Vespa World Days 2009 in Zell am See, Austria

Text: Beatrix Keckeis • Photography: Peter Schwaiger

Imagine standing 7,772 feet above sea level in the midst of snow-covered mountains. The air is crisp, fresh, and completely free of the incessant buzz of insects found in the warmer valleys below. All except for wasps, that is.

Despite the altitude, they begin arriving. First a few, then a few more, and soon they're all but uncountable! Thankfully, there isn't one with a single stinger to be counted amid this swarm, all of them machines bearing the Italian moniker Vespa, meaning 'wasp'. Literally thousands have made the arduous ascent of Austria's Grossglockner High Alpine Road. By the time the final rider is accounted for, some 2,500 scooters have made the climb. From brand-new models to more seasoned vintages dating as far back as the marque's founding in 1946, these iconic machines have been brought together by owners inspired to celebrate the legend that took flight in Pontedera, Italy over 60 years ago.

Think about it. The Vespa is not just any scooter. To its legions of fans and the uninitiated alike, it is the scooter. Both legend and myth, it claims unique celebrity status. Some will remember its prominence in the rock opera Quadrophenia, featuring The Who. Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, was also a showcase for the wasp-shaped scooter with the two-stroke buzz (though here of late, most models now sport more eco-friendly four-stroke engines). Marlon Brando and Dean Martin owned Vespas, as did Charlton Heston. They have appealed to unconventional individuals throughout the years, and the cult-like following they've inspired is the real reason 2,500 Vespisti churned their way up to Kaiser Franz Josefs Höhe, a lookout on Austria's highest mountain road.

Meetings, runs and rallies of Vespa riders are as much a tradition as the vehicle itself. Starting in 1954, Vespa riders began getting together for EuroVespa, an annual scooter rally that moves among varying locales for each meeting. In 2006 Piaggio and the Piaggio Foundation created the Vespa World Club to unite and coordinate all the Vespa clubs globally. And with that, the EuroVespa meeting became World Vespa Days. For 2009, the event took place in the lakefront city of Zell am See, Austria, not far from the Grossglockner. From June 11-14, this town in the heart of the Austrian Alps became the World Vespa Center, and the event was wildly successful. The original roll of 3,100 pre-registrants swelled to more than 5,000 attendees, turning the town into one big scooter center.

The weather forecast had promised sun and good riding conditions. But after a nice start on arrival day, rain, wind and low temperatures hijacked a portion of the following day. Despite some rather raw riding conditions, a run to Kaprun, a nearby alpine reservoir, was not cancelled. A small but hearty group arrived there, while the rest of the Vespisti ignored the weather in many different ways. They stayed in town, huddled in the cafés and restaurants, and spent the time chatting, eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and simply having fun and making new friends. It also didn't hurt that riding was not the only program offered. Shows, concerts, sightseeing, expositions, shopping, museums, an open-air cinema, a picnic, and plenty of partying were also on tap to keep everyone busy.

Undoubtedly though, the highlight was Saturday's rally to the Grossglockner, which went off under mostly dry conditions. Some even dared to ascend the highest point of the road, the Edelweissspitze, at 8,435 feet. This climb of course poses a real challenge for all the smaller displacement models due to the thin air and the resultant loss of horsepower.

The last day's program offered a run around the lake. And again, a huge swarm of Vespas filled the roads, bringing normal traffic to a virtual standstill. Yet no one complained, perhaps because almost everyone around seems to get caught up in the smiling contagion Vespa riders know so well, whether alone on the road, or when sharing their passion with thousands of others.

The next World Vespa Days will take place deep in Southern Europe, from July 1-4, 2010, in Portugal. Then the wasps fly north in 2011 to Norway. In 2012, the event moves across the Channel to the United Kingdom in celebration of the 60th birthday of the Vespa Club of Britain.