Staff Ride 2019

I was hired by Backroads a year and a half ago and remember thinking, ´just get hired to go to Staff Ride!´ Well, 3 seasons of employment later, I realize Backroads was never just a job, but a lifestyle, and I´ve maybe finally figured out how to enjoy this Backroads life.

happy days with Backroads

Backroads operates in more than 60 countries, and has over 700 tour leaders, in addition to all the office staff, field assistants and other background magicians, so the corporate family isn´t small. The turnover is high, so people come and go, and the ones you know you rarely see, and you´re constantly fastforwarding friendships with strangers you work with intensely, for only a brief moment in time. You never know who you´ll see again, or when, but it doesn´t matter, since they all fill a niche part of your professional (and personal) life.

rest stop in Carovigno castle

Staff ride was pretty much the same; a group of old friends and new strangers, more than 400 of them, crossing paths, starting conversations we´ll never finish, meeting people whose names we´ll probably forget, but whose faces we know we´ll see again. You´ll recognise people and how they made you feel, even though you don´t know where they´re from, but we all share a common ground – the Backroads lifestyle – so we all relate, on some level or another.

one of the many beautiful coastal towns we biked thru

Staff ride 2019 was in Puglia, Italy, and it was more than I dreamed it would be. It was a mix of angst and excitement, with old and new friends, many more than you could count, and all the places and spaces were filled with new landscapes and rolling scenery from a bicycle. I´m not a strong cyclist, but it wasn´t (only) about the biking; it was about seeing and experiencing a place in slow motion, smelling and feeling it under your skin. The ability to stop anywhere for a photo, take it slow, sweat it out, and speed it up for the breeze you needed to cool back down. My butt hurts, not gonna lie, but every kilometer was worth it.

at the tip of the boot

We wined and dined, in historical towns and ancient castles, visited vineyards and citrus gardens, cliff jumped in the Adriatic, saw the ruins of an olive oil press and danced our hearts out in an all-white Pugliese dance festival. We skirted around the coastal towns of Bari, Monopoli and Otranto, and summited the hilltop towns of Ostuni and Carovigno. We overtook the town of Lecce for a night, and by the end of our 4 days cycling, most had covered nearly 380 km, others, over 450 km.

lunch at a Salento farmhouse

It was all a blur, a whirlwind of activity, culture, luxury and socialising. I can´t remember who I biked with where or when, but the conversations still resonate in my mind. If you imagine putting 400+ well-traveled, international, cosmopolitan, educated people together in the boot of Italy, all on the same itinerary, perhaps you can begin to understand why I thought this was always going to be the highlight of the job. The catch is that it happens every year, so the job is only going to get better, and staff ride changes location every year. It’s nice to know I get to work with Backroads in Iceland every summer and winter, with my regular visits to Provence in the spring, but the surprise of staff ride will always be the x-factor. If only my butt would agree…

Sicily and Sardinia

Islands are always a favourite when traveling. Little islands, hot islands, isolated islands, and especially islands full of great food and wine. I’d been avoiding traveling to Sicily and Sardinia for a long time because I thought I’d never leave, but lo and behold here I am in South Africa writing about it.

the beach in Catania under Mount Etna

Sicily is a name that brings a few thoughts to mind – pizza, pasta, seafood, wine, limoncello, Palermo, and of course, the Godfather. It’s so far south in the Mediterranean its actually closer to Africa than most of mainland Europe, but the airports and harbours offering dozens of flights and ferries daily mean it stays closely connected to the rest of Italy.

on the Scala dei Turchi near Agrigento

I was traveling with my older sister, who has traveled a bit but can definitely be defined as more conservative than me. She had her first couchsurfing experience a couple of months ago with me in Ireland, but now we planned to couchsurf for the next 12 days with Italian men. I knew what I was getting us into, but she was surprisingly flexible with their loudness, tardiness, and sometimes cheesy, sleezy behavior. Sicily was especially loud – not just in volume, but smells, sights and culture. We took a break from couchsurfing one night and rented a boat to sleep in on Airbnb.

the grungy, but charming, quarters of Palermo at night

Sardinia felt more like another country. We were no longer just in Italy, we were in a place inhabited by Italians, with Roman/Greek/Arabic/African influences and a history reaching back to prehistoric times. Locals speak Italian, a small part speaks Catalan and many still Sardinian, a different language altogether.

the colourful, quaint town of Bosa

The cities were smaller but cleaner, the houses renewed, the weather cooler, the tourists (and locals) fewer, and the men, less aggressive. They had a local wines and a special berry wine called Mirto, but the familiar pizzas and pastas were still the highlight of most meals.

the s’archittu stone arch on Sardinia’s west coast, near Oristano

After our island hop and a few overnight ferries with Tirrenia, we ended up in Genova to catch a train back to Milan, where a direct flight could take us home to Keflavik. But en route, we of course had to stop in Gavi, Piedmont to wine taste the best Cortese and Nebbiolo Italy has to offer.

Broglia vineyard in Gavi

In Milan I took a 3 day wine course to certify myself as an official wine taster, and now I can finally say I’m on the road to being some kind of sommelier with finally completing my WSET Level 2 training. But that just makes me want to go back to Italy, maybe Tuscany, to get my WSET Level 3… what then?

Venice: the floating city (?)


canals and bridges between stone islands

growing out of water

I don’t get Venice. They call it an island, or rather, a series of islands, but where is the land? It just looked like houses were growing out of the water, stone and water separated only by some green algae. The water was pretty murky, so you just saw walls disappear under the surface, and one could almost be convinced the houses are ten stories deep underwater. There has to be land, or else what do the trees grow out of?But, I didn’t get it because it looked like the houses were floating. And I always thought the gondola drivers used long rods to push off the river bottom, but I noticed they were actually paddling them, unable to reach any sort of ground. Are the buildings floating? I remember watching a James bond movie where some air-balloon things exploded and the whole building crashed into the water. Does that mean you can swim under them? If they’re all floating, how do they keep them from floating away? If they’re anchored, they must be reaaaally big, heavy anchors.

And, how do the anchors adjust for rain fall? Because a floating city would raise with more water. Does the city’s GPS location adapt to metres above sea level when it rains a lot?  I noticed they sell boots with ‘cm’ measure markings on the side, and after seeing a picture of Julia Roberts walking on water, I realized that the city actually floods. So, maybe it rains and the heavy stone houses sink.

a quiet "Street" with ample parallel parking spots available

So, the city can’t be floating, or else it would never flood. If they’re not floating, then they did a really good job of covering every piece of possible land with a building, since the buildings literally go straight into the water – no shore or anything, just maybe a couple steps. Or maybe the island was really tiny or only a couple feet under water and they just did a lot of land reclamation, and from digging all the land they made so many deep canals. I can’t imagine the foundation for a city made of stone can be that deep… or floating.

The canals weave around the smaller islands, none in straight lines, connecting island to island with pedestrian bridges that are always over-arched to make a high enough midpoint for gondolas to pass under. Some canals are wide enough for taxi-boats and motorized ferries, and others only narrow enough to fit one gondola.

San Marco

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

They create a city-sized labyrinth, a maze you could easily get lost in, if it wasn’t for all the arrows pointing you to either the “Ferrovia” (train station), “San Marco” (the most famous piazza and basilica) or “Rialto” (the most famous bridge with shopping all around).

I think Venice, like Bavaria, should also be made into a Disneyland theme park. It would look like Las Vegas’ Venetian hotel park, and the pretty princesses signing autograph books would wear renaissance ball gowns and the princes would wear extravagant masks. All of Venice was an attraction, and it felt like I had arrived into one big theme park. Maybe Disneyland could even buy the city of Venice, privatize it, and just make it the Venetian Disneyland… but I guess noone would want that, even though it wasn’t far off from that already.

dizzying glitzy masks

None of the ways they direct you are the most direct, but instead loop you around through the main streets and past every store front in Venice. They all sell the same thing, mostly masks any Burning Man festival go-er would dream of having, or someone throwing a Renaissance-themed masquerade. If you wander off the main way, you find yourself in totally deserted, silent alleyways, like you’ve stepped into a scene from the movie “V for Vendetta.” It’s a pedestrian only city, and not even scooters or bicycles exist since the bridges would pose a serious barrier to their usefulness. Taking a water taxi is the only other option after walking, so I learned to always give myself 45 mins to get anywhere, and to keep following the signs even if I thought I new a quicker way, because I kept running into stone walls or canals without bridges and didn’t feel like swimming under any buildings.

 

Pompei Viva

I knew I couldn’t visit Naples without going to Pompei, but I had no idea how big or interesting it was. Showing up at 3 pm, an hour before the gates closed, then proved to be a bad choice, but then the guards told me that no one gets let in after 4, but people don’t get kicked out until 7. So I set off to get lost in the excavated city.

Mount Vesuvius as seen from the main square "Foro"

Pompei (sometimes spelled Pompeii) was a thriving Roman city until 79AD when the nearby volcano Vesuvius unexpectedly exploded. In only 2 days, the entire city was buried under 6 metres of ash and pumice. Up to 10 km away, people literally melted dead, dying from surges of hot air, but most suffocated to death before they could escape. The city was almost buried alive, keeping it perfectly preserved, so that walking around its ruins today seems like you’re eerily walking around a city that was deserted yesterday.

The main entrance, showing the bath halls outside the city wall

I battled through tour group after tour group. Each had a dozen or more tourists, with a tour guide holding an umbrella or a stick tied with a scarf to lead them. Some had identical hats or lanyards, even tshirts, so they wouldn’t lose eachother, and some had earphones in their ear which were connected to the tourguide talking constantly into a microphone. German, French, Spanish, English, Japanese and Chinese… but no Italian groups. I would get lost in the midst of group after group, struggling to escape, since overtaking them was hard but getting stuck behind one wasn’t an option – since I wanted to get around the whole city in 4 hours.

As I was wandering around, I passed a few other couples and backpackers, with handy guidebooks or talking headsets, and started regretting my choice not to join a group or hire a guide. There were so many things I didn’t understand, and hundreds of questions I wished I could ask a Pompeiian who was still alive.

At one junction, when I was trying to find Villa de Misteri, a tall, thin Italian with slicked back white hair jogged up beside me. He was wearing yellow short shorts and a matching tshirt, and asked me if he could help me find something. I lied and said no, that I wasn’t looking for anything, and looked lost since I was trying to get lost. He smiled, then said “Perfect. Let me show you something then.”

An immaculately preserved painting

He first started at the city boundary wall that we happened to be standing right beside. He explained the markings on the wall were from the first Roman invasion, when the city was still a Greek colony. The invasion came from the north, another enlightening discovery for historians.  To our left began the above-ground tombs, since dead people couldn’t be buried inside the city walls. He explained who was buried in each one, reading the legible Latin engravings on every stone, which told us who their father was, what their occupation was, and how much the burial cost.

My fascination and obvious ignorance probably began to bleed through my smile. “Well, I don’t really need to go for a jog today anyway. Im the head tour-guide of Pompei and have lived and worked here for 35 years, so why don’t I show you around a little?” He went on to give me a 3 hour personal tour guide, through all of Villa de Misteri and back into the city walls around the most interesting sights. We stayed in the park well past dark, and he told the guards to let us be until 7:30 when we had all of Pompei to ourselves. He got keys from another guard to sneak me into inaccessible rooms, and showed me the bathing hall and the only chariot they unearthed, perfectly intact.

A beautiful mosaic

We wandered around like kids, both partaking in a game of imagination that the city was thriving around us and I was a Roman princess courting Apollo. We walked into the Temple of Jupiter, which he refused to climb since he wasn’t Apollo’s love interest, and made sure I saw the brothel rooms which I never could have seen if I was really a Roman princess. He showed me the bodies of people, frozen in the position they were when they took their last choking breath. He pointed out the phallic engravings of penises in the weirdest places – on cobblestones on the ground, on the sides of pillars, in beautiful paintings – and assured me over and over they were signs of good luck, not perversion.

He read every bit of Latin he could see, translating it into English word by word, and explained in great detail all the contested meanings of paintings.

The urns for wine and fishsauce

He pointed out original graffiti on the walls, of Roman emperors with big noses, and picked leaves off the Laurel trees to make me sniff and imagine them as my headcrown. We walked over mosaic floors and looked at Egyptian decorations, as he got more and more excited about teaching me about the cultural complexity of the town and how much borrowing and trade there was between empires.

He could never walk and talk at the same time. So we’d walk a few steps, and then he’d have to stop and explain something, and then we’d walk until I asked another question, which he would have to stop and answer. It was hilarious, and everytime I laughed at him, he laughed louder and harder until he abruptly saw something else to talk about and became totally serious, starting another fascinating lecture.

The main street with chariot wheel tracks

He told me the population was probably 15,000, and explained which streets were the main streets, and even what they were called. During heavy rain fall, the streets flooded into small streams, and big stepping stones were used to get across the streets. The high traffic of horse-drawn chariots actually left wheel tracks in the massive stones, which were supposed to be fixed by taxes collected from the people living on each street. He knew who lived in what house, and what they did. Many made wine and fishsauce, and kept them in big ceramic pots, and others were artists or bakers. There were athletes too, and gymnasiums where they trained for Olympic events – which they always competed in naked.

The Temple of Jupiter after dark

The entire city came alive to me, and even as it became night, the cloak of darkness let me run wilder with what I thought I saw or heard. I felt like staying until the next morning to see the city return to life, since it seemed to real, so normal, for it to be exactly as I imagined it. I never did go back the next day, even though my guide invited me, but perhaps its best I didn’t, since I may not have turned out to be a real Roman princess in the living Pompei.

 

How to speak Italian

I didn’t manage to learn Italian in 2 weeks, but I did try and disguise my Spanish to sound Italian-ish. I learned quickly that Spanish does work somewhat, and works even better if you wave your arms and use your hands a lot. Italian is more body language than spoken language, especially in Naples, where I felt conversations could be muted and still completely understood if you just watched.

I had this image of loud Italian women yelling at eachother across the street, perched up in their balconies laden with clothes-lines full of colourful clothes. I first arrived in Milan, where they have a municipal by-law against clothes lines on your balcony, so I didn’t see it there. The streets were also full of loud traffic, and the city center had mostly business and commercial offices filling the buildings. But in Naples, the historical city center is mostly apartments, full of this scene – narrow streets that you look down and see balcony after balcony with clothes that must never dry. In the morning and the evening, bickering ladies come out and yell, waving their arms a lot, and it always sounds like they’re arguing, but I’ve been told they’re saying very affectionate things.

The little streets, which I would have gotten totally lost in if I wasn’t following my Napolitan host, ring with the sound of scooters, driving just a little too fast and taking every corner and overpass just a little too close. Noone wears a helmet, and sometimes 3 adults squeeze onto one seat, bottoming out on every big cobblestone. You yell in Italian, with your hands, while youre driving too, which made me slightly uncomfortable when I was the passenger. Luckily my friend Adriano didn’t have a scooter, but while driving his hatchback, would let go of the steering wheel and flail his arms around, yelling something at everyone that cut him off. Even though the windows were shut and no one could hear him, they could see him, and thus, message communicated.

I picked up some pointers on speaking Italian with your hands and figured this much out: always move your arms about, even if you’re talking on the phone and the other person cant see you; move your hands in straight lines, up and down, or left to right; switch between having your palm faced upward or downward, but keep you fingers frayed; roll your forearms around eachother alot. To make a point, pout your middle and index finger to your thumb and shake your hand infront of your chest. If your boasting, tilt your head back, jut your jaw out and puff your chest up pompously. Tilt your head up and jut your jaw out while nodding your head if you agree with someone. Tilt your head up and jut your jaw out and shake your head if you disagree with someone, and if you have something to say to correct them, shut them up by grabbing their hands – since they can’t keep talking if you stop their hands from moving. If you want to make them stop talking a little more politely, or make your point more poignant, put the back of your hand on their chest and push a little til they stop.

The most important thing was to smile and laugh a lot, touch eachothers hands and arms a lot, and never stop communicating with your hands since they wont hear you if youre just talking with your lips… atleast they’ll stop listening or understanding you, whether or not you’re actually speaking Italian.

Italy's Big Cities

Milan

Milan is in northern Italy, the capital of Lombardy Province. It was my first Italian city, but I was warned that it isn’t very ‘Italian.’ The couchsurf host I had there listed front page on his profile that he’s happy to host couchsurfers who want to see Milan, but hoped that traveler’s carried on to see the ‘real’ Italy.

Whatever the case, I tried to see the ‘real’ Milan, spending 3 days there living in the city center. I spent one day walking to the most beautiful parts of Milan, mainly the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, San Lorenzo Maggiore, and the Sforzesco Castle and surrounding gardens. There were other palazzo’s and museums I just glanced at, and at the Santa Maria delle Grazie I just checked out Leonardo’ da Vinci’s painting ‘The Last Supper.’

The shopping gallery, adorned with glass arches designed and built in a time when it was considered such an architectural marvel that the architect commited suicide before it was finished from fear that it would fail

San Lorenzo Maggiore is a beautiful church fronted by roman columns, rare for this part of Italy, and floods with a buzzing nightlife every weekend. Here was where my couchsurf host lived, so we ate pizza and crepes and drank chianti and pinot grigio whenever he came home from work. One evening I saw a ballet at the Teatro alla Scala, and sitting in the red velvet seats inside that glitzy theatre house made me feel like Italian royalty. During the day, I absorbed as much fashion and aesthetic beauty as I could, checking out every beautiful person that walked passed me and all the glamorous window shopping. The ‘real’ Milan definitely kept its expected reputation as one of the world’s fashion capitals.

Florence

Florence was smaller, quainter, without the cosmopolitan bustle of Milan. Yet it somehow felt more international, more touristy, and although it looked like a ‘more’ Italian city, it felt less like Italian life. Every third person I passed spoke American English, and a plethora of immigrants ran the tourist shops, pizza stands and café’s.

 

Ponte Vecchio, a bridge full of houses

The city is cramped but cosy, with narrow, pedestrian-only streets made of big cobble stones crookedly-winding around stone buildings. The whole city is made of stone, with not a patch of earth or dirt in sight, but the little windows poking out of buildings and tiny balconies are usually adorned in flower pots.

Tourists come here since it’s the capital of Tuscany (where they want to explore more of), and because they’re interested in visiting since its considered a culture capital and birthplace of the renaissance. I couchsurfed with 2 American brothers, and hung out with their extended American friends/colleagues, to get a glimpse of Florence that was not very Italian, but probably a more accurate experience of the touristy city.

Rome

The saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ never made sense to me because I don’t know what Romans do.Rome is huge, overwhelmingly big when compared to Florence or Milan, and has too much to do and see since the whole city is one big tourist attraction.

All of the Roman ruins compete with the still-standing Roman artifacts, which compete with the newer Roman buildings since they’re soon-to-be Roman ruins. Everything is big and grandiose, which made me think “how the heck did they build that 2000 years ago?” My Romanian-Italian friend explained “I think people used to be smarter, so there’s no way for us to know how they did it since we people have gotten stupider since then.”

 

Coliseo de Roma

Rome is so clustered with ancient artifacts and impressive buildings that you actually start to get numb from their awesomeness. Friends giving me some tour guiding just started to point at pretty things and explain ‘that’s also old and important’ but not sure what things actually were.

I think I took fifty pictures of the Trevi fountain, but I didn’t throw a coin in it since I can’t jinx my luck of going back since I’m just trying to make sure I can leave. The Roman Coliseum was one of my favourite places, along with the topless Pantheon. Vatican City was somewhere I really looked forward to going, but once I waited an hour to see St. Peters Basilica packed like a sardine can and shuffled 3km through the (inescapable) Vatican Museum like a herd of sheep, something was lost in my enjoyment of the experience.

Naples

Naples was my favourite. It was the most ‘in-your-face’ Italian, and had the best weather and the friendliest people. It was also the grungiest, dirty around the edges but shining in the middle, vibrant with energy and a colourful nightlife. It helped that I was there over a weekend, staying with a hip Napolitan guy and welcomed into his group of friends for my whole stay. He was a vintage-clothes dealer, and most of his friends worked in vintage fashion too, and none of them took life too seriously.

Adriano ordering drinks in the street from a blessed bar, from a bartender who could be my grandmother

I stayed in Portici, a suburb closer to Pompeii than Naples, but spent every night in Naples til the wee hours drinking wine and rum in crowd-filled piazzas. I ate the best pizza in Naples, which happens to house the best pizza in Italy, which is known for the inventing the pizza, so I guess I can say I ate the best pizza in the world. I went to a reggae/dub concert one night, and also spent one day in the historical city center. The rest of my time I wandered south, to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, but ill have to write a separate blog post for each of them, since its impossible to give a paragraph summary of either.