This book has been the perfect accompaniment over the last couple of weeks as I have invariably found myself, after all the domestics have been completed, settling down with a nice glass of something, some cheese and the travels and travails of Reggie as he carries Andrew on his pilgrimage to the edge of Europe. Like all good stories however it needs to start somewhere and this one was through Twitter with Andrew asking for volunteers to review and blog about his book. Being a total unknown and therefore not expecting to be chosen I put my metaphorical hand up for a copy as a) it was a book and I love reading b) it was about cycling and I love cycling and c) it was about travel and …. you know the rest. Then I thought uh oh have I just done something in haste that I will repent at leisure? After all this blog is about things that nourish us, our passions, things we like (I have plenty of places to vent my spleen, as friends will testify to, but this blog is not one of them) so what if the book was rubbish? I was not going to write about something I did not enjoy and was dreading having to say to the author sorry thanks for the book can’t write about it as it was pants.
Luckily within the first couple of pages I knew that Andrew (the author), Reggie (the bike) and me were going to get along just fine. Andrew is a French teacher by profession and I, bar being able to say goodnight in Welsh, embarrassingly can barely speak a word of another language but this book is the living manifestation of joie de vivre ! (apologies now to Andrew if I’ve just sworn at him). Of course being a teacher means that you get a modicum of holiday allowance which Andrew cynically mocks in the first paragraph of the book in describing the three reasons to become a teacher: Christmas, Easter and Summer! Andrew decides to spend his summer cycling from his home in Berkshire to Brindisi down in the heel of Italy, a journey of over 3,000km.
As Andrew goes about getting his act together for the journey it looks straight forward, cross the channel and pick up the Eurovelo5 which will basically take him all the way there. Of course the Eurovelo5 like many bike paths is simply a mythical creation like Merlin or Dragons it sounds great on paper but when put under the microscope of reality it does not exist. Fortunately Andrew and Reggie are not the first to have stepped out from England to Italy as of course(!) Archbishop Sigeric founded the Via Francigena pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome in AD 990.
Therein lies the beauty of this book, it is not about cycling but about travel. There are stacks of cycling books that document heroic deeds of daring do but most of them miss the point for me – what is the point of travelling if you are only worried about the destination, surely the point of travelling is not the destination but the journey itself? Travelling by bike is an amazing way to travel; by any motorised vehicle you pass things so fast that by the time you have thought about stopping to look at something you are down the road and decide against it; by foot it’s too slow you don’t cover any distance; by bike you can cover a reasonable distance at a pace that enables you to stop at anything that takes your fancy. I know this from experience as my first real feeling of freedom was going further and further afield on my bike which eventually led me at 16 to cycle round Holland and North Germany. In doing so I stopped at many places that I simply would never have come across through any other means that made a profound mark on my life, for example the Escher exhibition (try saying that after a few beers) in a small provincial Dutch town.
Of course when you travel in this way you begin to understand what makes a place, it is not the buildings but the people and Andrew’s journey south brings us into contact with some great characters along the way and he has a keen eye for the historical, architectural, sociological and cultural similarities and differences that make Europe such an amazing place. This meant that despite me having an interest (and a bit of knowledge) in a lot of this stuff I learnt a lot along their journey, surely a mark of a good book. So there was very little about the technical aspects of the bike (it was a Ridgeback called Reggie with modified handlebars) and more about things such as attending the annual meeting of The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome, which is an interesting meeting for an atheist to attend.
Obviously one of things that has changed since when I toured and this adventure is the internet which allowed Andrew to do some research but also of course meet up with people along the way that would otherwise probably not have happened. He therefore stayed at a mix of campsites, the odd hotel and web contacts through his blog and the alarmingly named warmshowers.com (a social networking site for cyclists needing accommodation while travelling). This site delivered him to his first stop in France which was the house of someone who took him out ballroom dancing and then to make homemade steak tartare which is an interesting way to start journey. Clearly Andrew, being a French teacher, has a love of France but I could not help think that their love of the notion of Patroimonie (i.e. all the stuff that makes the French French i.e. food, language, history, culture, architecture, countryside etc) would be a useful addition to this side of the channel.
The book is simply broken down into a daily chunks which make it the perfect book to dip in and out of as you follow their journey and each day is littered with little vignettes and observations and it is this that makes the book so enjoyable. Andrew clearly has a good eye and Good Vibrations felt very much like Palin on a bike which is a good thing in my view as the descriptions and snippets are fresh and unique. I think that the fact that Andrew was a solo traveller meant that it gave him something to do as he of course faced dining alone most nights which he describes thus:
One of the downsides of travelling alone is having to eat alone but you either do it or starve so it’s Hobson’s choice. There are a few things that you can do to overcome the potential discomfort of being the only single person in a restaurant however. Taking something to read is a popular choice …. another popular method which Bill Bryson seems to do a lot on his travels is to get drunk …. but it does take time. I often went for the third option; write something.
If you are riding 100km a day then finding enough fuel for your engine is vital and Andrew’s method was clearly a method I would be quite happy to follow as it mostly seemed to involve expressos, pastries, cold beer, wine and cheese – the diet of kings – and he would often find the lovely open squares, piazzas in which to do carry out this re-fuelling, something else that continental Europe is so good at. On the very odd occasion that Andrew and Reggie failed to find somewhere like the piazza in Lucca (below) they would be forced to suffer the indignity of the ubiquitous fast food joint one of which got this great put down:
I was hungry so I ordered a sandwich in the only chain of food outlets in the world (Subway) that has turned ordering a quick snack into something akin to finding the Higgs Boson particle. Why make it so complicated boys?
Picture credit: contexttravel
In order to get to through to Italy and the final (long) leg of the journey you need to cross the Alps which they do via the St Gotthard Pass (below) a road not for the feint hearted I’d imagine, or for a heavily laden bike with a broken spoke causing a massive rear wheel wobble, which is what they managed, no doubt praying to Madonna del Ghisallo the patron saint of cycling.
Safely ensconced in Italy enables Andrew to reflect on all the different countries that he has cycled through and their approach to cycling, roads, driving and signposts which of course vary enormously and often from region to region within the same country. One thing however that differentiates Italy is the ubiquitous use of the car horn (a nightmare for those of us who ride):
I was used to drivers in the UK using their car horns to say one thing which could be summed up as ‘watch out, I’m taking evasive action and you need to do the same’ In Italy it could mean any of the following:
– Watch out! I have no intention of stopping or even using my brake so it’s up to you whether you get out of the way.
– Hey! I’m a cyclist too and I think what you are doing is brilliant; good luck mate!
-You stupid idiot! I could have killed you and despite it clearly being my fault, my ego won’t let me at least drive away without giving everyone the impression that it was your fault.
– I have brought your washing back from the cleaners but can’t be bothered to get out of the car to ring your bell so I am going to sit here blaring my horn until you come down to fetch it.
– Nice tits.
– Etc…. It was almost impossible to decipher the meaning at any particular moment and I just wished they would all be a little less horny.
Those of us who love to travel and marvel at the ease at which, certainly within Europe, you can simply pitch up wherever you want and enjoy what your destination has to offer perhaps forget those who have gone before us to enable this to happen. One of the most poignant moments in the book is when Andrew visits the monastery at Monte Cassino which had the misfortune to be Gustav Line in WW2 and as a result the town and abbey suffered a catastrophic air attack by allied forces which wiped the town and 20,000 people from the map. The monastery has been rebuilt but Andrew reflects thus:
I sat for a while gazing up at the monastery. It was simply impossible to imagine what being in the same spot would have been like some sixty six years prior to my visit. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale. Quite a sobering thought and a very sobering moment. The fredom I had to travel from my home in the UK to the south of Italy was not really thanks to the bureaucrats in Brussels doing away with visa formalities and border crossings. Rather, it was all to do with those many thousands of soldiers and their fellow fighters who had trod the same path as me only a couple of generations ago and the ultimate sacrifice that they were willing to make. We perhaps have life a little too easy at the start of the 21st century.
Andrew and Reggie finally make it down to the sea wall at Brindisi finding their own way down the non existant Eurovelo5 (3000+km – 30 days riding) and if you enjoy travel, cycling or both then climb aboard and take the trip. Well done Reggie (and Andrew), now time to start planning my own adventure.
Photo: Reggie Ridgeback !