Folding bicycle a fun companion on Mediterranean cruise.

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I’ve packed for vacations before, but never like this. For a recent Mediterranean cruise, I included a fold-up bike. Plenty of fun, freedom and convenience soon unfolded with it.

The days of unscrewing handle bars, removing pedals and paying a lot to ship a clunky bike box are over. After researching, I opted for a British-made Brompton because its 16-inch wheels make it small enough to avoid oversized baggage fees. No tools are needed for folding and unfolding, which takes less than a minute. And when it comes to riding a Brompton, the fun factor is high.

So is its price: around $1,750. The hard case is $350. There are less expensive options, but those don’t fold as small or as easily.

Unfold and away you go

Upon arriving in Rome, instead of seeking out a bike rental, I carried the 26-pound six-speed out of the hotel, unfolded it, put on a helmet and pedaled away.

Sometimes I drafted local cyclists who seemed to know what they were doing in the hellish traffic and, unlike me, knew where they were going. Soon I discovered Rome from their unique perspective, turning onto narrow, mazelike cobblestoned streets, the ones less-trafficked, and often pulling over for something incredible, such as the gorgeously restored Trevi Fountain. One of the bike’s clever features is a fold-up left pedal, which flips away from shins when walking the bike.

The Colosseum way off in the distance? It’s not that far by bike. I made quick time to it, and later pulled out my map and pedaled off to the Villa Borghese Gardens, where gravelly paths closed to cars are made for slow-going, enjoy-the-moment types like me. Soon, I was looking out over the city, the Vatican in view. A bike lock in my messenger bag was handy while taking a break for a glass of local wine, enjoyed near the garden’s pond.

All this fun, and before even embarking for my main destinations. Those would be by cruise ship, sailing from Civitavecchia the next day. So into its rollaway case the bike went, and onto a vessel heading to Sorrento, Sicily, Malta, Sardinia and Corsica.

Seattle Times photographer Ken Lambert demonstrates unfolding and folding a British-made Brompton six-speed purchased in Ballard, in about a minute. Compared to some Brompton riders, that’s slow. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Stows in a snap

Fold-ups travel extremely well in situations not made for most bikes. The Brompton stores easily when partly folded, too, and can stand up by itself, tucked into a corner, when a switch under the seat is pulled, enabling the rear wheel to lock under the frame. Two tiny wheels keep it from falling over.

I’ve taken it onto Seattle’s Metro buses completely folded. Likewise, the bike stowed easily on a packed ship’s tender, taking passengers ashore. For a five-hour excursion to Corsica’s stunner-by-the-sea, Bonifacio, I unfolded the bike on the dock and left my mother on a loaded tourist “wheel train” heading in the opposite direction. I took a leisurely exploration outside the old walled Citadel, the town’s jewel, built right onto the cliffs. I covered a lot of ground in a limited excursion window, biking over to an area where I locked up and hiked along the cliffs, with wonderful views of the harbor. Later, I biked into the walled village itself. I pumped the brakes while descending steep cobblestoned streets, weaving through shoppers, and passing others sampling Corsican beer. Eventually, I made it to the other side of the fort, its beautiful historic cemetery giving way to a stunning view of our cruise ship anchored in the Mediterranean.

No cabs needed

During a stop in Trapani, western Sicily, I didn’t have much time to explore and run an errand. But the bike got me where I wanted to go, a windy ride along a seawall, followed by explorations near the fishermen’s market. I stopped to snap a photo of a brightly lit emerald-green domed church. Soon, I found a needed pair of swim goggles to enjoy the ship’s eye-stinging saltwater pool. I got it all done by bike in a short window, wheeling it over the gangplank just before the ship departed. No cabs needed.

In Malta’s old walled city of Valletta, being on a bike had a distinct advantage over the horse-drawn carriage tours. For one thing, it smelled better, although I had to be careful where I was riding. Unlike Italy, they drive on the opposite side of the road from what we’re accustomed to in the United States. I kept mostly to streets shut off to vehicular traffic. Hidden gems are everywhere: Independence Square’s intense figurative statue; Parliament’s modern architecture; and the hole-in-the-wall shop of the local coffin-maker, the doors open, holy music blasting, with the apparent proprietor quietly watching the world go by.

These are the moments I won’t forget, the ones I wouldn’t have seen from a tour bus — or if confined to a shorter radius on foot.