A Taste of Hannibal

 Bruce Robertson

If you were hoping to read about the macabre Thomas Harris character preying on unsuspecting cyclists then I'm sorry to disappoint you. This article is about the original Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who was the nemesis of Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. Among his many exploits he most famously marched with his army and elephants from Spain to the gates of Rome.
In 2010 Sam Wood, of Ride and Seek Bike Tours and also an archaeologist, made a documentary for the BBC with his two brothers, on retracing this route by bicycle. Ride and Seek have now turned this into an annual epic ride from Barcelona to Rome. This appeals to a wide variety of people for any or all of the historical, cycling, cultural or culinary aspects. After all the tour goes through some of the most desirable destinations in the world - Catalonia, Languedoc, Provence, Liguria, Umbria and Tuscany!
Unfortunately not everyone can afford to go for the full 29 days and 2,400 km (or 1,460 miles). The tour is therefore conveniently divided into four weeklong stages allowing you to indulge in at least a part of the experience.  I was fortunate to be able to join the 2013 tour for a day to whet my appetite…
I join the group on the evening of day two - that is fortunate for me, as the day has seen some heavy rain. It was very early on in the tour but there is already a bonding and camaraderie which typically develops very quickly on a bike tour. The group has a lot in common with each other but there is also quite a variety of riding abilities and motivations.  They range from casual to keen riders from disparate professions including archaeology, medicine and journalism.


Something else that really unites us is enjoyment of the hospitality provided along the way, featuring excellent local cuisine. I join the tour in the beautiful medieval hilltop village of Madremanya, near Girona. On my arrival at the magnificent Can Bassa, I found the other guests relaxing after a hard days ride, so I was just in time for a glass of wine and Sam's talk on Hannibal and his likely campaign through the area.
Then on to a fantastic Catalan dinner - Salmorejo, a creamy cold tomato soup, with a courgette carpaccio and salad followed by a delicious main course of meatball and calamari stew with peas and rice. This is finished off with a perfect dessert, a chocolate brownie served with melon and mint. Although this is my only dinner on the tour, 'reliable sources' have informed me that every night was just as good, and in equally unique locations.
After a good night's sleep, despite the quarter hourly church chimes, we have breakfast of bread, fruit, yoghurt, pastries and coffee before setting off for the start of a 120km ride from Spain across the Pyrenees into France. The first part of the day is a relatively flat gentle run to the recently excavated ruins of the seaport at Empuries, which consisted of co-existing Roman and Greek settlements. This was not part of Carthaginian Iberia so there were defensive walls to keep at bay Hannibal and his army. However fortunately for Empuries, Hannibal's strategy was to largely avoid towns and cities on the march to Rome.
Some of us stay longer at the ruins and are treated to a short archaeological tour from Sam. This is the last time that all riders were together that day. Navigation throughout the tour is by a Garmin GPS on each bike preprogramed with the route. This means that people could, and do, go at their own pace. In reality the group broke up into about two or three sub-groups which works very well - although the same could not always be said about the Garmins!
Empuries is at the 28km mark and for the next almost 50km we ride through beautiful countryside and a string of attractive sleepy towns - although there are some busier sections. The lunch stop is at Darnius and the Ride and Seek guys had a delicious picnic waiting for us. However we don't have time for a long stop as the Pyrenees beckoned. A delay caused by several punctures (two on my bike!) hasn't helped our timing - luckily Dylan is well practiced in quick roadside repairs…
No one is sure where Hannibal crossed the mountains but as he was near the coast he would have taken one of the less difficult passes, as we do. That said we still have a climb to almost 800m from sea level. Fortunately it is gradual, though long. Another good thing was traffic is minimal - there are as many cyclists as cars. At one point we come across a Dutch couple who have driven down to Bordeaux and cycled to Andorra and across the Pyrenees - apparently then do it every year!

 Crossing from Spain into France

The main reason for the low road traffic volume is at the pass at the top, the border between France and Spain. Neither country seems to want to maintain this stretch of road so the first part of the descent is a dirt track - great for us, as it's the quietest and best way over the Pyrenees. Being on road bikes we have to walk for a while but it's pleasant and not overly long.
Now comes probably the best bit. The descent into Céret is a long gradual pleasure ride on a very good and virtually traffic free road. The countryside is much more green and lush than the coast and the dry Catalonian plains that we have been through. My euphoria continues until we roll into the pretty town of Céret, which has an artistic heritage having had Picasso as one of its best known residents.
After a hot shower and a beer at a local pub it is time for me to say my farewells and get driven to the train station at Perpignan. I leave the group as they prepare to tuck into another fabulous meal. Although we've only known each other for 24 hours (apart from the couple I met on my Barcelona city tour!) it seems like so much more and I hope our paths cross again.

[The author was a guest of Ride and Seek Bike Tours]