Over three months, YEI has followed the adventure of retiree/cyclist/pilgrim Elred Lawrence, 60. This is the last chapter of the journey, and YEI chatted to Elred to find out how the trip went.
To recap, Elred has just returned to South Africa after biking his way along the 2083 km Via Francigena. This major ancient route was used by thousands of pilgrims, clerics and church officials on their way to Rome. Elred left Canterbury Cathedral on Monday 27 August and made his way through parts of Europe, across the Alps and the Apennines – his journey ended at St Peters Basilica at the Vatican in Rome on Saturday 29 September.
You made it! Were there any times when you thought you might not complete the journey?
No. I always believed I would complete the journey. In the beginning, I did think I might take a day or two longer than planned, but as it turned out I was in Rome a day earlier than my original schedule. There were difficult days when I asked myself why I am doing this, but equally there were glorious days when the reason was crystal clear.
Looking back, what excited you most about this adventure? What was the highlight of the trip?
The journey was so much more (and different) to what I imagined, so one exciting moment is difficult to distinguish. One of my most enjoyable days was cycling through the vineyards in the Champagne region of France and later tasting Mumm’s Champagne in their cellars in Reims. I met such interesting people and experienced so many facets of nature, that I have to say the whole journey itself was exciting!
Lowlights are defined by those hours of pushing the bicycle along tracks and up steep hills that are impossible to ride, but once completed, there is a feeling of accomplishment that makes the tough times seem not so bad. Oh yes – I fell off my bike 10 times and down icy steps in Switzerland once – those are definitely lowlights.
Did you meet other interesting pilgrims along the way?
I met more than 20 other pilgrims en-route. Most of them had walked more than 30 days by the time I met them and they all had interesting stories to tell. I think the most interesting was a Belgian gentleman named Frank who is also 60 years old and we had a lot in common. We stood by the side of the road and chatted for nearly an hour. He had walked from his home in Bruges and had already been on the road for 53 days when I met him – he had approximately another 30 days to go to reach Rome. I enjoyed meeting people who work with the pilgrims on the trail, the monks at the monasteries, Mario at a religious hostel and the owner of a B&B in Capranica. All of whom were extremely kind and warm-hearted and made me feel welcome and looked after me very well.
How did you cope with the weather? Even though you were cycling in the height of the European summer, you encountered a snowstorm! Tell us more..
I was lucky as I only had rain on two days in the 34 that I cycled through Europe. The first rain was early in the ride. I saw the rain coming and I bought a rain cape in Arras and rode the whole afternoon in torrential rain, but the cape kept me warm and relatively dry. The second time, I woke up in Martigny, Switzerland, listening to the rain pattering down. This was to turn out to be a memorable day. I was grateful for the cape as I had not brought any warm, waterproof clothing with me from Cape Town. My destination was the Grand Col St Bernard – 45kms of continuous steep uphill from Martigny ending over 2000 metres in altitude at the top of the pass. All day I rode in rain. The temperature dropped dramatically as I reached higher altitudes until, with only 6 kms to go, I found myself in a snow blizzard. The conditions were very difficult, the gradient was extremely steep, the altitude was sapping me because of the thinner air, the wind was blowing a gale, thus dropping the temperature to below zero and the visibility was 30 metres at best. It took me ages to complete the 6kms and I arrived at the hotel on the top of the pass freezing cold and very tired. The cape really made a difference as without it I would have been in serious trouble. After thawing out in the warmth of the hotel, a cup of hot tea and a hot shower, I was fully recovered and ready to continue the journey. The weather persisted, though, so I spent an extra day on the Col and left a day later to ride across the border into Italy.
For further details regarding this route and the ride up the Grand Col, click here.
It appears that you had a big following on the blog together with copious amounts of encouragement, kind words and enormous support from friends and family. Did this help you in the difficult times?
Oh yes. Every day I would read the comments and encouragement. I remembered all of the support from the people at home. In fact it was these thoughts that helped me to keep going on the tough days – the rides into Laon, up to the Grand Col in the snow and the rides to Langres and Radicofani are great examples of how the people around the world kept my spirits up.
How did you feel riding into St Peters Basilica in the Vatican City?
Quite emotional. This was the ultimate destination but I had not really thought of it all along. I was taking the ride one day at a time so on the last day, Rome was just another destination. However, on reaching the Basilica, I suddenly realised that it was all over and that thought brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.
You nicknamed the Via Francigena – Ms VF. Did Ms VF treat you well?
Ms VF and I had a very intimate relationship all along. I could not help but personalise it as the route defined my day, my experiences, my emotions, my ride, my pain and my joy. As with all relationships (and for the sake of the pun) ours was very up and down. Sometime I’d love her and sometime I’d curse her, but I was always ready for more the next time I sat on my saddle. Ms VF and I parted good friends and I’ll always remember her fondly.
You are a passionate foodie and wine connoisseur – any highlights in this regard?
Not as much as I expected. The food was average most of the way. Lots of Pizza in Italy where, I found, many restaurants serve the best menus at lunch time and then specialise in Pizza at night. The food definitely improved once I reached Tuscany. I had a wonderful meal in Pontremoli at Norinas Restaurant which had been recommended by other pilgrims. The owner of the B&B in Capranica served the best home-cooked food I have eaten for a long time. Also I had good food in Pont d’Arbia and San Miniato. The worst food was in Switzerland – really nothing special (I could cook some of those dishes better) and the prices were very high.
Were there times when you had to dig deep for focus, motivation and determination?
In retrospect, yes, but at the time it was more a case of doing what was required to get through whatever situation I found myself in. One lesson I learned very quickly is that whatever happens you have to find a way to continue – there really is no going back or quitting – so you do whatever it takes and then think about it afterwards. I must say that when Keith (my son) joined me to cycle with me from Lucca to Rome, it really made a difference to have someone else to assist when times were tough or things went wrong.
Was your preparation for the ride enough?
Yes. I am very happy with how it all worked out especially in terms of research and planning. I could probably have been fitter, but my philosophy was always that the only way to train for a 35 day 2100 km ride is to get on the bike and do it.
The Camino – tick. Via Francigena – tick. Have you thought about your next adventure? Can you share your thoughts with us?
My next adventure will be in June 2013. I will be spending time in Bolivia and Peru, some cycling, some hiking (the Inca trail) and some white-water rafting down the Amazon amongst other activities.
One of your main aims on this trip was to raise funds for FTH:K – did you reach your goal?
Oh yes – thanks to the support of many people and several companies especially Pick n Pay we have raised R20 000. However FTH:K will always need support. We are hoping that people will commit to donating a small amount monthly by stop-order because a regular, guaranteed income is what they really need.
The banking details are:
Account Holder: from the hip: khulumakahle
Bank: Standard Bank
Branch Name: Mowbray
Branch Code: 024909
Account Number: 075236044
Account Name: Market Link
YEI congratulates Elred on this amazing feat – we are in awe of you! Thank you for sharing your daily blog and adventure with us. We trust that your story, in which you made a dream a reality, will inspire many other retirees to go in search of their passion and not just search, but to make every effort to fulfil whatever it is that really excites them.