Cycling to the end of Europe

Intimations of mortality led Michael Guilfoyle to take the trip of a lifetime, at the age of 66


Istanbul as a destination conjures up images of minarets, mosques, bazaars and palaces and, of course, the movie Skyfall. But when you decide to cycle all the way there, the place itself slips into a hazy almost mystical distance as the immensity of the journey takes over – a bit like looking through a telescope backwards.

I made the decision early last year, after one of my best friends succumbed to cancer. I’d cycle to the far end of Europe, to Istanbul, and take in along the way my grandfather’s resting place in Thessaloniki, which I first visited in 1968. At age 66 and with intimations of mortality all around me, including prostate cancer in my own case, I definitely couldn’t put it on the long finger.

I would use my hybrid touring/ commuting bike, panniers and a light one man tent. I would start, for weather reasons, in September in the south of France, easily accessible by Ryanair from Dublin. I’d cycle to the ferry at Marseille, and across Sardinia, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

My family and friends didn’t object, just humoured me, thinking by September at my age I’d see sense. My brother, who considered joining me along the way, was hors de combat due to a cycling accident in Wicklow so I was on my own – but then I’d hitchhiked there on my own in 1968, so why not cycle there on my own in 2012? This time (as then), it was to be a self-sufficiency low budget travelling model, with camping and hostels or cheap hotels along the way. I gave myself 50:50 odds of completing it.

I started my journey from the little village of Puissalicon near Beziers on a sunny September 11th. My first four days were all excitement and trepidation, the wonder of sea and sky of the Camargue, a scary howling Mistral wind, the nice contrast of tent and cheap hotel, the beautiful Côte d’Azur-like coast before Marseille, and the nerve-wracking negotiation of a big port city with a deadline to meet. Still, I felt had already achieved something as I wheeled my bike up the ramp of the massive Napoleon Bonaparte ferry to Porto Torres in northern Sardinia.

Sardinia was a lovely experience, enhanced by the company of my daughter and her partner for two of my four cycling days there. However, the last day’s cycling was tough and stressful with heat, a sad goodbye to the “kids”, a sleepless wild camping night and getting seriously lost while trying to avoid the busy main roads. Not great preparation for a night sharing a cabin with three strangers (which emerged as my only option in the ticket office in Cagliari), and for the challenge of Naples looming ahead of me.

I’d heard they’d lit candles for me at home that I’d survive Naples. A Swiss friend told me of a friend who lost his shorts and cycling top without noticing as he cycled through that city. I think something might have been lost in translation. Anyway, I’d been warned. So I ratcheted up my alertness, put my passport in my helmet and credit cards in my shoes, and out the port gate I went, to be immediately swallowed up by the unique chaos that is downtown Naples.

In the event, against all the odds, I actually enjoyed it. All around me, at that special eye and ear level of the cyclist, it was busy, bustling, noisy, disorienting but very interesting and surprisingly unthreatening. My head spun with the words of Peter Sarstedt, as I negotiated the rough pseudo-Roman road surfaces of the backstreets of Naples.

The next seven sunny days took me across the tough mountainous spine of Italy. The scenery varied from the beautiful sweep of the bay of Salerno to wood-surrounded hill villages full of the sound of evening church bells, the silence of timeless olive groves. A two-day stop in Ostuni, with two good friends, was a wonderfully restful, though surreal, interlude. Then, it was back on the bike for one more day through a land of trullis, olive groves, vivid red earth and honey-coloured drystone walls to Brindisi, and the ferry to Greece.

An eight-hour crossing of a limpid Adriatic under the fullest of moons, with the dark mountainous coast of Albania on one side and exuberantly lit Corfu on the other, allowed time for reading and diary-writing, always with one eye on my panniers and tent.

I needed high-visibility gear and lights at midnight to negotiate the moving canyon walls of trucks exiting the busy port of Iguomenitsa. That night a friendly Greek hotel owner introduced me, for the first time, to an affinity the Greeks feel with us in our mutual distress. It was an oft-repeated experience. I was told Europe was forgetting how Greece had tied down numerous Nazi divisions in the second World War, of antipathy towards Germany and of the outlandish ideas the troika were dreaming up for Greece, such as deregulating the taxi industry and vacating those expensive-to-run Greek islands along the Turkish coast.

Initially Greece was hot, high and hard going. But it gave me the great gift of a traffic-free road, with virtually all of the trans-Greece traffic being pulled onto a new motorway. For days it was just basking lizards, some uncleared stonefall, sheep droppings and the odd tumbleweed.

A break in beautiful Ioannina with its Roman/Byzantine, Ottoman and Norman vestiges introduced me to the complex history of northwest Greece – and set me up for some of the nicest days’ cycling of the trip.

Cooling temperatures, the quiet road, high alpine pastures and some great Pindos Mountains forest camping spots, combined with positive feelings of increasing strength and a sense of making progress, to have a very good effect on the mood. That said, brushes with night time bears, wild dogs and trigger-happy hunters were unwelcome diversions.

Emotionally, Thessaloniki was the highlight of my trip. To arrive, while lost in its suburbs, at my grandfather’s cemetery seemed to be on his guidance. Next day, I let the place tell me how long to linger. In the event I stopped at every tombstone of the 1,800 or so men and women (many of them young Irish men) in that poignantly beautiful war cemetery.

Even though it wasn’t for the first time, I can’t do justice in words to how I felt coming upon my grandfather, after whom I’m named. And every time, over the next two days, that I walked into the hush, peace and beauty of that place I was caught up by the contrast of past long-quieted sadnesses, grief, loneliness and pain and the present-day beauty and calm.

On I went then, out of Thessaloniki, past the mysterious misty Mount Athos, along a dilapidated and semi-deserted Aegean coast. I travelled under my first cloudy skies, camping wild, a bit forlorn and often mosquito-bitten. A two-day treat in returned sunshine had me touring (unencumbered by panniers) the beautiful circular island of Thassos, with its classic Greek island landscape and history, its peaceful sunlit monasteries and turquoise waters.

The journey now became pure grind. I have to admit to apprehension as I crossed the intimidating land frontier with Turkey, over the same bridge I had walked in 1968, though with no evidence now of the alarming military presences I remember then.

Three successive forced wild camping nights in both Greece and Turkey, a punctured airbed, dull scenery, heavy traffic and long distances began to take their toll on body, nerves and mood – a delayed reaction also to parting from my grandfather in Thessaloniki, I suspect.

My last cycling day, October 19th, was a nightmare. I hadn’t realised Istanbul is truly a megacity of some 15 million people and seemingly just as many trucks and cars. Hivis gear and lights, 10 hours of cycling with gritted teeth and sheer determination to finish, got me to a cluster of small city centre hotels.

After a fatigue-induced tantrum over cold water in one place, I found a comfortable en suite room in a friendly hostel. I slept that final night of my journey feeling all was well with the world.

Well, Istanbul – or Byzantium or Constantinople, however you want to view it – is a teeming modern European city, full of glimpses of the past but living very much in its present. It’s a city to stroll through, sip coffee and eat lunch on its sidewalks, shop in its amazing Grand Bazaar or spice market or just sit on a park bench and people-watch, dream or imagine other times.

The vestiges of the Roman/Byzantine era are everywhere. I spent my first afternoon in the most evocative place for me – the sad, lifeless Byzantine basilica and Museum of Sancta Sophia, remembering its beginnings in AD534, and its violent end as a Christian place of worship in 1453.

I had made it to Istanbul. No matter what happens in my future, that can’t be taken from me. I had cycled about 2,400km (including detours) in a 39-day journey, with seven rest days. I’d lived in a wonderful day-to-day world of ever changing landscapes, cultures, histories, languages, conversations, national personalities, personal challenges and genuine thrills.

The journey was long enough for it to gradually become almost the “real world” for me, with its own new set of physical and mental requirements. I was privileged to be allowed and able to do it, especially without any health or mechanical mishaps whatsoever.

In fact, I have never felt as well as I did during and especially at the end of the trip. I had just completed the ultimate detox boot camp experience of moderate daily exercise, fresh air, light eating, loads of fruit, water, virtually no alcohol, long rests, healthy distractions, freedom, peace and calm . . . And I had made a new best friend – my bike.

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