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