Right now in the French countryside one man is showing the world the meaning and importance of sustainable travel. The Man on the River Project is following Giacomo de Stefano as he rows his way across Europe.
Traveling across ancient and near-forgotten waterways Giacomo will traverse the rivers, canals, and locks linking London to Istanbul. Together with a rotating team of friends and helpers, both on board and on shore, Giacomo will travel through 15 countries and 5,200km across Europe on a rowing adventure to raise awareness about the importance of rivers both to the environment and to human culture.
Think rowing a boat across Europe sounds exhausting? Think again. Giacomo says “We are full of life, we are rediscovering a way of traveling that is very enriching.” (And at 9:30pm after rowing all day he’s more chipper than me.)
A River Runs Through It
Central to the voyage are the tenants of a new environmentalism, one that is concerned about the economy as well as the environment. The journey is supposed to highlight the forgotten importance of rivers not only for travelers but also for traders, to return rivers to their central role in commerce and idea exchange.
The Man on the River says, “For centuries, rivers have been the principal thoroughfares for linking civilizations and of supplying water to human communities. It is no coincidence that almost all major cities have grown on the banks of a river. “
“Today, most waterways are left to themselves, favoring other forms of polluting and costly transport and worse, dumping both urban and industrial waste and sewage into the rivers, bringing a slow death upon river life.”
The journey is also a return to the heart of travel, the slow travel that eschews tourism in favor of real interactions with locals, with friends and with self. It is the poetic and spiritual heart of travel where you journey outwardly to journey inward and arrive at your destination changed.
Giacomo is also eager to show people that travel doesn’t have to be expensive. “ It is possible to travel with a low budget” he says. “ Walking, hiking, riding a bike or taking a boat don’t take a lot of money and those activities can bring people to an area, help the local economy.” The project’s operating budget is $0.
Giacomo and his international team of friends are working on a gift economy, meaning they aren’t paying for anything (except maybe the occasional beer) and are instead relying on locals to gift them with food, lodging or whatever else they feel called to bestow. “ If you arrive in a place in a humble way people want to help, they try to help and they feel pleasure in helping you.” Giacomo asserts.
So far it’s been working, in England Giacomo and crew were offered a place to sleep for the night. Expecting a couch they turned up and found that everyone had their own rooms complete with roaring fires in fireplaces. Other offering are more simple, like the cherries local farmers have been giving, but together they are keeping the voyage going.
The Boat, The Man
“In the beginning nobody wanted to believe it was possible so it was very difficult,” Giacomo said. Slowly, he was able to persuade people to join the project. Then through the power of friends, and friends of friends he was able to generate enough resources to get the man on the river so to speak.
The boat he is traveling on, Clodia, is a 19’ Ness Yawl. Built in Venice by Scottish boat builder and freind of Giacomo Roland Poltock, the ship relies on its Viking roots to help it on the river. “ Vikings were river traders much more than they were killers,” Giacomo reflects,“ Its wonderful that somebody (a Scot) with Viking ancestry was able to build that ship for us.” Equipped with oars and a single sail it is the perfect size for one man to navigate the many waterways of Europe.
Giacomo himself was made in Italy and loves the water, he lives on a house boat in the Venetian lagoon. Man on the River is his fourth adventure to focus on tourism and water. Each voyage has been focused on a specific aspect of water and travel from a sailing odyssey along the historic trade routes of the Venetian Republic to Canto Mediterraeo a sailing cruise in search of musical history from Venice to Istanbul.
Also along for the journey, although a bit in front of Giacomo, is a crew of talented friends from across the globe. Fine Schaumberg is captaining the vessel that works as ground support, she is documenting the journey and has been blogging about the people she meets. The support team is also sticking to the principles of the project including the reliance on a gift economy.
Throughout their journey Giacomo and friends will pass through over 400 locks, giving them the
opportunity to see the beauty of man-made canals and the cultures that have grow up around the locks and quays.
They will travel through 15 countries, starting in England and moving through France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungry, Croatia, Serbia, Romainia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and finally ending up in Turkey.
Moving at a speed of about 30km a day the journey will take about six months, depending on winds, current and weather. Hopefully they will reach Istanbul before the end of October because by November the Black Sea will be inhospitable to a boat as small as theirs.
Working with Nature
Man-made? Isn’t that contrary to environmentalism? The trick Giacomo says “is to build something without destroying something else, to create something out of the natural environment and to work with nature.”
For his own part Giacomo is happy to be on the river. He says that the Man on the River Project gives him the opportunity to “show that sustainable choices can be made. I’m rowing with my own oars and practicing what I preach.”
He thinks that many environmentalists, though working for a good cause have the wrong approach. He thinks that in trying to get people to be more environmentally aware that we should have non-violent approach. That instead of chants and protests we should have positive creative action. Giacomo tells me “Rather than revolutions I would prefer evolutions.”
If you would like to follow Giacomo and his journey visit Man on the River Project. With blogs, videos and an interactive map of the journey, you can feel like you are on board too!