As part of this monthly edition of Women & the World, you will still get something informative, something practical, and something entertaining, but all of this will come from someone "Mozzafiato."
For those of you wondering what Mozzafiato means, it’s an Italian word untranslatable to English, and it describes something that impacts you deeply, evoking feelings of admiration and awe. And ourguest this month, Eleonora Sacco, brings Mozzafiato to life in every way.
Eleonora is a traveler passionate about eastern Europe's culture and sights; she loves hitchhiking, camping, CouchSurfing and photography. In 2015, Eleonora started Pain de Route, a multi-purpose resource to spread practical tips to promote conscious travel in little-known territories. The Pain de Route name comes from pan di via a super energetic food eaten by hobbits (Lord of the Rings) to be able to walk for a long time without feeling tired.
And Eleonora's journey is certainly one full of special magical energy.
Beyond her work with Pain de Route, Eleonora is the co-author of the Cement Podcast (on the New East), and the vice-president of the NGO I Travel Alone Because originally born in 2015 as a Facebook group. The NGO is the biggest community in Italy devoted exclusively to solo female travellers. So far, they’ve helped 25,000 women across Italy. Eleonora joined the NGO back in 2016 as a writer and has since deepened her commitment to help women and promote the positive effects of solo traveling.
I've personally followed (quite religiously, I should add) Eleonora's amazing journey for many years now through her social media channels and I always find her reflections and photos a refreshing and inspiring break of sincerity and otherworldliness. Her unusual destinations, adventurous stories on the road, travel diaries, and pictures are beautiful reminders of what it means to be a true traveler: one always searching for the core of things.
If you had to represent yourself in one photograph what would it be and why?
I think this one represents me accurately. I’m usually pretty quiet, but when I travel I feel so full of energy I literally light up the air around me and can’t keep myself from smiling. In this picture I was at the northernmost cape of Olkhon, the only inhabited island of Baikal lake in Siberia. It was late spring and after a short overnight drizzle the whole island turned green and started to blossom. Despite the enormous amount of pure, drinking water of Baikal lake, it seldom rains on the island. Both in winter and summer, you’ll probably find it very brownish and dry. I was so lucky back then. It was still cold and extremely windy in cape Khoboy, but the visibility was simply awesome. I sat next to one of the many poles that local populations cover with colourful ribbons, and took this pic. Olkhon island is considered one of the 5 global poles of shamanic energy and, well, it’s hard not to believe it. Once you’re there, you experience nature at its best. Everything is so strong and majestic, you would never want to leave.
Walk us through a day in the life of Eleonora: what did a typical working day look like for you? How has your routine been impacted now since the virus?
I don’t usually carry a computer with me when I travel, even during long journeys: I like the feeling of disconnection. It helps me concentrate on the trip and get closer to the people I meet. My emotions and experiences leave a deeper mark when I’m there, in the present, and nowhere else. So I don’t really “work” when I travel, or at least I try not to which usually means I'm overwhelmed by a huge amount of work when I return to Italy: emails to answer, writing, picture editing, social media and website managing for my clients and typically studying for the next trip.
When Lombardy and other provinces were declared ‘red zones’, I had just come back from India and had been feeling very sick. After one week staying in bed, I decided to get out of the city and joined my family in our countryside home. We actually planned to stay just the weekend, but ended up getting stuck here because we were forbidden to go back home. My parents managed to go back to Milan to join my sister, while me, my younger brother and his girlfriend decided to stay. It’s nice here and though most of the projects I was working on have been cancelled. I take care of our 6 hens and grow veggies in the garden. It’s a completely different life, very quiet and meditative, but I’m not new to it. I used to live this way when I was a kid.
What I know for sure is that I won’t completely go back to my previous life. Something has changed in the way I see my future. I’ll be back on the road, but things will never be the same again and even the way we travel will change. Living surrounded by nature is healing and it feels tremendously right, even when I’m stuck in the same place since more than one month and left only once for the supermarket. Despite the anxiety and fear, this way of life is something your body naturally recognises as true and healthy. We should slow the pace down more often - as most of the people living outside Europe and America do. We don’t have a Wi-Fi connection here, but for now we manage to work and study with mobile data only. We might even consider moving here when the pandemic ends.
These days there are many travel blogs out there. How is yours different from others?
A dear friend of mine told me not many days ago I should stop calling myself a travel blogger. I’m not sponsored and I don’t advertise products, plus nobody is paying me to stay in luxury hotels or to take part in expensive once-in-a-lifetime tours. My biggest income used to be the tours I organised for my own readers, my tour leading freelance activity and other projects connected to my blog.
Along with this, my wild way of traveling has always been very hard to sponsor and to advertise, but I’m actually proud of it. People trust me because they know I’m genuine. They like to read and follow my journeys on social media because they feel my travels are reachable and affordable. I don’t hide the backside of things and I’m not afraid to speak my mind.
My motto is to the core of things, because I like to get deep in things, to listen to people carefully, to show my respect to places, cultures, religions. This goes together with my restless quest for unbeaten paths. We need it, because every culture deserves attention. All this is naturally incompatible with the fast and superficial tourism we have all experienced at least once in our lifetime. The growing obsession for the most famous spots in the world will get boring for all of us soon. The need for new, undiscovered places is real and everyone can tell how much better slow tourism is. Hopefully this quarantine will teach us not to rush and to better appreciate all the simple things that are nextdoor.
Social media has definitely fuelled, as you put it "the obsession to visit the most famous spots in the world." How do you feel social media has influenced photography generally as a profession? And how has it influenced you personally?
Photography now is more accessible than ever: people can easily come across high quality pictures, and they can easily publish good pictures themselves. Mobile phone lenses get better and better and even post-producing has never been simpler. This means more people get into photography, but there’s more competition as well and it’s harder to be adequately valued and paid for your art. Photography used to be my biggest passion when I was 16, but nowadays photography only is not my cup of tea. I consider it a tool for a more effective communication and something a traveller can’t avoid anymore. You can write as good as you can, but if your pictures don’t rock, the article or the post is half its value.
Sometimes I’d like to care less about the pictures and focus on the journey or on the writing, but it’s a step I can’t skip anymore and it’s definitely become a part of my job.
Aside from a camera and essentials, is there one (or multiple!) objects you always take with you during your travels?
A hat and a scarf: they’ve always proved to be super useful. When it gets cold, keeping your head warm is the most important thing. I’ve had too many cold nights not to put a hat in my backpack. The scarf is a multi-purpose piece of cloth every woman should always carry with her. In many religious sites we may be asked to cover our legs, or head and shoulders. My scarf has saved me money, time and trouble so many times.
And is there one thing you always bring back from travels?
I’ve recently started bringing back different teas and seeds. Tea and herbal tea are something nice that doesn’t take up space, warms up the atmosphere and is good to be shared with friends. Tea comes along with the best memories from a journey. Helping seeds grow is a highly rewarding hobby. You would have never said these strange seeds you bought from an old babushka somewhere in Siberia last year managed to sprout next to your window. The salads and teas keep the travels alive.
Since you first started traveling at 20, you’ve been to 58 countries. If you had to summarise those travels in 3 photoswhat would they be and why?
The first one is a self-timer shot in Svaneti region, in Georgia. It was my first travel to the area, I was with some of my best friends. A Russian girl once told me, in a dark winter night in Latvia, some are places of the soul, and, whatever it means, Georgia is one of them.
I shot this one in Sarajevo, from the most beautiful viewpoint over the city: the Yellow Bastion, an Ottoman fortification where couples and friends gather to wait for the city to light up after sunset. It melts my heart to see the whole city wrapped up in just one picture: the towers, domes and minarets of all the worships sites all lined up on a single street; the white-dotted areas of the cemeteries, scars of the recent Balkan wars, where many 23 years olds lay. Sarajevo’s ugly twin-towers, the socialist buildings of snipers’ alley, the charming palaces built by the Austrians and the odd television towers uphill. There’s so much in one single city, and for this it is one of the most important places on Earth for me.
The last one is a picture from a jeep trip I went on to explore some of the most secluded places in Sakhalin island, the biggest island in Russia only 41km away from Japan and the farthermost place I’ve ever been on Earth. It was supposed to be the end of my 29 days Trans-Siberian journey. After I read Chekhov’s “Sakhalin island”, a collection of reportages he wrote in the 1890s, when the name Sakhalin only meant kotorga, the czar’s penal colony. Chekhov came back forever changed, the island was both magical and cursed, and I really just wanted to see with my eyes. I met some of the craziest and most welcoming people of my life and literally shared every single minute with them. The island is hard to explore on your own, and I feel blessed to have met them. From the misty Pacific to Japanese WWII bunkers, this island is unique and one of the places of the soul I miss the most.
You’re someone who’s made their passion their profession: What do you think of the phrase “follow your passion”?
As every motivational quote, it’s a bit overrated and many people use it without thinking about its true meaning. Yes, I followed my passion, and I believe people should follow their passions, but for me it’s been everything but easy. I’m not sure this is the best way for everyone and many might simply not have the means to do it. It has a high cost, many times you would like to be focusing on what you like more, but you must keep on doing second or third jobs to keep on going. The point is whether you can make a living out of it.
Many among my school mates graduated with certain degrees at university just to get a job, or because their parents wanted them to do so. I was lucky enough not to be influenced by my parents and relatives, they supported me unconditionally.
On the other hand, when your passion becomes your job many negative sides pop up and you’ll constantly have an inner fight between your values, the need to sell what you do, the rules of the society we live in, and the privileges you were born in. In this sense, it’s easier to be an employee, especially in hard times like the ones we live in these days. But I think I’ve made the right choice for me. It’s also hard to face the freelancer stigma. Most people think you’re not really working or simply take your hard work for a hobby. You must fight to prove your value. So yes, follow your passions, because that’s the only way you can be who you dreamt to be, but keep in mind it’s risky, costly and sometimes very hard.
If you could design one trip across multiple countries (let’s say for one month) for everyone to take once in their lifetime, where would it be?
It would be in the Balkans, for three simple reasons.
1)The area is incredibly diverse despite it’s small size: it’s hard to find other regions in the world where you can cross many countries without covering too many kilometres. The Balkans are a true melting-pot, footprint of huge empires of the past, when different ethnicities and their languages, cultures and religions used to live side by side under the same ruler. Challenge yourself between different alphabets, languages and traditions. In a couple of hours by car there are big chances, wherever you are, that you’ll encounter a border crossing and enter a different country.
2) It’s an unspoiled area. Dubrovnik is way too overcrowded during the summer (thanks, King’s Landing!). Being scarcely populated, the nights are starry and dark, the cities easily walkable, the National Parks extremely wild and pure. You’ll be surprised by the huge amount of natural beauties you’ll find on your way. Above all, I’d suggest the Una National Park, in Bosnia Hercegovina, Skadar Lake between Montenegro and Albania, and Ohrid Lake between North Macedonia and Albania.
3) They’ll teach you resilience and the art of starting from scratch. Most of the countries of the area have either faced harsh dictatorships, wild times of crisis, wars or even genocide. You’ll be surprised all this happened in Europe not long ago. But you’ll be even more surprised by how people can be smiley, warm and truly welcoming despite all they have seen and lived. Sarajevo is a healing city, a phoenix rising again from the ashes. A charming, intriguing city that survived a ruthless siege. The same can be said about Belgrade, Pristina, Mostar, Bucarest, Tirana and so on. Be respectful, be open and you’ll come back forever changed.
This last one comes from popular request of our readers: Do you have any advice for women who want to travel solo but struggle to fight through the stigma of what it means to be a solo female traveller?
My advice is this: there’s nothing hard about traveling alone. Most of the obstacles we see are just in our mind. Every woman is perfectly able to take care of herself even while traveling. There are thousands of tools, information and advice we can count on today, and most of them are free and easily available on a smartphone. Read about who’s travelled there before you. Study your destination very well. Get suitable equipment to keep you safe. Ask for help before your journey, there are tons of communities online ready to support you. But keep in mind that the strength you’re searching for is already inside you.
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