Cycling to the end of Europe
Intimations of mortality led Michael Guilfoyle to take the trip of a lifetime, at the age of 66
Michael Guilfoyle at his grandfather’s grave in Thessaloniki
Journey’s End Michael Guilfoyle at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul after his epic cycle
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.