation of Vespa Clubs. By 1949, Italian local clubs had already united into the first national club. Within the next few years, most European countries had a national club. An international parade of Vespas at the 1954 Paris Folk Festival is now considered to be the first “Eurovespa,” though that name wasn’t used until 1957. When the independent Fédération Internationale des Vespa Clubs (FIV) was replaced with the Piaggio-driven Vespa World Club in 2007, Eurovespa was replaced by “Vespa World Days.”

Despite the name, Vespa World Days remained in Europe until 2022 when 37,768 Vespisti met in Bali, Indonesia. You’d think this record-setting attendance would convince Piaggio that dedicated scooterists would travel anywhere, and indeed the 2024 World Vespa Days was scheduled for Canada. Yet, with little notice, Piaggio suddenly lost interest in North America and doubled-down on Europe, canceling Canada and moving the 2024 world event to its hometown of Pontedera, Italy, to celebrate the company’s 140th anniversary, 100 years of its Pontedera factory, and 70 years since the first Paris event.

In 30 years of scootering, and 25+ years in VCOA, I’d never been to Vespa World Days. I was very disappointed about Canada being cancelled (especially since the VCOA had cancelled this year’s Amerivespa to support our northern neighbors), but I had to admit it was a compelling idea to visit the factory where my scooters were made decades ago. Traveling to Italy would be much more expensive than Canada, and there’d be no way to bring my own scooter. I convinced Chicago clubmates Chris and Sam that we needed to be there. After a few months of careful planning, we found ourselves on a 150mph+ train between Rome and Florence.

Parked outside
our apartment in Pisa

After unpacking, we walked to Florence Station Rental, where Yuri set us up with two Vespa Primavera 125s (me and Sam) and a GTS 300 (Chris). “All red! You will match!,” he laughed. He gave us a map and tips regarding routes, attractions, and the local laws. The scooters were all reasonably new,  though after we left we realized Sam’s taillight was out, and my Primavera had questionable alignment, probably thanks to some inexperienced tourists smashing it into something. Luckily, I’m used to battered vintage scooters, so it was no trouble, it felt luxurious to me.

We rode around the beautiful medieval town to see the Duomo and other landmarks. After getting split up and very lost, (“I’ll just circle around the block” does not work in Italy), we regrouped at the “Piazzale Michelangelo” hilltop park for an breathtaking view of the city at sunset, followed by asparagus risotto at Il Vegano Bistrot.

Riding in Florence (and other Italian cities) was exciting, but a bit intimidating. Certain areas are off-limits for non-resident traffic, lane-splitting is legal, and scooters outnumber cars. They’re everywhere, flying between cars and pedestrians at 30 km/h, a fraction of an inch from curbs, mirrors, and elbows. We brought our own helmets and full gear, stayed in formation, and were very careful, so we got along fine, but it scares me that a tourist without any experience would rent a scooter and try to ride around Florence (or worse, Rome or Naples) in a loaner half-helmet and sandals. Especially if they’d never navigated a roundabout.

Thursday morning, we set off for Pontedera, following Yuri’s suggested 2-hour scenic route through Vinci (can you guess what famous historical figure was born there?). The forecast was grim, and we saw rainclouds ahead, but the skies above us were beautiful. The roads were surprisingly smooth and well-maintained. More surprising was the lack of traffic. Once you’re a few km from a city center, the roads are wide open, with cars and Ducatis only occasionally passing by. Our northern route included some big climbs and descents, with epic views (and super-fit cyclists everywhere). Sam led us deftly from location to location, wearing her heavy frame pack and filming with a 360° camera mounted to her rear rack, while pointing out hazards and cracking jokes through our transmitters.

As we approached Pontedera, under cloudier skies, we started to encounter more and more organized groups of scooterists, sporting club banners. In the registration parking lot, patch and banner trading kicked into gear within seconds. People saw our Chicago banners and literally came running at us. We eventually got to the 40-minute registration line, where we got our credentials, chocolate, and several cans of “Chin8 Neri,” a Chinotto-orange flavored energy drink. I’m not an energy-drink guy, but I was feeling pretty tired, so I drank one, and it was darn good; sort of a carbonated, non-alcoholic, sweeter, milder Campari. I drank another, then packed the rest in my topbox for later.

We moved into the main parking area, where more scooterists descended on us looking to trade swag. We saw banners and met scooterists from just about everywhere. Several Latin American countries had come together as a team, with slick-looking matching jackets and banners. Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Philippines, Australia, and Hong Kong were all there. Africa has only two VWC members, but Morocco was there. (The other, Zanzibar, appears to be a lone Swiss ex-pat.) Europe was obviously well-represented, including seemingly all 622 of Italy’s local clubs.

By now, the rain was starting to fall, so we passed through the gates into the chain of tents featuring vendors, sponsors, food, and drinks. I was disappointed to not spot our friend Christiaan at the Pinasco booth, but he came running up a few minutes later and took us back to meet the staff, and talk a little about their support of our Slaughterhouse rally (wait until you see what they’re doing this year!), and the tuning work they’re doing, including a 220cc smallframe motor that piqued my interest. We picked up our rally bags and our t-shirts just moments before they inexplicably ran out of t-shirts.

We spotted a break in the rain, and scootered another 20km west to our rental in Pisa. It was a beautiful apartment on the edge of the city-center with ancient arched brick ceilings, remodeled with all the comforts (and “Live Laugh Love” wall decals) you’d expect of a modern Airbnb. We walked to the Leaning Tower to meet Zach and Tina from VespOhio for a fantastic late dinner at Pizzeria Il Montino: pizza, carbonara with guanciale, and Ichnusa Non-Filtrada, the new official Corsican beer partner of the Vespa Club of Chicago.

We ran into @holavespa along the road to Livorno

Overnight, the carbs, beer, jet lag and Chin8 Neri took their toll, and I slept until almost noon on Friday. With the most promising weather forecast of the weekend, we decided to completely skip the rally events and ride south along the coast through Livorno and Rosignano Solvay, to “Spiagge Bianche” (“White Beach”). The weather was perfect, and once again, there was hardly any traffic as we sped down the coast, honking and waving at other clubs. We met @holavespa from Munich at one vista, then stopped for a sandwich in Livorno… and got recommendations for an osteria on the way back.

At Spiagge Bianche

Spiagge Bianche lived up to its name, and we shot some great photos with windsurfers in the background. As we were getting ready to head back to the bikes, a large wave almost washed away our helmets. I grabbed them just in time, but back in the parking lot, we found that Sam’s keys were missing. She walked down to the beach to look, but Chris and I suspected she’d locked them in the seat. I rode back to town to buy tools to pick the seat lock, but by the time I reached the hardware store, they called to say the windsurfers had found Sam’s keys on the beach. Thankfully, that delay ate up just enough time to drop us back in Livorno just as the recommended oyster bar in Livorno, “L’ostricaio,” was set to open. I’m not much into seafood, but I had some delicious shrimp gnocchini, and gulped down one oyster for posterity, while Chris gobbled up everything in sight.

The ride home was a lot faster. Sam steered us away from the coast onto a very fast road through long tunnels. After convincing ourselves we hadn’t accidentally got on the Autostrada on 125cc scooters, we got back to Pisa in no time, and hit the sack.

D.C. and N.Y.C. await the parade

The morning brought more rain, but after some croissants and tea, we got back to Pontedera dry. We found the rest of Team U.S.A. in the parking lot and waited for the “Vespa Parade” to start at 10am. All of us had a Piaggio factory tour scheduled at 1pm, but we figured the parade would end in plenty of time. More and more scooterists filled the huge parking lot, and we traded more patches, banners, stickers, and cogs as we waited. Suddenly, three planes streamed through the clear skies, leaving a tricolor trail of smoke, and the ride started. We were immediately separated from the rest of the Americans. Thankfully, with our headsets, the three of us were able to stay together as the group got tied up in a roundabout just north of the town square. It was becoming apparent that the 8000 registrants had swelled to a much greater number. The streets of Pontedera filled with blue smoke. Helicopters and drones flew overhead and the entire population of the town lined the streets, cheering. As we passed with our legshield banners, almost everyone in the crowd would scream “CHICAGO” and frantically wave at us. It soon became apparent that the “parade” was actually a rather long ride out into the countryside and surrounding towns. At one point we climbed a hill and saw nothing but scooters for miles in both directions. The official count on the group ride was 15,000 Vespas!

We flew up and down hills, around curves, and through villages, high-fiving farmers, children and grandmothers yelling “CHICAAAGO!…” it was absolutely thrilling. Later, we learned that “Chicago!” means “I shit on it!” in Italian, but we were reassured that the spectators were genuinely excited to see riders from so far away, not making a vulgar joke. We arrived back at the Vespa Village three hours later, an hour after our scheduled tour. We were riding on a high of 2-stroke fumes, Chin8 Neri, and high-fives, but the glorious weather suddenly ended, replaced with thunderstorms. Everyone raced to the beer tents, singing along with the terrible music (almost all the music we heard in italy was unhip 80s American pop songs, melodramatic 80s Italian power ballads, or Italian covers of unhip 80s American pop songs.) Chris and I finally tracked down an Aperol Spritz, prepared by an 8-year old at a mobile bar converted from an old Piaggio Porter van.

Many clubs wear matching uniforms on Saturday. Here’s Vespa Club Strasbourg in their ostrich regalia!
With Team U.S.A. in the beer tent

We spent the afternoon hanging out with Kazuhiro-san and Croydon from Japan, and other old and new friends, and shot a Team U.S.A. group photo in our matching polo shirts in front of the floral display. (42 Americans attended, more than any previous World event!). Considering the food situation, Team Chicago decided to skip the Saturday night “gala” and head into the Pontedera town square, which turned out to be a good idea. The streets there were also filled with scooterists and we continued making friends and trading swag.

Pontedera Centro at sunset

The restaurants were packed, so we wandered off the main drag a bit and found a tiny pizza counter “La Gino” with a crowd of locals. We got in line and ascertained that the main attraction was farinata di ceci, aka cecìna, an Italian chickpea pancake, served with black pepper on a roll freshly-baked in a brick oven. The place had a very specific protocol and the matriarch running the place had little patience for our confusion, but it was wonderful; the cheapest, simplest, and best, meal of the trip. We rode back to Pisa, exhausted.

Sunday was another long day: we needed to ride back to Florence, return the scooters, and get to Rome for our early flights Monday. But first, we stopped for our scheduled 9am tour of the Piaggio Museum. Having seen so many photos over the years, I felt like I’d been there, but it was a bit bigger than expected, and it was exciting to see things like the giant P200 built for trade shows, Il Paperino, and the Sei Giorni racer in person. The museum also featured immaculate examples of nearly every model ever made. It was a treat to see our Chicago decal on the wall of club crests, which had grown over the weekend to fill the space behind the original display. 

We then rode a half-mile west to the factory, and were thankfully admitted to a tour there after following a high-tech cell-phone security protocol involving a paper bag and a small sticker to prevent us from taking photos. We boarded an electric train that took us through the GTS and 946 assembly lines. Seeing the place where my scooters were built many years ago was amazing. Today, some models are assembled in Vietnam, and I wondered if the “made in Vietnam” parts boxes stacked everywhere were perhaps why they didn’t want us taking photos.

In the parking lot, as we tried to gear up for our long ride to Florence, people kept approaching us, hoping to trade. Just as we got our helmets on, Joepaps and Illac from the Vespa Club of the Philippines came riding up. We talked about our common friends and traded the last of our swag. On the spot we decided to be “sister clubs” with a handshake and a photo.

Finally we headed off for Florence, on a different route that proved to be faster but equally scenic. It was also more comfortable, since Lisa and Carolyn from Minneapolis offered to take our luggage in their rental car and meet up later. We returned the scooters and had some fantastic ramen while we waited for the packs to arrive, then jumped on the fast train to Rome.

Sam found us a room near the station. I’d not seen Rome at all on the way in, so we walked to the Coliseum at nightfall, then to the Trevi fountain, where we had some gelato and a final Ichnusa before settling in at the “Ghandi” restaurant across the alley from our hotel. We fell asleep immediately, exhausted and full of pakora. dal makhani, and aloo paratha, with alarms set to make our early Monday flights back to Chicago.

Vespisti Linz in Pontedera Centro

This was an incredible experience that I’ll remember forever. Looking back at what I’ve written, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of everything we did, and everyone we met within a few short days.

A display of vintage postal Vespas in the Vespa Village

The rally as a whole was simultaneously a marvel of organization, and a total clusterfuck. The amount of planning involved is mind-boggling: tents, stages, lighting, vendors, signage, security, volunteers, uniforms. and even a huge flower display for photos. The entire town of Pontedera had banners and fairy lights everywhere, with huge Vespa sculptures, DJ stages, and bands playing. Occasionally we’d be surprised by things like the plane flyover, or circus performers, or a brass band appearing out of nowhere. On the negative side, the schedule was rather confusing with so much going on. The Saturday “dinner” situation was vague until the last minute, and not the banquet most people were expecting. It was frustrating that T-shirts were gone by Thursday afternoon, and I talked to some people who didn’t even get a patch in their rally bag, though, apparently they’re already in the process of sending out swag to people who didn’t get it. To be honest, the rally swag was a bit disappointing, even when compared to bigger American rallies. It was also strange that Piaggio had very little merchandise available for sale at the event and at the museum, what little they had wasn’t compelling, and was wildly overpriced. They could have easily made a few hundred thousand Euros on more thoughtfully-designed merchandise.

Those quibbles aside, things worked out smoothly for those with patience and an open mind, and the little surprises more than made up for any disappointments and inconveniences. With 8000 registrants and 12,000 gatecrashers, the Vespa Clubs of Italy, Pontedera, and Pisa that organized this event, (likely with less assistance from the Mothership than they’d hoped for), are absolute heroes. On top of that, scooterists excel at making their own fun, and we certainly did. Next year VWD is in Gijon, Spain (Europe), with European Vespa Days in Novi Sad, Serbia… I’m leaning towards Serbia. Who’s in?

Oh, by the way… the Chinotto Neri that kept me awake the whole weekend? It’s caffeine-free.


(A note on the photos: I packed very light and brought only my Canon AE-1 and bought a roll of b&w film in Florence. Chris, Sam, and I shot a lot of iPhone photos, and they documented the entire rally with their 360° video camera, once they get all that edited, we’ll share that, it should be epic. These photos don’t even begin to convey the scale of the rally or the beauty of Italy, please check out our instagram for many more photos.)

Vespa World Days, Pontedera 2024