On Hannibal's Trail Episode 5

View Larger Map

For the Italian section of our adventure, first we cycled Hannibal's route and recceed locations without the crew.  A couple of weeks later we reunited with the crew to start filming again.  For the full story of the Italian leg, including the guest blog by Perry and Will who rode with us for a few days, see the the main blog.


Love in Italy

October 24, 2009 02:55 by Ben

A few years ago we were riding  in Germany and learnt the Imperial point. A large group of cyclists was coming towards us and as they got closer we realised they were a huge professional cycling team. The leading cyclist sat up in his saddle and slowly and arrogantly pointed towards our side of the road - meaning "stay over there you peasants". It was one of the best things that has happened to me and we all use it regularly - mostly on cars but also sometimes on cyclists who don't seem to know where they are going. So as Sam was crossing Traversette (which by the way is much harder than Clapier!) Danny and I went for a little ride from a great little place we were staying in called le Fontenil. This was Sam's base before Traversette and it was run by the nicest person in France - Jean-Pierre - he made us breakfast having been up till 4am with a bikie gang he also had staying, he let us use the kitchen to cook our meals, we used his van whenever we wanted, he made us dinner, we basically had the run of place and if we had burnt it down I'm sure he would have smiled and said no problem. Unfortunately as I returned from my ride a car came flying around a corner on the wrong side of the road just in front of me. I was nearly home so I Was a bit tired and irritated so I automatically sat up and gave it the Imperial point - but just as I was straightening my left arm the driver lifted a hand to wave - got halfway through his friendly gesture and his jaw dropped and there was hurt and confusion in his eyes as he saw that I wasn't actually waving back but telling him to p*ss off onto his side of the road. It was all over in a second and the driver was Jean-Pierre! I had just insulted the nicest bloke in France. It was never mentioned but there was a palpable tension between us for the rest of our stay. I looked on jealously as he fulfilled every whim of my brothers and the crew and I felt too guilty to ask anything of him. Luckily I am the middle brother and am used to being deprived (mine's worse).   

The final affront was on our last night of three there - Jean-Pierre had been running around after us for days and at last he sat down with us for a glass of wine and a rest after dinner. He'd been there all of 5 seconds when someone said "can I have a coffee". We all groaned sheepishly as the poor bloke was up like a shot to fetch it...

So Sam arrived back from Traversette completely exhausted - perhaps the tiredest I'd ever seen him - since the birth of his son Jack perhaps - and I've never exaggerted ever in my whole life. We had a day of filming in the Alps before the crew left us again for our solo ride through Italy. We were orginally going to leave from Turin - where we had all independently arrived after our solo crossings. But we decided instead to ride from the French side of the Alps as we had regrouped. To get out of there we had to cross the equivalent of Mont Ventoux - it was the Col Agnel - Jean-Pierre warned us it was very difficult. And it was - freezing cold too - the first really cold day we had had. We made it over after a long struggle but a beautiful ride and perhaps another route Hannibal may have taken across the Alps - all the locals seem to favour it at least. Once we had crossed into Italy we had a run of 40km downhill punctuated by a very good coffee.

We got as far as Piasco and the next morning we rode on and cooked ourselves lunch in a little park in a town called Bra - with our diet we are concentrating on fragmenting elastines and accumulating lipofusion inside our liver cell. More importantly Bra is where we nearly learnt the true meaning of love. Our post lunch cappucinos came with Baccio chocolates that told us "love is a storm of pleasure and an enchantment of sweetness" - this seemed to conflict with the theory in a book we are all reading (we have torn it into three) that women invented love because during child birth they are weakened and need a powerful protector. Now, according to the author that women are strong, independent and free they have given up inspiring or feeling a sentiment that had no concrete justification in the first place! So we had very conflicting ideas to deal with as we rode on to Pavia.   

The riding in northern Italy isn't great but we had been spoiled in the Alps. Its flat at least but very busy and drivers are impatient and aggressive.

The Alps from Italy - Mt Viso is the big mountain on the left - Sam crossed just to the right of it


Allies Arrive

October 25, 2009 04:03 by Sam

We went to Pavia for two reasons - to meet an old frield - Frederico Marcesi or Feddo as he bacame known in Australia where everyone's name must be shortened and end with an o or y. And to visit the place where Hannibal had his first battle with the Romans. The first obviously took preference and Feddo took us out in Pavia - its a beautiful university town famous for its extraordinary towers, built by competitive rich men during the Renaissance. The taller the tower, the richer and more powerful you were. However I imagine they were even more symbolic than that - a bit like a red sportscar or long camera lens today, products of renaissance mid life crises!

Hannibal also fought two battles here - one a brief encounter at the river Ticinus. Here he routed the Roman army who then retreated to Trebbia, a river further south near Piancenza. Hannibal followed and even though the Romans were reinforced he heavily defeated them. Here he first showed his tactical nouse.  He lured the Romans with a small contigent of his force out of their camp early in the morning, unfed over a freezing river in the middle of winter. The Romans were cold, wet and hungry. Hannibal's main force was well fed, well slept and ready for battle - Hannibal had also put sent his youngest brother Mago to hide in the reeds to spring a trap once the Romans were across the river - Hence they won very convincingly.

Unfortunately for Hannibal all but one of his elephants died here, not of war wounds but of the cold - the last elephant Sirius survived on to carry Hannibal (who lost an eye here from disease) across swamps and down towards Florence - where we next headed to meet our own allies.

Between Pavia and Piacenza there was a brief moment of panic. We were riding along embankments built to protect neighbouring farmland from flooding and noticed a huge nuclear power station in the distance. We rode straight past the front door. All was eerily quiet until an alarm started sounding! One thing Hannibal didn't have to contend with was a nuclear meltdown in Emilia-Romagna. For some reason schoolboy physics equations came to mind; effective neutron multiplication factors, prompt neutron lifetime, mean free path, nuclear number density...how long did we have until we were fatally irradiated...then we realised, without a great deal of relief, that the alarm was coming from the sewerage plant next door...we sprinted even faster!

After 6 weeks of filming and riding and with a gap in our schedule we sent out a call for cyclists - This was answered by Willo and Perry ( o and y of course) whom we met in Florence with the aim of riding to Rome in 3 days.  Here are photos of our trip together, it was brilliant to have them along. They drove us along with terrible jokes, some of which will no doubt follow. After our first days cycling from Florence to Cortona, where they invariably led the pack doing the lion's share of the work - Perry led us home even when his legs were failing and I've never seen Willo so quiet but he drove us out to our best dinner of our whole trip at Cortona. 


The 'towers' of Pavia!


Signs of Hannibal!


October 26, 2009 11:14 by Ben

Danny, Sam and I are all quite nice diplomatic people which can get a little frustrating at times. We get to an intersection for example and Danny suggests we go left, I say right and Sam says straight through. After 20 minutes of delicate and polite discussion we decide on a course of action that is neither offensive nor non-discriminatory. I'd actually given up navigating lately as three opinions were worse than two. We had multiple decision points every day; where to stay? Where to eat? What to eat? When to get up? Where to film? Pretty pathetic decisions to make in the grand scheme of things but we were experiencing a paralysis in our decision making capabilities, a crisis of modernity.

So we needed a new governing structure. We appointed a committee to consider a Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Privy Council, a Soviet and a Russian Oligarchy but in the end we only really had the man power for a Tyranny. We had considered Dictatorship on previous cycling trips but it has only been in the last week that we have been brave enough to make the transfer of power. Like the Roman Republic appointing Dictators in crucial moments during their war against Hannibal I won the coin toss that meant I became our first Dictator.

My first decree, like all the best Dictators, was to extend my Dictatorship indefinitely - unfortunately our Executive Producer was uncontactable to ratify the emergency legislation. My second was the forced adoption of Juche. Thats about as exciting as it got. We investigated the Servian Wall in McDonalds at Rome's Termini station - this was the wall that prevented Hannibal taking the city and it now lives on the lower ground floor of the train station covered in cigarette buts. It was a bit of a depressing experience but we couldn't dwell in it. We had a long way to go and after some positive reinforcement from Our Dear Leader we set off.

A long day ended in a Trattoria where Inter Milan were playing Dinamo Kiev on the tele. It was full locals - an all male crowd - except for one woman we felt quite sorry for who had her back to the tele and was trying to talk to her husband but his eyes were glued to the football. The proprietor - who is a spitting image of Big Al off Happy Days - sat us down in prime position and seved us a very good meal. Danny kept yelling in delight whenever Dinamo scored which didn't go down too well. He did the same thing in a little cafe near Perugia in 2002 when South Korea knocked Italy out of the World Cup and we all slowly distanced ourselves from him as the locals went on a rampage. I did however suffer insubordination and a lack of respect for the dignity of my office. My one serious decree during the day was to tell my subjects to go to the toilet of this Trattoria and come back nude and sit at the table normally to see what would happen - they refused and my reign ended in confusion and ignomy. Am I not merciful? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpoqoBAItY4&feature=related


The Servian Wall decorates a fast food chain in Rome

Business Efficiency Consultant takes over as Dictator

October 29, 2009 17:39 by Sam

 Dictatorship for me meant we could do what (I thought!) we always planned to do... get up early, get most of the riding done before lunch, have a good break, a big Italian lunch then cruise the last 20-30 km to our destination arriving in time to set up comfortably before finding or cooking dinner.

This is not to say my brothers wouldn't be usually up for this!?!?! It does often sounds better than it is and filming has meant we have done most of our kilometres in the afternoon so to say the 2 days I ruled have been the only days we have rode more in the morning than in the afternoon would be no exaggeration. Quite a pathetic legacy but my second legacy makes me an even more boring leader. The two days I ruled we came in under budget! I think again these are our only days when this has happened!

Being a Roman archaeologist I really should have gone for orgies, feasts, massive building projects, maybe some gladiatorial combat or some empirical warring. Instead I went for early starts and cheap days - exciting stuff! I am the dictator of Health and Efficiency!

On my first day we rode to Cannae where Hannibal obliterated a numerically superior Roman army. On the way my tyre literally exploded, causing my back wheel to swim and swerve as I attempted to pull off the road. It wasn't a great omen for my rule and I almost ended up under a white van! (driven by the Italian equivalent of the white van men of London - aggressive, abusive drivers but with style!)

At Cannae Hannibal used a tactic still used and taught today - the double envelopment. Basically as the armies lined up, Hannibal made his centre weak so the Romans forced it back when they attacked. He then defeated the Roman wings and swept around enveloping and slaughtering the Roman soldiers who had forced back his centre. It is estimated that up to 70000 men died - the most killed in a single day of battle ever - or to compare it to another devastating event, a similar number to those killed by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima.

We arrived at our destination in good time and enjoyed a healthy salad and pasta, perfect and nutritious for our days ahead!

On my second day of rule we rode through our wettest day yet from Altamura to Taranto. We were all soaked through but it was a great ride made even better after a days rest in Altamura (Ben's rule - If you get a choice make him your leader, very relaxing!). We exited the city through varying levels of water and at times felt we were going to be swept away. However time keeping was good and we stopped in Palagiano where the Barista Caesar gave us free coffees so the budget was looking even better!! We then rode on to Taranto all in good time - another efficient day of cycle touring!



A Roman bridge on the way to Cannae

A commemorative column which overlooks the battlefield at Cannae

It's Good to be the King

October 31, 2009 18:37 by Danny

The Golden Age began on Thursday 22nd October.  That is to say, in accordance with our agreement that we should each take a go at having total control over what we do on a day, it was my turn. Hail Caesar!

As Mel Brooks once said, I've really found out that 'It's good to be the King!'


The first section of our trip wasn't very nice and so almost immediately I tried to get us off the main road which was crowded with trucks and rush hour traffic and guide us to a possible route along the beach.  The way was blocked by appartments, some half built, others falling down and when we got to the beach it wasnt exactly picturesque with much of the sandy strip covered by a large factory. Under an emmergency decree, I suggested getting to the next town called Trani as quickly as possible to find a coffee and we all agreed. A 15 km cycle and we were soon on the outskirts and with the help of a local who directed us to the old town and said it was bello we eagerly beelined for it. For some reason Sam was leading the way, but by the time we had reached the old port, I had wrestled command back.  The old port of Trani was accurately described by Ben as a mini-Marseille.  The old stone and quiet atmosphere also reminded me of a little port on the Greek island of Santorini, to which one of my subjects, forgetting his place, disagreed.  I realised that my judgement was coming under question and so to quell the possibilty of a coup, it was clear I would need to restore confidence in my reign.  I quickly took the initiative and quizzed our waiter about the location of certain places in Trani that we needed to recce.  This lucky and successful cross examination would lead to us finding a barber's shop and a bike mechanic - two locations for our next Hannibal episode.  Confidence in the Kingdom had been ad restored but now time was the enemy, because it had been passing suprisingly quickly.  It was already 1pm and painful awareness of how hunger can so adversely affect the mood of some members of our family, I was very worried that we may not reach an appropriate lunchtime spot in time to avert cutson, an often silent grumpyness that is the hallmark of this lack of food (for more information see the helpful blog on cutty filed towards the beginning of our journey).  But we all pulled together and Sam's excellent reconnaissance found us a small square in the town of Ravu where we cooked up pasta with an improvised sauce of fresh olives in an olive paste. A good omen too because it looked like our gas cannister was going to run out but in the end it lasted long enough to cook the spaghetti pefectly.  Yummy and much needed.

The ride ahead was tough. Hill climbs and a strong wind in our faces made the going very difficult but the countryside was ruggedly appealing - extensive fields of rich brown earth, olive groves and vineyards.  The sky had grown bigger and the half light of evening was approaching. This twilight hour is often the feeding time for sharks back home on Aussie beaches but it also seems to be dinner time for dogs on Italian farms.  At least three times packs of hounds ran at our bikes and Ben was very nearly caught by an angry, big white dog. It was starting to get dark as we pulled into the outskirts of Altamura - whose name means high wall and meant in ancient tongues 'The Other Troy'.  With that sort of pedigree we were looking forward to exploring the town, but the suburbs were a bit depressing - half built houses, rubbish scattered on the sides of roads and on top of it all I nearly caused an accident that could have injured my subjects by stoppping too suddenly out of eagerness to take a picture of an inflateable teddy bear hanging in a tree.  But my brothers forgave me and soon we found a place to rest and eat.   The dictatorship ended at 0000 hours, 23rd October without incident.


BBC History Magazine - Lake Trasimene

November 2, 2009 03:09 by Sam

Our next installment - Hannibal starting to destroy the Romans....



In the Navy

November 8, 2009 02:26 by Danny 

We're back with the crew again at a campsite near Naples. I've had one beer and a swig on a bottle of wine and dinner should be soon but there could be time to write about Taranto, a strange place but well worth a visit.  Taranto was one of many southern Italian cities where the people were split between supporting Rome or Carthage. Today the people there still seem a bit split, almost schizophrenic. We rode in from Altamura, about eighty kilometres away, through an industrial area and crossed a bridge into what looked a bit like a deserted cowboy town on a bad day.  There was a steady flow of traffic that circled around the outer rim of this old part of town that forms an island connected to the mainland by bridges at either end.  This was originally the citidadel area where the Roman garrison managed to hold out against Hannibal even when he had won over the rest of the town.  There's a squat castle on the site of the Roman citadel that is still in use by the Italian navy.  You do see a lot of sailors wandering about town - one of them came across the three of us having breakfast in a cafe.  He strolled in and he got so close to me I thought he was going to put his white hat on my head, but instead he put it down on the sideboard next to me without diverting his disapproving glare.  His reason for not liking us probably had something to do with our dress sense. In this more conservative part of Italy what you wear seems to be the most important thing on earth to a lot of people. It was pretty cold but we were all wearing our baggy, cycling shorts, an assortment of dirty T-shirts, and Ben and I had white slippers on that we picked up earlier in the trip. To him, we probably looked like eastern European labourers about to go to work on a building site. We couldn't help laughing at our predicament - in the mind of this Captain, there we were, not only insulting the local fashions but taking Tarantine jobs too! Ben suggested we ask him why Italian tanks have more gears in reverse than forwards, but in the end we let him to have his coffee in peace. Peace man! If only more people had the same attitude.

This old part of Taranto had plenty of atmosphere with its narrow alley ways and Naples like conglomeration of low-rise appartments.  Quite a number of the buildings had signs on them indicating they were former palaces so you couldnt help but wonder why the glory days had faded. That's something we are yet to find out.  In spite of its ruined state, the old town was very lived in. The pizzas we had for dinner on the corner opposite us were very good, but the restaurant where we ate the next night gave us a shock. The hostess in this family run place was so friendly when we entered that we readily accepted her immediate offer of antipasto as we sat down.   When our hostess didnt present us with menus and instead gave us a verbal rundown of a limited number of dishes, we assumed we were getting the fourteen euro fixed menu that we had been recommended. The undrinkable wine seemed to confirm that we were getting a bargain basement dinner.  We had to laugh when the bill came to ninety-five euros.

Taranto's surprises kept coming. When we ventured into the newer part of town across the bridge, we found a swanky, pedestrianised promenade lined with smart shops and busy with relatively wealthy looking locals promenading around. A pretty place with well kept buildings, plazas with palm trees and only across a small bridge from the neglected old town.  There is even rare archaeological evidence of Hannibal's presence: difficult to see under a fogged-up, perspex covering alongside a cafe, there's a section of what is thought to be part of a wall built by Hannibal's forces when they occupied the place.  There is also a good archaeological museum with lots of quality Roman remains including armour, jewellry and mosaics.

Ben hunts Danny and Sam at a WWII pillbox near Taranto


Gnochetti of the Superhero

November 10, 2009 02:09 by Ben 

We were reunited once again with the film crew in Milan. Andrea is directing the final two episodes of the documentary - amongst her many attractive attributes she laughs at all our jokes - which is very rare as they aren't ever funny. Francesco the fixer is full of concerned advice for us. His best so far being in response to impersonal staccato questioning by a bloke in Rome dressed in a long green felt jacket - the sort of thing you'd expect an Austrian Pfalzgraf in the Sound of Music to be wearing. He approached us very directly walking his two labradors (with purple leads) and said without introduction "what are you doing?" and before we had time to acknowledge or answer "where are you from?" and then "is this for television?". This seems to be a very common method of attack once a film camera is out and being naive n00bs to the industry we are slowly being worn down by cold-blooded public cross examination. I was on the verge of tears and tried to convene with the friendly labradors - I suddenly thought goodness, compassion, fidelity and altruism remain impenetrable mysteries contained however within the limited space of the corporeal exterior of a dog? Or do they?? Poor Danny was nervously fiddling with his handlebar tape and Sam was twitching and muttering under his breath but Francesco came to the rescue with some excellent advice. We follow the Pfalzgraf to his office and once he had sat down and was comfortable with his coffee we start asking "what are you doing? who are you writing that email to? why are you looking at that website?". It was much funnier at the time...and its actually always nice when random people come up to talk to us but its strange that no one ever says hello first. Anyway the crew have a driver for this leg too - Sergio - who is lovely but because our Italian is so bad we unfortunately can't order him around as much as we would like to. And John has returned for the final two episodes - he still is the same - extremely capable and very funny when he is complaining about something which fortunately for us happens quite a lot. Yesterday he was giving it to Bono and Sting "I'm sorry, I'm sorry but if you come up with the lyrics a De do do do, de da da da Is all I want to say to you you have to be a f*cking idiot - who the f*ck says a De do do do, de da da da".

First day back filming we visited a wine maker called Hannibal. He grows wine near the Trebbia river where his predecessor Hannibal had his first big victory over the Romans. I'm not sure about Danny and Sam but I was completely drunk at 11am after one glass of wine as we attempted to interview him. But because I am a professional I didn't get him in a headlock or smash up his winery instead I made a dumb joke about his focaccia bread. He didn't get it - but I think mainly because his deaf mother kept screaming at us in a strange Italian dialect and offering us massive hunks of speck (cured horse meat).

The rest of the day was a little hazy but I remember Danny's pedal falling off - our first significant mechanical problem. We also had dinner in a strange place that offered amongst other dishes Gnochetti of the Superhero. I asked for a banana fritter but the waiter refused and said the only possible dish he could serve me was Gnochetti of the Superhero - the kitchen staff and toilet attendant agreed - and so I was served Gnochetti of the Superhero. It was pasta with bits of sausage meat so I have no idea why it was called Gnochetti of the Superhero or why they insisted I have it but I thought perhaps that a prolonged belief in a manifestly absent divine entity provoked in them this display of idiocy incompatible with the long term maintenance of civilisation? What do you think?? Danny had Risotto of the Artist which looked and tasted disgusting but at least it was purple in colour which is in fashion here in Italy at the moment.

Next day we were at the Trebbia river. Its nowhere near as high as it was when Hannibal defeated a Roman army here which is lucky as I had cross it. Its only thigh deep but still very cold. We had a very productive day filming there and then we were off to Tuscany and an amazing old Monastery where they filmed parts of the English Patient. John pointed out that the English Patient was actually German so we wondered why it was ever called the English Patient in the first place? We got there quite late and the staff very kindly waited up for us and made us a massive dinner.

Focaccia bread at Hannibal's winery

Crossing the Trebbia

Pietro the swamp expert

 Crossing the marshes


BBC History Magazine latest - Cannae

November 14, 2009 13:35 by Sam

Cannae, for warmongers, to this day the biggest loss of life in a single day of battle:





Find us on Facebook
[This Facebook group is not maintained by the BBC nor is it officially endorsed by them.]

About the authors

Danny, Ben and Sam Wood are three brothers who followed in the footsteps of three ancient Carthaginian brothers Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. They cycled from Cartagena, Spain to Zama, Tunisia - the route that Hannibal and his army took over 2200 years ago. Along the way they filmed a documentary to be aired on the BBC in July 2010.


  • Nabonidus Archaeology
Download OPML file


   February 2011   >>
Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
31 1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13

View posts in large calendar

Sign in

© 2023 woodbrothers.tv