In a mission marked by generosity and curiosity, Giacomo De Stefano took his final strokes on the Golden Horn last week, culminating a 5,400-km 18-month journey from London to Istanbul along the waterways of Europe using only the wind in his sails and the power in his arms to row.
“The emotion is really too strong for me,” De Stefano said upon his teary arrival. “Thank you Clodia [the name of his boat], thank you to the water, to the wind, to the air, and thank you Istanbul.”
The Italian native had three aims for the trip: to protect and discover man’s relationship with water, giving back to the resource he holds so dearly; to find a more sustainable way of traveling, which he calls “Slow Travel”; and finally, “to put a spot[light] on sustainable economies along Europe’s waterways,” by exploring new ideas to safeguard cultures and economies without disturbing and destroying local ecosystems.
A documentary filmmaker by trade and an environmentalist by passion, De Stefano had been involved in a film project on mass tourism in China.
“Tourism is the biggest industry on the planet,” De Stefano said. “There’s nothing like tourism and its complexity to produce income, and also cultural erosion, morphological erosion and environmental erosion. Think about hotels, transportation, water, and even food.”
All of resources that go into traveling are finite, and he thinks slowing it all down will make a difference on their sustainability. During his journey, De Stefano baked his own bread in a wood stove made from a mini-beer keg, ate fish and fruit and the food offered to him by locals along the way.
De Stefano chose to slow down his own life when he witnessed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th 2001.
“I started to rethink my life completely,” he said. “I was working in the art sector. I was doing something beautiful and I was very lucky.” He then took a few steps back from his glamorous life as a documentary filmmaker and became a restaurant dishwasher at the age of 38.
The goal was to become more humble and “de-grow,” as he calls it. He lives by the philosophy that sometimes simple is better, and regressing back to a more modest lifestyle can be beneficial to oneself and to the world at large. His desire to work with his hands led him to repair wooden boats, setting the stage for his future adventures.
De Stefano’s journey was challenging. Facing a harsh winter in Hungary forced him to halt for six months. His first attempt to conquer the London-to-Istanbul route was cut short by a severe case of viral pneumonia in 2010.
“I reached the North Sea and I had to stop there,” he recounted. “A lady saved my life and just picked me up from my boat, put me on a plane and sent me to Venice,” the city he calls home, where spent the next year recovering.
He documented his ups and downs on Man on the River, his blog where he updated his trip with photos, videos and posts. The site issued a call for visitors to board his boat, and he received hundreds throughout his travels, calling them his “Men on the river.”
Slowly but surely, De Stefano made it all the way through to Serbia and Romania, where he saw some of the worst water pollution of his trip. He finally reached the Black Sea in mid-September, where he was impressed with the clarity of the water, but his arrival to Istanbul was delayed yet again, thanks to a slew of storms that rolled through the sea. “This sea seems even [blacker] than I thought,” De Stefano wrote on his site, “Waves, sudden thunderstorms, traffic.”
De Stefano has yet to decide how he will return to Venice, whether he will ride a bike or take a bus, fly or sail again. He has a few projects in store, including collaboration with the Slow Food movement based in northern Italy and another called bewater.info, founded to protect rivers and seas. One thing he knows for certain is that it is often important to slow down, and “maybe we can really understand and be good citizens of this miracle which is planet Earth.”