The road to Rome; mountains, marvels and misjudgement.
When Antoine and I left school in the Summer of 2017, neither of us anticipated that just over a year later we would be together in Málaga- about to embark on a journey to remember.
To say that Antoine and I simply stumbled upon ‘Lebanon on Wheels’ when browsing the Internet for ways to occupy our summer holidays would not be entirely accurate. In fact, Antoine’s brother Auguste started the project in 2016. After visiting Lebanon with the Order of Malta and seeing first hand the difficulties the handicapped fall victim of, Auguste began to formulate the beginnings of ‘Lebanon on Wheels’. While in Lebanon, he particularly resonated with the position of a then thirteen-year-old boy, Toufic, who lives in a psychiatric home. While Auguste jokes that the project started as a conversation around a beer in Lebanon and escalated, in the summer of 2016, he and his close friend George Varley cycled from London to Athens with the aim of raising money to support Toufic and others like him.
Spending five years together in the same school prepares you for a whole host of circumstances but spending a month together on two bikes is a very different story. We knew that cycling more than 3000 kilometres across three countries would be a challenge; both a test of our physical abilities but more significantly a mental struggle and the biggest test of our friendship that we would be likely to face. However, we could never have imagined what it would really be like.
Neither Antoine or I had ever been huge cycling enthusiasts before this trip and there were many points where we swore we’d never touch a bike again. There was seldom a day where everything went perfectly. As we set out in Spain, our blind faith in Google Maps continued to lead us into sticky situations. This was no more the case than on our very first day where we were served up a bit of a reality check. We were immediately led down a totally unsuitable ‘cycling’ track and having covered less than two kilometres I faced my first puncture. Antoine laughed. As we pushed on, Antoine noticed a rubbing noise between his wheel and his mudguard. After an initially patient attempt to try and unscrew it, he resorted to tearing it off in sheer frustration. Now it was my turn to laugh. The first few hours were an indicator that the next four weeks would be anything but straight forward.
Arguably the joy of cycling is the speed at which the world moves around you; running is often regarded as being too slow and soon becomes monotonous while on the other hand, it is rare we appreciate anything more than a good service station when we travel from one place to another by car. Spending a month cycling through Spain, France and Italy allowed us to observe the places we travelled through in new ways and eliminated many of the premonitions and stereotypes one is accustomed to form. It is worth noting at this point, however, that the exploration of the intricacies of these three countries was not always intentional. It was unprecedented to have a day where we made it from one place to another without a mishap. This was particularly the case during our first few days where it seemed our phones did everything to direct us away from main roads.
If any neutral party were to look at the route we planned hugging the coastline of these three countries, I imagine it would be difficult for them to envisage anything other than glorious long beaches inundated with kite surfers and bronzed tourists chatting in tapas bars. In reality, we often found ourselves astray from the main highways, particularly in Spain. Poorly tarmacked roads through endless plantations often became impossibly harsh, rocky tracks. More often that not, it was the combination of our growing lack of faith in Google Maps and our naivety which seemed to lead us into some challenging circumstances. We were always certain that we had come across an excellent shortcut but after a while we regularly resented our stubbornness. On one occasion- after spending several hours basically pushing our bikes up steep trails in the blistering sun- we could be seen leant up against a local’s fence desperately hoping they would spot us and come out and give us some water.
All three countries we travelled through were not completely incomparable but it was clear to say how the wealth and charm of the surrounding areas changed. Spain, especially, the region from Valencia up to the Pyrenees struck us as particularly desolate. This came in stark contrast to the affluence of the latter part of our time in France, as we followed the coastal road from St Tropez to Monaco. While these towns are known for their glamour, it was the beauty of Italian cities which stood out. Our arrival in Sienna was awe inspiring as we trundled through the tourist filled cobbled streets, en route to our accommodation for the night.
We encountered some astonishing cycling over the twenty-six days we were in the saddle but the four days or so we spent in the Pyrenees were truly breath taking. While the ascents were sometimes excruciating, such as the Col d’Aubisque (a 1,190m rise over 16km with the last eight kilometres at an average of 8% gradient), they were sensationally rewarding, especially when we heard many of them formed parts of the Tour de France route. However it was not just the cycling that made our time in the Pyrenees so special.
The previous year, Antoine and I had been on the Order of Malta Volunteers’ annual pilgrimage to Lourdes and so it seemed only natural to us to make a small detour through the Pyrenees. As we arrived in Lourdes, we were greeted by all those we had become so close to the year before. To be in Lourdes with all these fantastic people was a real privilege and it got us through some of the more difficult periods of the trip.
Rome was equally surreal. Having enjoyed some sensational days beforehand, including the cycle through the brutal inclines of the Cinque Terre (five beautiful villages on the Ligurian coast which are a part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site), our day’s cycling into Rome was unfortunate to be one our least enjoyable. We were greeted by booming thunderstorms and forced to cycle the last fifty kilometres on rugged Italian motorways which left us in no mood to celebrate upon arrival.
After a few days rest in Rome with some of our family, we packed up once again and boarded a flight to Beirut. We arrived in Chabrouh, east of Beirut late in the afternoon and we were greeted by raucous singing and celebration. This was an unbelievable moment; to witness how many people were engaged with our project and were so interested in our journey was special. Having spent the last month essentially in each other’s company, we were thrust into the midst of a summer camp where we volunteered for two weeks.
The month or so we spent on our bikes was physically brutal but it soon became clear that we would not be able to rest on our laurels upon reaching Lebanon. Caring for a guest for a week was emotionally draining but incredibly rewarding. It was often difficult to know how best to care for an Arabic speaker in a way that they would appreciate. That said, the process of developing such a close relationship with your guest, along with a selection of wonderful moments we shared with them across the week was enough to make us realise how extraordinary this project is.
Through the help of so many generous people who have been willing us on from start to finish of our journey, Lebanon on Wheels has raised over $20,000 this year. We are enormously thankful to all those who helped us to achieve this and hopeful that the lives of Toufic, Abbas and Ahmad will benefit thanks to your generosity.
Luke, Oxford. October 2018.