Seven great ingredients combined for one great flavor is how I will remember my ride from ZAGREB, CROATIA to TIRANA, ALBANIA with a BIG BITE of ITALY in between. Read on to the end before you decide if you like my European Big Muc.
Posting this blog from Skopje, North Macedonia. A little later than I had planned, but so many new experiences everyday are grabbing my attention. Here are my ride stats after 77 days in the saddle.
32 cities, 21 countries
24 RSM office stops
11 kids' cancer orgs: 10 active collaborators, 1 pending.
3 oncology department tours
1 government health minister visit
>$25,000 Euros raised and donated locally here in Europe.
Starting with my visit to Zagreb and RSM Croatia, followed by visits to several well-known and a few lesser-known iconic Italian locales, namely: Trieste, Milan, Lake Como, Maranello, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Rome, Alberobello, Monopoli and Bari; add my first overnight ferry from Bari to Durres; mixing together visits with friends new and old , my brother Dan joining me for 5 days, the first three in Bari, then the overnight ferry to Albania, and a night in Tirana. Altogether this segment of the Ride 4 Dray Europe made a lifetime of delicious memories.
Quiz-time, can you match the picture to the location?
Pictured below, starting clockwise from top left: brother Dan and me in Alberobello Italy; old friends - Ted & Theresa Mason (hailing from N'awlins) met for dinner in Florence; new friends - Sonila Hyseni, concierge at Tirana Albania Marriott, and Divemaster Vito Cosimo Orofina from Monopoli Italy (Dan and Vito could be twins?).
The first big rainy segment of the journey popped between Vienna and Zagreb, hiding the beauty of the eastern Alps, but the rain was a refreshing wet greeting to Croatia.
RSM Croatia, led by Ivan Markovic, and partners Martina Jaranovic and Valentina Markioli, pulled out all of the stops for a warm welcome to Zagreb. Ivan and I toured the children's oncology department at the Children's Hospital of Croatia, where we met with Dr. Aleksandra Bonevski and head nurse Martina. Later on, Dr. Bonevski introduced us to "Firefly", Croatia's leading charity organization dedicated to children facing malignant diseases. Several days later I was thrilled to virtually meet with Mirela Stanic Popovic, executive director and one of Firefly's founders. The name Firefly was purposely selected for this little insect brings light into darkness, which is the noble goal of Firefly Croatia. RSM Croatia and I joined forces to donate 1000 Euro to Firefly.
Pri Zvonca (the "Little Bell") restaurant is where Ivan, Martina, Valentina and I, broke bread and laughed our time away with authentic Croatian grub. Such a special visit to Zagreb. I am looking forward to returning the hospitality whenever Ivan, Martina or Valentina visits the USA.
Onto Trieste via the southern route through Rijeka, Croatia provided views of stunning landscapes, twisty roads through mountains and valleys on a misty morning ride. One of the more interesting stretches was the 18-mile stretch through Slovenia where it has its only access to the Adriatic Sea.
Trieste just might be the best kept secret from American tourists. Shops, sights, dining, everything anyone would ever want in this seaside port with historical significance here in Europe. If you were to pick the perfect one-night stop, Trieste is it!
Oh Milan. Three days in the fashion capital of Italy, with a day trip to Lake Como sandwiched in the middle. Where the heck is Clooney? He stood me up for lunch, again! Admittedly not a fashionista, the mixture of high-end shops surrounding the iconic Duomo Cathedral made for great "people watching". And here DaVinci added to his legacy as one of the GOATs in science and art - simply revolutionizing how the world views the world.
Maranello = Ferrari. Ferrari = FAST Cars! The Ferrari Museum is a must see for car lovers. Nothing like it in the world. And the perfect stop along the road to Florence.
Maranello to Florence provided some breathtaking views and interesting challenges. Barely missing a head-on uphill on a blind turn and navigating 100's if not 1000's of twists and turns through the Tuscan Apennines (baby Alpines) that run the spine of Italy. A riders dream!
Three days in Florence, with a day trip to Pisa and Lucca in between. Ironically the very first pub I run into in Florence is the Trip Per Tre biker pub. I couldn't just walk on by. Endless supply of beautiful buildings, statues, small narrow streets, shopping and dining everywhere you turn. Florence is definitely a place to return to.
Onward I went for three days in what was once in ancient times the capital of Europe - Rome! Spending two days wandering ancient ruins and the Vatican City was enough. My hotel's outdoor swimming pool was the perfect rest before heading on to Bari.
Bari is where I caught up with my brother Dan. A one-hour drive to Alberobello, a UNESCO world heritage site, was our first stop. Created in the early 1600's, the cone shaped roofs and the mortar-less construction of the homes was required by the Count (Lord of the area) so he could avoid paying taxes. Capping off our visit to this beautiful part of Italy, was our we scuba experience off the shore of Monopoli. Both of us "rusty", but quickly renewed our scuba skills. Carrying the 50+ extra pounds on precarious stone steps, down then up upon our return, before jumping into the sea 5+ feet below, made this "shore" dive extra memorable. A safe return to Vito's dive shop was capped with a celebratory bier.
Anchors away two hours late, the ferry from Bari to Durres, Albania, somehow arrived on time. How they managed to fit all of the trucks, cars and motorcycles onto this ship was amazing to watch. The sunrise over the Albanian coast was a welcome sight, and the border control was amazingly simple.
A short 29-mile ride to Tirana is where I found Dan and my hotel, the Tirana Marriott. Solina, the concierge was fabulous, and a true expert on all things Albanian. After settling into our rooms, Dan and I were off, exploring the sights and food of Tirana. Starting with Bunk Art 1, the famous underground museum covering the cold war era. Then a cable car ride to Ballkoni Dajtit, the Balcony of Tirana, for lunch with a view of Tirana below. Our hotel was built next to Tirana's big outdoor sports/music complex. Our rooms had direct view of the stadium to watch Elvana Gjata, Albania's pop superstar. Even though I couldn't understand a word of Albanian, it was a fun 3+ hours of rocking the house.
So, what do you think of my European Big Muc? Do you remember the original TV commercial? Click this link or the image below for a walk back in time. "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun."
Stay tuned for my next blog featuring my ride through Albania, then onto Ioannina and Athens Greece. Followed by the overnight ferry to Chios, Greece, and arriving Cesme, Turkiye. (Yes Turkiye, the U.N. recently confirmed its acknowledgement of the new spelling and pronunciation - Turkiye, and not turkey the bird we eat for Thanksgiving).