Italy: now with more lederhosen!

I feel like North Americans have a very monolithic idea of Italian culture. We tend to forget that Italy is a fairly new country. It was only established in 1861. Just to put that into perspective, consider the fact that the United States predates Italy by nearly a century.

Moreover, the borders of the US have been fairly static since the 1850s (Alaska is the major exception; it was purchased from Russia in 1867). Italy’s borders have undergone major changes as recently as 1954, when the Free Territory of Trieste was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Before unification, The Italian peninsula was home to an ever-shifting collection of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, papal territories, and the like. Even after a century and a half of unification and assimilation, different regions maintain distinct linguistic and cultural identities.

I was vaguely aware of all this, having learned about it in high school social studies class. We’d also noticed it in our travels. We’d hear stories about native Italians who can’t understand each other because of regional variations in language. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for what we would experience in the Alps.

For full story behind our Alpine detour, you should start with Cristina’s last post [link], but just to recap: we took a train up the Adige valley to Bolzano. From there, we cycled up some viciously steep hills into the Gardena Valley.

I knew we’d encounter some German in the Alps. The area is quite close to Austria, and Google maps lists place names in both Italian and German. Still, the area was much more German-speaking than I’d expected. I was intrigued, so I looked up the back story.

The Italians call the region Alto-Adige, a reference to its location in the upper part of the Adige valley. In German it’s known as Südtirol (South Tyrol). Until the First World War, it was part of the Austrian principality of Tyrol. But the Italians wanted a reward for their war efforts, so in 1918, the occupied South Tyrol, which they formally annexed the following year.

When Mussolini’s fascists came to power, they attempted to forcefully Italianize the area. German teaching was banned, along with most German-language publications. Italian-speaking citizens were encouraged to settle in the area.

From 1943 to 1945, South Tyrol was occupied by Nazi Germany. In post-war negotiations, the Allies agreed to return it to Italy on the condition that the area’s German-speaking population be granted substantial autonomy. Italy agreed, but not all of the area’s German speakers were content with the degree of self-rule they were granted. This led to a series of terrorist attacks by German-speaking secessionists.

Italy and Austria returned to the negotiating table and a new deal was struck, giving the area an even greater degree of independence. As a result, the regional government keeps much of the area’s tax revenue, but since the area is one of Italy’s wealthiest, so it still returns more to the central government than it receives in services.

That was all a bit of digression, but my point is this: Italy is not all pasta sauce, protection rackets, and talking with one’s hands. In some places it’s local yogurt, lederhosen, and the language of Goethe. For my own part, I’m going to treat this as a lesson in humility. My preconceptions about Italy contained grains of truth, but the reality was always richer and more nuanced. My goal now is to bring that humility to each new destination.


Sex work in buffalo country

They call sex workers “women of the night”, but in some parts of Italy their hours are not so restricted. It must of been around noon that we passed the first one, in the countryside outside of Napoli. At first we though she was just waiting for a ride, albeit with a ridiculous amount of makeup on. But then we passed another. And another. Women with revealing clothes and crazy heavy makeup, just chillin’ in lawn chairs on the side of a secondary highway. Keep in mind that this is a straight-up rural area. There was nothing around but grain fields, buffo farms, and women of the… well, of the afternoon, I guess.

The ride from Napoli to Rome was surprisingly beautiful. The two cities are fairly close, and with Italy’s population density being what it is, I thought it would be all sprawl. Instead we saw calm agricultural land, sandy beaches, and stunning seaside cliffs. At one point we ran into a pair of touring cyclists who warned us that the upcoming stretch was ugly and bland. Thank god we ignored them. We cycled the same stretch of coastline on an adjacent road. It was the sea on one side and the lake on the other, with reedy sand dunes, pristine ocean views and hundreds of cyclists enjoying the perfect ride.

Rome’s sprawl zone was smaller than expected, but still substantial. It too was dotted with sex workers. We must have passed at least ten on the way into town. One drew particular attention by (I’m not making this up!) strutting around an industrial park in transparent lingerie, flexing her butt-muscles.

Rome, too, was full of surprises. First of all, it was less hectic than I’d expected, and much cleaner. I expected something grittier, but instead we found the city to be clean and well-maintained, with a decent amount of green space.

This is going to sound kind of silly, but I was also surprised by the grandeur of the tourist sites. I guess I shouldn’t have been. I mean, that’s why people go to Rome, right? Still, there’s something about the scale of it all that can only be appreciated first-hand.

I was equally surprised by the sheer volume of tourists. In some parts of town you can walk for kilometres and scarcely see a local. Still, the views are stunning enough that it’s worth braving the swarm for at least a day or two.

Still, the crowds were exhausting. After each day, we couldn’t wait to get back to the calm neighborhood of Ostiense, where our host, Davide, took us in with open arms.

Our stay with Davide was arranged by our friend Iman, who grew up in Italy, and whose parents we stayed with in Calabria. Needless to say, we owe her one.

Davide runs a bed and breakfast, and agreed to let us stay in an unbooked room. When that room was booked up he invited us to stay at his apartment instead. When we arrived, we learned that he was giving us his own bedroom, and that he was sharing the bedroom of his roommate Francesco. This was an incredible gesture by both of them, but they played it off like it was nothing, and even encouraged us to stay an extra day.

On our first night, we were treated to an incredible dinner with Davide’s roommates and friends. When we left, we baked him a thank you pie, which was really the least we could do.

The bike ride out of Rome was another pleasant surprise. A beautiful cycling path runs along the bank of the Tiber River, escorting us from the metropolis to its exurbs. From there we set out for the rolling hills of Tuscany.



Rome IRL

Rome IRL


On the grind in Napoli

When you travel this cheaply for this long, you really depend on the kindness of strangers. We count on strangers to house us when we need rest, to fill our water bottles when we’re thirsty, and to turn a blind eye when we camp somewhere illegal, which is pretty much every night.

But sometimes those strangers go above and beyond, like the bartender who let us stay in his house, or the woman who saw us cooking dinner in the piazza and sent a care package of wine and cookies.

Antonio Cilindro and his family definitely fit into the “above and beyond” category. Antonio was our host in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, a small city on the outskirts of Napoli. Antonio wasn’t home when we arrived, but we received a warm greeting from his family, none of whom spoke English. They helped with our bags, made our beds, gave us towels for the shower, and generally made us feel at home.

When Antonio got back we were treated to a dinner of potato chip-breaded chicken (ingenious!), roast vegetables, salad, and cheese. They wouldn’t even let us do the dishes.

After some conversation we got the sense that they did this a lot, so we asked him: “how often do you host couchsurfers?” “Almost every day,” he told us. I was floored.

The next day, we took a train into the city. We had asked Antonio where we should go in Napoli. He told us where to find the best Sfogliatelle and pizza. Our first day went something like this:

1) Eat sfogliatelle
2) Drink coffee
3) Drink more coffee
4) Eat pizza
5) Eat deep-fried pizza
6) Eat gelato
7) Eat deep-fried pizza
8) Drink beer
9) Eat sfogliatelle
10) Drink coffee

After that we took the train back to Antonio’s place and made poutine.

I didn’t know much about Napoli before arriving. I’d heard it was dirty and full of thieves. I’d heard it was run by the local mob, the Camorra, whose infiltration of municipal contracts had left the streets piled with trash. But that was about it.

The first thing you notice about Napoli is the hustle. Every tourist destination has its hustlers, but in Napoli it feels like the whole place is on the grind. Everyone’s out in the streets trying to make ends meet, and it gives the city a vibrant buzz.

I don’t want to over-romanticize. I’m sure this isn’t a socially optimal situation. I’m sure a lot of the people selling cheap goods in the streets are there because of a lack of other work opportunities. Still, it really makes the city feel alive.

The other thing about Napoli is that it’s conspicuously *not* a tourist town. There’s no shortage of attractions: a cathedral, a couple of castles, a smattering of museums, and a plethora of piazzas, among others. And there are tourists!

But even in the heart of the old city there are locals. And there are businesses that cater to locals. You might see an overpriced souvenir shop, but you might also see a hardware store right next door, or a fruit stand where the old nonas buy their daily produce. The tourists are mixed right in with retirees and delivery drivers and music students.

I couldn’t say the same about Rome, but we’ll save that for the next post.








Highway signage is for the weak

Author’s note: We lied. We said that our elevation gain on this ride was greater than 2,500 metres. This turns out to have been a miscalculation. The real elevation gain was substantially less, though it felt pretty brutal at the time.

Rules, in southern Italy, are malleable things. This kind of lax attitude toward authority has its downsides (rampant corruption, dangerously bad parking, and so on), but it often works in our favour. Take road closures, for example.

The first time we came across a closed road was in Sicily. At that time we were still pretty oblivious to our new environs, so we cruised right through a sign or two. By the time we reached the construction site we’d climbed a substantial hill, and we were in no mood to squander that hard-earned elevation gain.

We dodged the barrier and got about halfway through when some workers on the cliff face above started shouting: “Chiusa! Chiusa!” Thomas pointed in the direction we were going and shouted back “OK?” “OK,” they sighed.

Since then we’ve treated road closure signs with a grain of salt. It was on a closed stretch of road on the southern cape of Italy’s heel that we saw some of the nicest scenery of the whole trip: rocky cliffs, emerald seas, and a view of Albania in the distance. There wasn’t a hint of construction in sight.

So when we found a closed road on the way out of Matera, we were, understandably, quite skeptical. The nominally closed road opened onto a scene so pastoral it could be used as the setting of the Shire in the next Tolkien adaptation: gentle green slopes in all directions, with scarcely a building in sight. In the half-hour we took to eat lunch we didn’t see a single car. The road was fine.

The spot where we camped that night was, sadly, not so pastoral. When you travel by bicycle, your mobility is confined to the daylight hours. If you don’t find a good spot to pitch your tent before sunset, you kind of have to take what you can get. That night we got a small, thistly patch of hillside in a semi-urban area, lit by the glow of a nearby industrial park. We slept to the sound of, like, maybe a thousand dogs. They barked literally all night.

The next day got off to a slow start. First, the directions we got from Google included a road that turned out not to exist. The alternate route took us to a road that was – surprise, surprise! – closed. I admit I was a bit more apprehensive about this one. It went straight up a steep hill, but perhaps more concerning was the chunk that had been washed out and replaced by a wavy stretch of gravel.

We decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it. The road wound its way ever upward, the pavement occasionally giving way to rough patches of gravel. The hill was relentless, climbing steadily for the first twelve kilometres, then descending for one, then climbing again.

In the next town we stopped for a coffee and told the bartender where we were headed. Thomas asked half-jokingly if it was all uphill. “Si,” she said, laughing.

We ended the day with a total elevation gain of over 2,500 metres.

That evening we were smart. We scouted out a campsite before dark, settling on a sheltered patch of meadow. We cooked a meal that was straight-up gourmet and got a really good sleep. The next day we would make it to Napoli.

Windows XP?

Windows XP?

Flats so far: Cristina, 0; Thomas, 0; Alex, 3

Flats so far: Cristina, 0; Thomas, 0; Alex, 3


Cooking an excellent dinner

Found shoes

Found shoes


Last Saturday got weird.

First we had to cross the Strait of Messina from Sicily into Calabria, the Southernmost province of mainland Italy. I had a small language-barrier crisis at the cafe that nearly caused me to miss the ferry. In the rush to leave I knocked my freshly-poured cappuccino onto the ground. Anyone who has had a cappuccino in Italy will recognize how tragic that is. If I believed in omens I would say this was one, but I don’t, so whatever.

We had a nice day of riding, including an enormous hill that Thomas wrote about in his last post. It was only at the top of that hill that Thomas realized he had lost his iPhone, and that he had probably left it on the beach back at sea level. He decided to go back and look for it. Cristina and I were not so courageous. It was already mid-afternoon, and the weather was wet and cold. We decided that we’d meet at a designated point a little further down the road. After a cursory glance at the map, we settled on a town called Rosarno.

The ride was pleasant enough. The road descended gently between neatly-planted olive orchards, each dotted with little white and yellow flowers. But as we drew closer something started to feel a little… off. Maybe it was the giant mounds of stinking trash that were dumped along the otherwise scenic road. Maybe it was just the weather.

We rode into Rosarno just before sunset. The town is hard to describe, but I’ll try to sum it up in two words: dismal and sinister. It’s hard to say why the vibe was so dark. The road was in rough shape, and there were a lot of abandoned storefronts, but there was something else that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. Maybe it was the obvious racial inequality. The population seemed to be divided into two distinct groups: white people in cars and black people on rickety old bikes. What was that about?

In any case, the town was creepy and we were not about to sleep there. Thomas still hadn’t arrived, so Cristina and I took off into the countryside to find a campsite. By this time it was getting dark. At one point we stopped at a rusted iron gate that opened onto an abandoned warehouse. “Should we sleep in there?” It could have been a scene from a horror movie.

We pressed on, passing dozens of inexplicably creepy orchards until we got to the beach. Its vast sandy expanse would have been lovely without all the garbage. And the large, stray dog. “Yeah, maybe not.”

On our way to the beach we had seen a sign pointing toward a campsite. We wound around on tiny country roads until we found it. When we rang the intercom, the gate opened onto another world.

The campsite looked like the 90s. The decor was tiki-bar chic. The promotional postcards were obviously faded, as though they’d been printed a generation ago and never used. The only other guests were a handful of Germans. Everything was a little bizarre, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we felt safe.

After we set up our tent, we rode back into town to find Thomas. The rural roads had only grown creepier in the dark, but we got back to town and found Thomas at the designated meeting place. It took us all of five seconds to get to the burning question: What is the deal with this creepy ass town? So we googled it.

First we learned about the race riots.

Calabria is home to thousands of African immigrants. Most are in the country legally. Many are not. Often these immigrants pay to come to Calabria on the pretext that they’ll be given a legitimate job. Instead, they’re forced into itinerant agricultural labour. They get paid under the table at rates that are well below Italy’s minimum wage.

In Rosarno, hundreds of Africans live in squalid conditions in an abandoned agricultural facility just outside of town. They sleep in crowded conditions without heat or running water. (It may be the same abandoned warehouse that Cristina and I declined to enter, though I wasn’t able to confirm that suspicion.)

In January of 2010, an immigrant from Togo was shot with a pellet gun in a nearby town. Hundreds of African immigrants took to the streets of Rosarno in protest. The protest turned into riots. Immigrants torched cars, broke shop windows, and clashed with police. The riots also sparked retaliatory attacks in which immigrants were beaten and shot with pellet guns.
In the aftermath, Italian authorities rounded up all of the town’s African immigrants and removed them from the area. Those who were in the country illegally were detained for identification and deportation. Makeshift dwellings were bulldozed. The Guardian referred to the incident as an ethnic cleansing.

Even after that bloody episode, African immigrants have an obvious presence in Rosarno. Whether the local Italian population likes it or not, the region’s economy is dependent on cheap labour. The region hasn’t made much international news recently, but I think it’s safe to assume that conditions remain dire and tensions remain high.

The second thing we learned was that Rosarno is a major hub of activity for the ‘Ndrangheta. In case you’re not familiar with this jolly bunch, here are some fun facts:


  • The ‘Ndrangheta are the Calabrian version of the Mafia. They are by most accounts Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate, eclipsing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra.
  • Rosarno services the nearby Port of Gioia Tauro, a major commercial shipping facility. The ‘Ndrangheta are alleged to maintain control of the port, which they use as an entry point for much of Europe’s cocaine imports (I’ve read estimates between 30 and 80%).
  • Rumour has is that the ‘Ndrangheta became the preferred partners of the Colombian cartels by being more reliable and professional than the Sicilian Mafia.
  • The drug trade is their bread and butter, but the Ndrangheta is involved in a host of other activities. Some of these are classic mafia fare: running extortion rackets and rigging public works contracts. They’re also involved in illegal garbage disposal, which might explain why so many of Calabria’s roads and towns are strewn with rubbish.
  • In the 1970s they expanded into the kidnapping business. The most famous case was the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of a wealthy oil tycoon. A ransom was eventually paid, but only after the captors mailed the family a package containing a lock of hair and an ear.
  • They’ve also branched out into some more exotic activities, including the dumping of toxic and radioactive waste. Most of the waste is allegedly loaded onto ships, which are either sunk off the coast or shipped to places like Somalia, where poor governance allows for the waste to be dumped with impunity.
  • There have been at least two major internecine conflicts within the organization. The First ‘Ndrangheta War in the 1970s led to approximately 300 murders while the second, from 1985 to 1991, killed an estimated 700 people.
  • The ‘Ndrangheta are bound together by close family ties, which are consolidated through intermarriage. These family bonds may be the reason that the gang has produced notoriously few informants, making them exceedingly difficult to prosecute.

We also learned (to bring things full-circle) that the ‘Ndrangheta controls most of the agriculture around Rosarno. They’re suspected of acting as enforcers of the region’s appalling agricultural labour market, keeping the migrant labourers in check in order to preserve the profitability of the orchards.

As we left Rosarno the next day, we couldn’t help but wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. What if the entire province of Calabria ended up being a crime-infested, trash-strewn shambles? Had we ventured into some kind of wasteland?

Read our next post to find out!

A particularly unpleasant boat

I’m terrible at traveling.

Don’t get me wrong, I love almost everything about it: novelty, uncertainty, newfound friends. I love trying new foods and observing new cultures. I love learning new words and seeing new sights. So it’s not that I dislike travel. I’m just bad at it.

When you travel it helps to have an open mind. It also helps to have a certain practical disposition – what some might call “common sense.” I have what I like to call an intellectual disposition, which is the nicest term I can think of for my crippling lack of street smarts.

I was reminded of that distinction in Palermo, which is where the three of us disembarked from what I’ll call The Boat.

Given its large size, it might be more accurate to call it The Ship, but that would be giving it too much respect. I’m going to call it The Boat. 

But before we talk about the boat, a little bit of background…

The Boat leaves from the ferry terminal in Tunis. The terminal is adjacent to one of that city’s most vibrant areas, so our host Dhia took he opportunity to take us out on a whirlwind tour of Tunisian food. 

We started with Lablebi, a garlicky chickpea soup that’s served on a bed of torn-up bread. After that we set out to find brik, a decadent deep-fried pastry stuffed with potato, tuna, and a runny egg. We found our brik and so much more, including harissa, salads, couscous, and fish (grilled whole), served with loads of bread and fries for good measure. 

We left the restaurant reeking of fish, so naturally our next destination was a trendy high-end bar on the upper floors of a nearby hotel. Dhia’s friend Asma bought us a round of drinks and we said our goodbyes. Before he could drive us to the ferry terminal, Dhia had to give some change to a gang of young men who were running a protection racket on cars parked outside the bar. 

I won’t spend too much time describing the ferry terminal, but three things stood out: 

1) There were no-smoking signs on every wall. They were the first such signs we saw in Tunis, where people smoke constantly in every bar, cafe, and restaurant. 

2) Men were smoking everywhere. There were ashtrays on every table. The air was grey. 

3) There were hundreds of men. Smoking, leather-jacketed Tunisian men. We saw maybe ten women, most of them watching children. 

We had bought tickets for a boat that left at midnight. When we arrived at the terminal at 4:00pm we learned that it left at one in the morning. After going through customs, we waited in the terminal until two. They finally opened the doors and we walked the long walk from the terminal to the dock, where we waited in the freezing cold until three.

Eventually, The Boat staff grabbed our bikes and gruffly strapped them to some sketchy concrete pillars. We locked our wheels and saddles in place and proceeded to the main deck.

We found ourselves in a dingy room full of dingy chairs. The windows were opaque. People were stripping seat cushions to set up makeshift beds. Tired humans were strewn everywhere. The nearby washrooms were full of smoking, leather-jacketed men. We found the largest remaining patch of floor and pitched our tents. The upside of anarchy is that you can pitch a tent inside The Boat.

I’ve lived a charmed life of first-world comfort. The Boat really put things into perspective for me. Not because it was inadequate. Actually, it was sort of the opposite: The Boat showed me how poorly I handle conditions that are merely adequate. It was bleak and beat-up and there was no toilet paper and I was slightly seasick. The proper response to those kinds of problems is  probably just to get over it, but I did not. I was sad.

The Boat was set to arrive in Palermo at three in the afternoon. That was the same boat that purportedly leaves at midnight. The real-life Boat was late enough that we arrived in Palermo after dark with no accomodations and no food. After docking we stood on board for an hour or so waiting to go through passport control.

We finally escaped just after six and biked around Palermo looking for a supermarket. On the way we passed some gorgeous buildings and a lot of Conspicuously Fashionable People. Italians are just so damn fashionable.

At some point we took our eyes off of the well-coiffed locals for long enough to realize that someone had stolen the light from Cristina’s bike. And her bell. And her bottles. And my bell. And my brand new bicycle computer.

My first reaction was something like “fuck that stupid Boat and the stupid jerks who work on the stupid Boat.” My mood darkened further when an Italian child ran up to me in the street and kicked my bike. Who does that?

But since my rage subsided, I’ve adjusted my perspective and realised that anyone with any bit of common sense would know not to leave a hundred dollar computer unsupervised in plain view for thirteen hours in a foreign country.

Having one’s head in the clouds can be nice. It allows for introspection and even a certain sense of inner peace. But traveling requires a kind of down-to-earth practicality. It requires some presence of mind. It requires you not to be a total space cadet.

Here’s hoping I learned something.