Category Archives: Italy

The High Road & Low Coast: Europe (Part III)

 A 10 Minute Read

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“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” ~ Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor

Follow your nose. Follow the noise. Follow that human need. Food. Delicious and rejuvenating. Traversing the arteries of any city in Italy will eventually heave you like a blessed rat into the magical maze of the market. One of my favourite places in any country I pass through. Here you can understand how a people live. What is good. What makes them happy. We all have to eat. In Italy, they eat well. They don’t take many things more seriously than food. Sellers shout over each other and the buzz of the market roars with excitement. Bright and beautiful colours. Fresh and in season. Some of the best meats, cheeses and fish the world has to offer. These people do not mess around. If you care about food at all, visit the market. Experience it. Whether it is in Italy, Uzbekistan, China or India. Your cooking, enjoyment and understanding of a people, their food and lifecycle will immediately make that much more sense. All these ingredients in their natural environment. The beating heart of modern Italy exists in the markets. Go explore.

As I shoved off from Bari in the province of Puglia I thanked hostel owner David of the ‘Olive Tree‘ for allowing me to store my bike and possessions for a time. An excellent beginning to my Italian expedition. Riding on I watched farmers prepare their fields on backroads not in my vocabulary hours before. Stopping in little towns I filled up my water bottles, took a breather and bought some oranges. Puglia, in all of it’s peace and quiet, I rode. Through low hills I pushed forward to a secluded camp site hidden in the trees. I inhaled the cool air of the setting sun and crawled away to my tent for another night on the road. Unknown to the world around me. Covered by the loving glove of nature, I slept.

In Calabria the climbs began. Soul squeezing. Calf crushing. Lung piercing climbs. They were not by any means some of my longest climbs on this trip, but were some of the steepest and meanest. Sweat turned ice cold down the long beautiful declines. The views from the top were always worth it. A twenty-two kilometre climb was sure to dish out hansom rewards. I flew along the top of ridges with snowcapped mountains in the distance. My eyes and heart getting the workout they deserve. Italian drivers careened along honked in surprise and displeasure to see me.

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” ~ Cesar Chavez, Human Rights Activist

One evening as the sun went down in the hills of Calabria, I was caught with few camping spots willing to present themselves. So, I rang a doorbell. Answering the call was a very nice family who welcomed me in. The son put on a movie and I relaxed in a comfortable chair while answering a few questions. Later with the father, Paolo, we looked at old maps that he had of Italy and the world. Where I had been and where I would be going. We had a delicious dinner, prepared by his wife. Full beyond all belief on a home cooked meal I fell into a deep sleep on a nice mattress set up in their garage. In the morning, I was woken up to a quick breakfast and sent on my way, happier than ever. I came a stranger and left a friend. Over the final mountains I climbed to the western coast and down into Sicily.

I arrived at the southern coast as the next ferry was departing to Messina from San Giovanni. Seeing I did not want to wait, the ground staff waved me onboard without a ticket as the doors shut. The ferry to Sicily made me smile in the afternoon sun. It was like a long awaited homecoming. Feeling an insane sense of pride, I pedalled hard onwards down the eastern coast of Sicily towards Catania. The first night in Sicily, I met a police officer bearing a striking resemblance to a relative of mine. He offered me a whole villa for almost nothing to stay in. On the top of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean he showed me his rabbits and gardens. We toured his grape, olive, orange and lemon trees. The next morning before departing for Catania I picked a few fresh lemons from the trees to spice up my water.

The very notion of Italy and all that it encapsulates has drawn people from worlds over for centuries. There is something about it. Whether it is the pictureseque villages, stunning coast, vibrant history or food culture. It is without a doubt, beautiful. My final leg of the journey was no different. I wound around the coast to historic Syracuse for a quick pit stop before heading slightly inland to make the final push to the southern rim of Sicily and catch the ferry to Malta. As I rode, beautiful wild flowers seemed to bloom before my eyes. Little villages sprung up out of the hillsides and castles dotted the landscape. Approaching the coast I was hit with strong winds that called me to stay. The road petered out through the coastal city of Pozallo, with old churches and cobbled streets. I road onto the ferry and waited for departure to Malta. Smelly and tired, I beamed silently, after the long beautiful haul through southern Italy.

“One very important aspect of motivation is the willingness to stop and to look at things that no one else has bothered to look at. This simple process of focusing on things that are normally taken for granted is a powerful source of creativity.” ~ Francis Charles Publius, Maltese Psychologist & Writer

Malta is a country I have always been interested in seeing. For those of you who are unsure, it is the small cluster of three main islands to the south of Sicily. With its strategic port position, it has been conquered throughout history between Romans, Moors, English and so on. Resulting in a wonderful mix of culture that features a few modern buildings intermingled with deep historic beauty. Wrapped in a picturesque coast, the shores and hills of Malta made for a wonderful little side adventure. It gave me time to prepare mentally for the trials that await me in Africa. I met interesting people and shared more tales from the road. Camping on the island of Comino, I experienced the beauty of the Blue Lagoon and shared ‘mixed grill’ with some friendly Maltese. But now, I must fly. The road to Egypt is blocked by an impassable Libya to the east and Syria to the west. From Cairo I will begin my third continent as my journey weaves down through Africa towards Cape Town. To all the wonders ahead and all the amazing memories behind.

Ciao, for now.

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Thank you to all of the local schools of Eastern Ontario as their donations from fundraising projects begin to come in. The students of Verdara, India are now that much closer to achieving their dream of a new schoolhouse. Working together we can make this happen. I especially loved the ‘One Adventure Please’ T-Shirts worn by the awesome youth of St. Edward School Westport at WeDay Canada. Amazing stuff! To be apart of the magic CLICK TO DONATE.

I would also like to thank my wonderful girlfriend for making the long trip to visit me in Italy. Time apart on opposite sides of the globe can be harder than anyone can imagine. Thank you for waiting for me as I ride in circles around the world. I couldn’t do it without your continued love and support. You are the one who is strong, not me. Reuniting with my brother and uncle in Italy was also a wonderful bonus. Glad we could all experience a bit of our Italian heritage together!

Dust off those sleepy dreams and get out there. Experience the world and the people we share it with. I now head to Africa to start what will be one of the most trying and exciting portions of my journey. Thank you for following along!

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 Malta Pics

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Playing Different Parts: Europe (Part II)

 A 12 minute read

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“Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done while jostling in the street.” ~ William Blake, Painter/Poet

Hiding behind a woollen cover I look out onto another day. Breathing in the cool mountain morning I put the last piece of my daily bicycle puzzle together. Every piece a place. Jumping up I kick my slow horse into gear. Everyday similarly individual. The raw world can shake us to the bone. Revealing our weaknesses. Bringing out characters we never knew were there. I’ve played many men on this journey. A revolving drama of many actors. Men of confidence and utter fear. Contempt and pain. Overjoy and peace. Reality and fiction. I live in all of these moments. When I wake in the mountains on a cool morning sunrise, I play the man of hope and light. If only for a few hours.

I moved out of Thessaloniki with careful reluctance. The cobblestone roads bounced me down through a maze of hilly city. Beautiful does not describe these types of places. Where you move from grainy black and white into modern colour. I prefer the black and white. The unknown and obscurely solitary. On coloured highway I shot under threateningly full clouds across the ancient landscape of Greek Macedonia. Pulling into a service station after a mornings ride to fill my water bottles I plopped down to have a break. Over a cheesy breakfast pastry I discussed the road ahead with a jovial man. The station seemed to have seen better days, but he was more than excited to welcome me in. He explained that less than ten kilometres down the road was the birthplace of the famed conqueror Alexander the Great. Palla was the village. I had to visit. Surveying the area with low-lying ruins, I was transported to a different age.

Thousands of kilometres back in Afghanistan I visited Balkh. Here was the ancient capital where Alexander spread his empire and married Roxana of Bactria. (Read about my experiences in Afghanistan HERE & HERE) How amazing our lives can be. The road under my tires easy and free. His road one of historic conquest and tyranny. Different lives, centuries removed. Rolling along I could feel the history in the low hills. One of the most iconic figures in ancient history lumbering on horseback to the unknown horizon. My ride is easy for me in a sense. I can find out about the road ahead, the weather, countries and people. Most things have been discovered. There is generally an opinion, article or document on almost all of it. Generally, I have no idea, time or regard for these things, but they are there. Alexander expanded, explore and conquered almost as far as India on his campaign. What a journey it must have been.

Today, adventures are much different. They are more about personal development, education and exploration. Though most of the discoveries I make each day have already been made and documented by others, they are all new to me. The name of the game is to experience these new moments in my life and take it in stride. We only have one shot at life and I intend on making the most of it. Each of us has our own paths. This is mine. Someone else may think it ludicrous to ride a bike through many countries, I find it exhilarating. Our journey through life is all our own. Choose your adventure.

“I am inclined to measure a tramp by the time taken rather than by the miles. If a hundred miles is covered in a week it is a longer tramp than if it is rushed in three days.” ~ Stephen Graham, Author/Visionary

While I was riding along I met a fellow adventurer on an early morning ride. He was tramping along and I just had to stop. He shouted across the road and asked if I had a minute for a chat. Of course I did. We discussed travels ahead and behind while I devoured some bread and jam. He offered me fresh honey and pomegranate juice. His name was David. He is currently walking from Italy to India. Meeting him in Greece, he had already been on the road for a year. Stopping in some places for longer periods than others. David has an awesome outlook on life and a fantastic road ahead of him. Making my bicycle look like a rocket ship, I give him special credit for tackling such a monster. Step-by-step he’ll make it. To follow along on his epic journey check out his website HERE.

My final day in Greece was one of my most memorable rides of the entire trip. The views from Edessa to where I finished my day in Bitola, Macedonia were astounding. I began the day with a rather large climb out of Edessa and the cool morning shone all the way into a warm afternoon. Through slow valleys I shot, with snowcapped mountains looming and quiet monasteries resting. A sign proclaiming the ‘Wine Roads of Macedonia’ emerged on the highway. Riding along I watched the beautiful green hills being prepared for the following year of growth amidst blowing mustard seed. Grape trees being trimmed broke the silence on that open road. Words cannot describe the magic or beauty.

About ten kilometres from the border of Macedonia I made a quick stop to get some water. I saw an inviting shop in a tiny town, on a thin road. I rolled over and was greeted by some of the most friendly people on my journey. They served a full meal and we talked of my travels and their history. They were a Greek family who had lived in Toronto for over seventeen years before moving back in the nineties. The wife claiming they were, “The best years of my life.” Feeling insanely proud of my home, I began to prepare my bike to leave when they handed me a packed bag full of delicious baguette sandwiches, feta, fruits and chocolate. I was lost for words again. Hopping back on my bike I flew to the border and crossed into my eighth country, Macedonia. Wild peacocks roamed around freely at the border and a curious border guard welcomed me in. Strange and wonderful was the first feeling. The afternoon silence descended upon my bike and eerie bails of hay in the distance.

Macedonia was outstanding. The ride from Bitola to the Lake Ohrid was fantastic and a journey not to be missed. Easily doable in a day and one of breathtaking views. However, in the last downhill I got caught in some painful hail on the top of a mountain climb with nowhere to hide as huge trucks splashed me with freezing water. The hail turned into ice cold rain as I made my plunge down the hill. Thankfully there was a warm place to dry out at the bottom of the hill in touristic Ohrid. I aired out and explored the picturesque city before making the journey to Albania on the other side of the lake. The border of the two countries cutting the Lake Ohrid almost in two.

Huffing up a very steep climb of 15km’s I rolled over into Albania. Exchanging a few Euros I grabbed a cup of tea and sat in a smokey cafe with a load of long distance truckers. Though stretches between countries are very small in this part of the world, they are all very different. Upon entering Albania I noticed that it was immediately less wealthy, but no less beautiful. The landscape took me up and down a dangerous road with heart stopping views. I think I had been alone too long in obscure countries because I distinctly remember screaming for no other reason than to scream. Screaming for joy. Singing terribly off key songs up steep hills with all wrong lyrics. My legs strong enough to carry my heavily loaded bicycle over long mountain climbs with relative ease. Powerful is the word.

One thing I did notice about Albania was the complete excitement of the children to see me rolling by as they walked home from school. Giving them a thumbs up I raced on. I also noticed the mountain landscape covered by hundreds of military bunkers. History lesson: Over 700,000 bunkers were commissioned by Enver Hoxha during a paranoid period of dictatorial rule. For years Albania was closed to the world and has only recently begun to recover and prosper. Stopping to recharge at little shops I was greeted by excited people wearing quizzical looks. I felt fantastic as I made my way through the capital of Tirana and eventually onto the coastal city of Durres. The mixture of mosques and churches was very interesting to explore as I sorted my bike for departure.

Getting soaked in a huge downpour I made a quick escape and boarded an overnight fast ferry headed for Bari, Italy. Drying off inside, I curled up on the floor of the ferry in my sleeping bag for the night. Listening to the hum of the engines as the boat rocked back and forth in the stormy weather, I reflected on the whirlwind last few days. Did it really even happen? Here I was headed to Italy. It seemed almost as if another chapter was opening. One of new roads and panoramic exploration. History and culture were mixing for me on the other side of the ferry doors. I say yes to the next chapter. Making my way through Italy and onto Africa I jump at the chance. Here’s to not knowing what will happen next!

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*I would like to thank all of the school kids in Canada for continuing to support my journey. I hope everyone had an amazing, relaxing and safe March Break vacation. Work hard and dream with full minds. I have also taken this opportunity to have a short hiatus while some people very close to me have come to visit in beautiful Italy. Back on the bike next week and headed towards Africa. We all need and should remember to take a break somtimes. To continue supporting the children in Verdara, India and the road to a new school CLICK HERE TO DONATE.

**Also, for those of you that missed it at home or online, here is the link to the wonderful story on my ride done by the amazing people at Global News. Thank you to everyone who liked, shared and spread the word about my journey. I would especially like to thank Jennifer Tryon  for making it all come together in the end as well as Mark Blanchard for being a hero in getting the video files sent from India. CLICK HERE TO WATCH.

***Here is an exert from an amazing e-mail I got from a close friend after my interview aired. It captures what I sometimes find hard to say.

You are a tramp, you are a vagabond. You are welcome everywhere but you belong nowhere. Not now. You see that this is no one’s land, even though we seem to think it is. We seem to think we own it, and that it owes us something. The land owes us nothing, but we can use it, temporarily. We build and we build and we forget what was there before we built. We forget about rivers, we forget about trees, about mountains, and deserts and rocks and dirt. We forget to watch the sun set, and to watch it rise. While the rest of the world worries about about a recession, terrorism, vaccinations, and playoffs, Mark is going day by day. Mark is awake, and then he isn’t.”

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