Few people who live in Grand Cayman can have failed to see Gilbert Nicoletta on the roads with his “pedal to the metal,” a true biker covering acres of tarmac in his relentless pursuit of the horizon.
The broadcaster, writer and owner of the Joe Tourist store is always up for a challenge. So, after having successfully biked through all 50 U.S. states two years ago, he set his sights on conquering Europe.
Riding high on his experiences during three tours of the continent since 2015, he plans to self-publish a photo book later this year of his travels across 28 countries and six micro-states.
His modern version of the grand tour took in some of Europe’s principal cities, as well as many of its lesser known haunts. And, traveling on Battle Axe, his Kawasaki Nomad 1600, has only whetted his appetite for more.
Having left his desk job in local media to focus on growing his eco-tourism business, Nicoletta finally had the flexibility to hit the open road for weeks at a time without having to “fret about losing a job or taking a sabbatical.”
His last trip from mid-May through the end of August took him across 10 countries starting in Milan, Italy.
Conquering a continent
Although his ultimate goal is to experience all 28 EU countries, he’s in no particular hurry and is more interested in the journey than “turning [his] quest into a race against time.”
“I deliberately maintain a very relaxed schedule,” he said when asked about the planning stages of his trips. “My road trip motto is ‘No itinerary. No schedule. Just the view.’”
Expanding on his high plains drifter theme, he said, “Most mornings, I get up, hop on the bike, and deliberately get ‘lost’. I just let the day take me where it will … that’s when the true adventure began.”
This approach, unhindered by pre-set goals, freed Nicoletta to be open to any encounter, however fleeting.
On his most recent trip, he landed in Italy and spent a month there, starting in Milan before exploring the wine regions, countryside and coasts.
Nicoletta is now sifting through several road journals and albums, which record his European trips. The biggest obstacle he found during his European tours was finding beds big enough for his 6-foot, 5-inch frame.
“Many hotels stated they had queen or king beds, but in reality what I ended up with were two twin beds pushed together. It always ended with me rolling over or stretching out at some point and sliding down onto a cold hard floor,” he said.
The upside was drinking in stunning scenery and connecting with everyday people, many of whom had never heard of the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism sponsored his last tour, so he gave away flags and key chains, and talked about his island home.
“People can make a country beautiful,” he said. “There are countless, breathtakingly beautiful places all around the world, but if you add friendly, warm, kind people to that equation, heaven happens.”
A world of woes
Heartwarming scenes aside, with parts of the continent unsettled by rapid inward migration, Nicoletta also saw firsthand those uprooted by war and economic hardship.
In Vienna, his visit coincided with the first large influx of Syrian refugees.
“The hotel in which I was staying was less than half a block away from a large train station terminal, where most of the refugees were arriving in the city,” he said.
“It was heartbreaking to see entire families that had been displaced from their homes, and things that were familiar to them. Many slept on the sidewalks, huddled amongst the few belongings that they had grabbed, as they fled their homelands.
“Scores of Austrians, even small children, arrived daily to drop off food and toiletries to the large makeshift tent city that had sprung up, almost overnight, across from where I was staying.”
Nicoletta also saw the flip side of the warm welcome.
“Eventually the refugee influx spilled across the street and into the hotel, so I got to witness the greed, deception and ungratefulness that can also be a byproduct of humanitarian efforts.”
Within a day of leaving Vienna, he and Battle Axe were in Hungary, crossing the border into Slovenia, and then Croatia. The Hungarian army was busy erecting razor wire to close the border as he passed through.
“It was eerie to see so many changes, social and political, escalate so rapidly, in just a matter of a few days,” he said. “It was even weirder to be right smack dab in the middle of it all, in the middle of this international melee … something I would normally read about or see on TV from the safety of my couch, on the other side of the world.”
Under a spell
With plans for at least one more trip to continental Europe, there are plenty of places that Nicoletta wants to revisit, such as Italy’s Amalfi Coast and the sun-drenched Greek Islands.
To hear Nicoletta talk about Greece is to understand the spell it put him under.
“Its romance-inducing whitewashed architecture and jellybean colored storefronts touched my imagination with their beauty, hospitality and architecture in a way I never imagined,” he recalled.
“The first morning I woke, I was greeted by the polished glass-like surface of the Mediterranean, stretching endlessly to the horizon. It was a welcome sight after the grueling coast-to-coast trek from Naples to Bari, including the uncomfortable, mind-numbing 10-hour journey on an aging, auto ferry.”
With the strangeness of his surroundings also came a welcome sense of home, including the familiar smell of the warm sea and the vibrant color of the ocean.
After a leisurely breakfast and a scratch-itinerary from the pensione’s owner, he was off and running toward another day of chance encounters, inspiring views and culinary explorations.
One place where Nicoletta did get an amusingly rough reception, though, was in the coastal town of Umag, Croatia.
“I rode into town just as a freak windstorm was tearing up the coast there, forcing all the local shopkeepers and vendors off the boardwalk,” he recalled. “Many of the little shops were shuttered and the wind was constantly knocking over the outdoor displays and clothing stands.
“Well, here comes this tall, dark, ominous leather-clad stranger and I’m covered head to toe in biker skulls, and black leather and I’m not looking for shopping opportunities, but I am perusing the town for photo ops.”
Everyone he saw that day was elderly and reserved. Taking pictures of an ancient church in the main square, Nicoletta came across one of the town’s ancient inhabitants.
“Suddenly this old lady, hunched over and walking with a stick started following me around the cobbled streets, hurling curses at me, spitting on the ground in disgust and glaring at me … her eyes filled with venom,” he said, incredulously.
Needless to say, this was one encounter that could never have ended up with a cozy chat in a warm café.
“There was no doubt from her demeanor, she wanted me gone from the town, so I left, chuckling to myself the rest of the way across the border to Venice.”
In the main, Nicoletta found being a biker helped break down cultural and ethnic differences.
“I’ve pulled into rest stops after being on the road for hours, and within seconds of turning off the ignition and firing down my engine, some random stranger is beside me gawking at my bike,” he said.
“Most of the time, I hadn’t even put my kickstand down and I’d have attracted someone eager to find out where I’d traveled from, where I was going to … it’s the ultimate ice breaker. It became my calling card as a storyteller and adventurer.”
With so many places to choose from, his favorite European country was Spain.
Talking specifically about Barcelona, Nicoletta said, “When it comes to unsurpassed hospitality, the ease of a foreign language and exotic foods, [it] makes me want to pack my bags and move there for six months a year.”
“It mirrors what I love most about Cayman: The warm climate, coastal living, fantastic seafood and cuisine and a fun-loving, laid-back people and lifestyle,” he added.
“As a photographer, I never put my camera away for more than a few minutes at a time. When I’m on my European road trips, there’s always something exciting to discover, explore and photograph.”
Nicoletta is already thinking about the next continent he will chase down: Asia.
South America, New Zealand, Greenland and going back to Alaska are also on the top of his biker’s bucket list.