Category Archives: 2007

Rotterdam to Rome Photos

(Originally posted Thursday 28 June, 2007)

It was an amazing adventure: from the flat agricultural fields of the Netherlands, to the WWI battlefields of Belgium and France, the soaring peaks of Switzerland, the gorgeous buildings of Italy, and of course all the tastes and smells in between.

This gallery barely skims the surface of all those wonderful memories, but do provide some of the favourites.


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Filed under 2007, Gallery, Rotterdam to Rome

The final MSF cycling update

(Originally posted Thursday 28 June, 2007)

Voila our Tour de Force, this is the final post about our ride, vividly encapturing the last stages of our journey from Rotterdam to Rome. If you haven’t been on the site for a while you should read the post below before this one in order to keep chronological continuity.

Day 51 to Day 58

Day 51, Sun 10 June – Sienna surrounds

[Michael on the job again, with Billy typing!]

With so many people coming and going to so many places [Alex even arrived for a day to do her washing]; it is hard to record the week in the villa! What is easy to note is the villa itself. Quite isolated down a gravel road, about 10km from Sienna, it is part of a rustic, complex of buildings constituting an estate from the late 1700’s. The Griccioli family, owners since the early 1900’s, live in the main villa – a mansion used initially as a holiday house for the wealthy landlord’s hunting trips to the country. There is an attached garden and a view across the hilltops to Sienna. Our digs, 100m away, were part of perhaps an older farmhouse that may have housed the workers? Renovated inside to a comfortable though not oppulent state, it provided a spacious, homely atmosphere with the magnificent swimming pool secluded amongst the olive tree plantation giving the distinct feel of luxury to plebians like us.

Day 52, Mon 11 June – Sienna surrounds

The morning began with an interesting tour of the family’s olive oil and wine-making facilities. Son Alessandro is in charge having done his apprenticeship in Bordeaux. He makes the regional red according to traditional appellation methods. His experiment with a French-style rosé was a curiosity to his local peers but tasted good to us! The olive oil was fantastic and he matter-of-factly said that while his wine may not be the best in the region, their oil was and had won prizes to prove it. In some way he attributed this to more modern pressing methods. We made suitable purchases and proceeded to try the wares with one of Lisa’s trademark Tuscan style dinners which became a highlight of the week preceded by antipasto and drinks by the pool most evenings.

Day 53, Tues 12 June – Sienna surrounds

Journeyed into town with Elly, Grandma, Billy and Jordy. Billy tried to work on the net but had nothing going right for him. It was the first day I could walk comfortably, thanks to Monica’s massages and Nigel’s anti-inflammatories, after being doubled over for three days. Wandered through another amazing cathedral with attached library housing centuries old, massive, velum hymnbooks inticately handpainted by monks from an era past. Stunning.

Day 54, Wed 13 June – Sienna surrounds

Short sightseeing tour in afternoon to neighbouring villages and wineries – a carload and me on the bike. I was back, cured, cycling freely and relishing it. Marja was amazed I could turn up at places at the same time as them, but in undulating country you can cover a short distance quickly with the momentum from the down hill runs.

Day 55, Thurs 14 June – Montechiaro to Poggio Rosa, 79km

Really hoped for good things out of this day – the renowned Tuscan countryside south of Sienna, a couple of fortified hilltop towns of equal reputation, and a rare cultural highlight thrown in. It delivered the goods. La Crete is a rather bare stretch of agricultural clay hills and valleys, and for those who like their decorations minimalist it would have great appeal. Wheat crops and round hay bales replaced vineyards and olive groves, and pencil pines, a symbol of Tuscany, were sparse. The tough up-and-down work combined with 30 degree heat convinced us to ride no-shirts. The towns of Asciano & San Giovanni d’Asso were typical unplastered stone-walled buildings and had ‘area pedonale’ throughout. Met the car gang of Poodge, Ken, Monica, Marja, Maggie and Jordy [yes, six in the five seater car again] in Montalcino for lunch, just before the supermarket closed; all were impressed with our long, hot climb up to the old picturesque city. Did the essential Cathedral/Castle visit, neither stand-outs of the holiday. Cycled on to San Antimo Abbey to hear the monks chant Gregorian, but unfortunately they had gone AWOL for the afternoon; Billy was singing his own praises though because on a short section of road going to the abbey he set the land speed record for our entire trip – 73.8kph! The Colley car met us having heard the monks earlier in the day and recommended we hang around for the evening Vespers. The 8kms afterwards were short and sweet downhill, followed by the same distance climbing in 33 degree heat to Poggio Rosa. Billy’s back had suffered in the sun; lucky I had put my shirt on earlier than him! Ken, Monica, Marja, Poodge and us stayed for an afternoon supper in Poggio Rosa; drinking in the vista and the local beverages. Returned to the abbey and sat in silent reverie as the monks did their thing. The drive home was squashy but fun all the same. A grand day out!

Day 56, Fri 15 June – Sienna surrounds

A split day; Nigel and I taking a drive to the market at Monticiano, a look at the ruined Abbey San Galgano used now periodically for opera and concerts and an extremely relaxing soak in the hot springs of Bagni Petriolo. Pity the rest had to stay home and pack! I exaggerate….another carload went north to San Gimignano and Colle di Val d’Elsa and also enjoyed their sightseeing. Tea induced mixed feelings; another lovely spread coupled with the bitter-sweet taste of it being our last meal at the Villa.

Day 57, Sat 16 June – Poggio Rosa to Borghetto, 79km

The morning was a hectic mess of 9 people packing; Ken, Monica and Marja left for the train station at the crack of dawn. Everything was in order by 10, when the nonnas arrived, keen to clean, ready for the next batch of tourists. The two fully-laden vehicles departed for Poggio Rosa, ready for us to pick up Thursday’s trail. There was a short detour to San Quirico d’Orcia, a beautiful medieval town that was in full preparations for its annual festival; each Contrada (town ward) had its colours on show, ready to face off in archery and flag-waving competitions. Shame to miss it, but we had places to be! We picnicked with the Colleys for the last time prior to their return home. Our mountain climbing efforts weren’t over and it was straight into the hard work towards Campiglia d’Orcia. The Carabinieri sent us down the steepest, roughest track we’d ventured on all trip, sealed in spots but with pot-holes that could swallow bike and rider whole. Safely on the SR2 highway we bumped helmets with an old, intrepid German cyclist cycling from Stuttgart to Rome in 10 days. His english was difficult to understand but he chatted happily nonetheless. He had purchased his untried racer just 2 days before departing, had only one drink bottle, zig-zagged all over the road and was toting an 8.5 kilo pack on his back; and we thought we were crazy! We took a photo next to the ‘Rome 160km’ sign and waved him good-bye as we turned off the river-bed road and headed uphill to Radicofani. The road jagged up to the crubling fortress reminiscent of the Weissenstein; tough work. For the effort I thought we deserved, and got, a discounted entry. The view from the renovated tower was spectacular, but time was short. A quick archery comp: closest to the target after 2 shots gets the fifth arrow. Billy won the right and smacked the bulls-eye with the final shot. The SR2 was a tad busy as we pushed uphill to Acquapendente, stopped for a bananna and marveled at the mass of people in the Piazza at dusk. San Lorenzo Nuovo was dead by comparison, and our last town before reaching our lakeside Caravan Park. Dinner with just the original squad of 6 who had left Rotterdam was a surreal celebration. 1 day to go!

Day 58, Sun 17 June – Borghetto to Rome, 128km


OK…the last day. Didn’t really have that in mind though as we chatted with a couple of Canadian touring cyclists early in the morning at the caravan park about places in the north we’d been and they were heading to. Pleasant conditions and little traffic on the SR2 Via Cassia towards Rome, so a downhill feel about things as we whistled through Bolsena towards Montefiascone. Our progress was noted at the Roma 100km stone marker. Took in the great view over the Lake and visited the cathedral just before Mass started. Had to hurry out so couldn’t pay for the postcard of the interior. [Well that’s dad’s excuse!] On the downhill out of town we caught up with our German mate, gave him a tow to Viterbo and waved goodbye again. Perhaps we should’ve followed him on the main drag for our deviation to Ronciglione was via an unexpected 11km, 500m climb. Worst of all, it was Motorcyle Sunday again. Lunch with the crew was welcome. Dad had what he thought ranked with the best cakes of our holiday and didn’t share a morsel. Down the track we caught up with our ancient road to Rome, the now upgraded SS2, it was a horrible, but not unexpected 14km stretch from entry to exit. It was a freeway in all but name and shoulder width. We were happy to split, but found ourselves in the unappealing outer suburbs of Rome. We met with the crew at 3pm and decided to find accomodation; fast. The heat, noise and traffic had everyone a bit tetchy. Luckily the nearest Caravan Park happened to be something of an oasis. We booked a bungalow, had a shower, some time to unpack and then relax. We waited until 6:30pm before donning our fresh Cycling Across Borders / MSF shirts and left to complete our Path. Aunty Poodge was happy when the car -decorated for the occasion- caught up to us in the streets of Rome; she just whacked on the hazard lights and followed at our pace. The traffic was realtively peaceful, that is to say, there were only dozens of cars at each intersection rather than hundreds. Such an arrival at St Peter’s Square would not have been seen for some time, Poodge was merciless on the horn (Italian style), it took onlookers a few seconds to understand that she wasn’t angry at the world, just delighted. To see the square as it is, Sunday night is the best time. We had no worries about parking nearby and the golden, evening light seemed fit for the occasion. A bottle of warm bubbly was uncorked and forced down, never mind, it’s all about the occasion! The camera ran hot and we were euphoric; cutting a lap around the obelisk, hoisting the bikes above our heads and yelling in Italian “due mille tre cento kilometro!!!!!!”. Back at backpacker park central a belly-full of pizzas, more toasts, a long review of the inumerable highs of our trip and delight in each other’s company capped off our day, our jouney.

So here are the statistics: 2377km covered in an unbroken line in 27 days of cycling over 58 days, at an average of 88.06km/day. Longest day’s ride of 176.40km; shortest day of 32.08km. Fastest speed reached 73.8kph. Highest altitude reached 2431m; longest continuous climb 1581m, longest continuous descent 1214m.

Thanks to Medecins Sans Frontieres for allowing us to raise public awareness about their work during this ride, all the people and organisations at home who have donated money to MSF Australia following our Mount Gambier to Melbourne trip, encouraging friends and neighbours at home for assisting Nic and Jacinta on the farm, Phil the builder who continued renovating the house while we were away [sorry we haven’t got any money to pay you with now Phil!], the Greenham and Colley relatives and friends from Australia who journeyed to Europe and accompanied us at various times, the Dickmann family for their support and holiday company, the Gallois and Magnat families who gave us welcome rest in their homes and a much appreciated taste of French Life, the Australian Embassies in Netherlands, Belgium, France and Italy for assisting us with special contacts and occasions at Ypres, Villers-Brettenoux, Varese and Rome [where we delivered a letter from Ambassador Brady in Holland to Ambassador Woolcott in Rome], Stuart and Stan at ABC Radio Mt Gambier who perservered with live crosses to us en route, the businesses who supported us especially Netti Australia for the cycling gear, Paestan Canoe Hire for their involvement and ANZSS Shipping Services who will freight our bikes back home from Rotterdam for nothing [thanks Arno!], all the wonderful people we met along the way who may never know how their waves, chat & directions helped us, you the readers, and finally the support crew – Poodge, Elly, Maggie and Jordy – who did a sterling job putting up with us, and we hope they had the experience of a lifetime –


Now, where to next for this great cause?

Michael and Billy Greenham.

P.S. The book will/might/probably won’t be available in all good book stores by Christmas!!!???

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Filed under 2007, Rotterdam to Rome

The MSF journey; Italy at last

(Originally posted Sunday 24 June, 2007)

The update is really taking shape, be careful that you don’t miss days that have been tacked onto the bottom this old post!

Day 29 to Day 50

Day 29, Sat 19 May – Langnau to Interlaken, 48km

This was a day to remember, easily one of the top 3 cycling days so far. It began with a big breakfast at the guesthouse, followed by a nice bike path to Wiggen. The smell of cut grass filled the air as it was silage time in the mountains. Every square centimetre was utilised. Lunch at Schangnau with Jordy the navigator and Poodge the chef, with a view south to the snowcapped Jungfrau Range. We thought the Grunenberg Pass would be car friendly, it was not even mule-friendly. An amazing mountain trail of pebbles-come-rocks right up to 1560m. We trailed a herd of Swiss cattle for half of it, their clanging bells and traditionally dressed handlers a wonderful sensory experience. A 70kph massive downhill run to Interlaken, began with some equally noteworthy vanilla slice at the town of Habken. Met the McGuirks and checked into some hostel accomodation before tackling a cheese fondue tea.

Day 30, Sun 20 May – Interlaken

Some hostel accomodation – Walter at Hua Villa is a legend! We could not have got a more helpful and friendly host, who appreciated our trip and its purpose. It was perfect weather too: calm, fine and warm. Billy and the cousins opted for a paragliding experience while the aunts, Jordy and I did some waterfalls, rollerbahning/sledding, and mountain walking. All reported back that night over pizzas that their days could not have been better. Countless photos proved it – Interlaken rules!

Day 31, Mon 21 May – Interlaken to Grimsel Pass, 67km

Hired additional bikes from Walter so that Alex, Cal and Jordy could accompany us along the Brienz Lake to Meiringen, famous for being the sight of a Sherlock Holmes story. A delightful flat ride. Cut lunch in the main square and a game of chess with oversized pieces. Then it was the business end of things – we left the others to return to Interlaken while we attacked the Grimsel Pass. I say attacked, but it was more like crawled. For 25km we rode up a 10 percent slope at 8-10kph to 2166m above sea level. Too many winding turns to count; enough heartbeats for a lifetime. But what a reward! With snow everywhere we were able to scrape a snowball from the cuttings as we rode and pelt them at each other. And at Poodge and Jen who were madly cheering us as we sprinted to the saddle of the pass. The toughest climb of our journey – conquered. Another red-letter day. Returned to the hostel where Maggie and Elly were equally jubilant about their sidetrip to Vienna to see the Spanish horses.

Day 32, Tues 22 May – Grimsel Pass to Airolo, 58km

Getting everyone to Switzerland was a logistical train, car and bicycle challenge. Dropped back at the Grimsel in cooler conditions we wasted no time in pushing off. But our expectation of a rapid descent was halted when Billy hair-raisingly blew a tyre as he powered into one corner. There are no guardrails in Switzerland – it was a sheer drop to the valley floor and he was lucky to keep control. Sixty-eight motorcyclists in 2006 were not so fortunate, as periodic warning signs indicated. At least we got to use some of the repair kit I had been lugging from Holland.Getting to the bottom just means going up again, this time to the 2400m Furka Pass. In the snow at the top we proudly wrote “Cycling For MSF”, took lots of photos, and inspected Maggie and Jordy’s snowman and woman. But the day was far from over; the 2300m St Gothards Pass towards Italy remained. We were bouyed by the fact we were not starting at sea level, indeed it was effectively a 700m breeze – just 7km or so of 10 percent gradient! The longer, steeper descent to Airolo was rough as the road was cobbled and perilously winding. But we arrived safely and happily for our rendevous with the car and a short drive to our camping ground at Bellinzona.

Day 33, Wed 23 May – Bellinzona

Declared a day of rest; 30 degrees, an inviting swimming pool, and the Champions League Final between AC Milan and Liverpool to be watched. Being relatively close to Milan, our Liverpool supporters Billy, Cal and Alex decided to tempt their fate by training it to town wearing club colours and barracking for their team in front of the big screen at the Piazza Duomo. The naivety of youth, and they expected Liverpool to win as well! Told to remove their shirts by the police to prevent a calamity, they endured the ballistic AC followers for the entire night and dawn before they could train back to Bellinzona. Ah well; there is always next season, and they trod where no others would dare to. Bravo ragazzi!

Day 34, Thurs 24 May – Airolo to Bellinzona, 80km

While the soccer hooligans slept, the rest drove to the nearby resort towns of Locarno and Ascona. A street market, designer shops, all shades of pastel colored buildings, and our first real taste of how busy the tourism trade would become in the approaching summer. Back to collect the bikes before returning up the Ticino Valley to resume our journey from Airolo. It was not as quaint or enjoyable as expected. The bike path went close to the freeway at times; bypassed most hillside villages, and varied in surface quality. We had head winds and got lost due to some poor signage. Luckily, Bellinzona in the evening was a saving grace. The castles and church bells provided a dignified visual and auditory scene, and I wished we had more time to fully appreciate the town.

Day 35, Fri 25 May – Bellinzona to Luino, 58km

But it was time to move on, along the roads that lead to Rome. The Dutch have a saying that signifies good luck…”to fall with your nose in the butter”. Thanks to Alex hunting on the internet and the generosity of Doctor Luciano towards our cause we were able to experience “the butter” of Lake Maggiore. His spectacular holiday villa/home perched on the shore of the lake provided comfort and scenery we truly deserved!! Billy and I arrived to a laid back support crew who had unpacked and settled in to what was to be our home for 8 whole days without shifting. To paraphrase Monty Python…”Oooh you wos looky…looxury you ‘ad…when I wos lad, family lived in shoebox in middle o’road”.

Day 36, Sat 26 May – Giro d’Italia, Cantu

It had been a goal to see some of the Tour of Italy – Alex and Cal were impressed enough with the idea to rise early to drive about 80km to Cantu for the commencement of the stage to Bergamo. It was drizzling and we had no idea of what was happening, but we parked ourselves close to what seemed the center of the action and waited. Eventually the circus began…sponsors cars with advertising hoardings whizzed past, people with guest passes milled between the barriers outnumbering those of us outside, we grabbed free caps and handouts, blocked our ears from the noise of the hyped up commentators…and there were still no cyclists in sight! But when they rolled past to officially check in we coukld have patted eaxh one on the back, as most people did; They heartily cheered their heroes Bettini, Petacchi and raceleader DiLucca. And somewhere amongst the mess the stage began! We got home in time to see the gruelling mountain stage finish on TV, but unfortunately missed the visit of Luciano and his family who met the rest of the entourage.

Day 37, Sun 27 May – Villa

There can be trying times in Paradise. Our plans for the day were scuttled by a combination of torrential rain and some nasty work from some “bad boys”. It teemed down; the lake and sky had merged it seemed, and during the night some young vandals had pelted fist sized rocks through our driver’s side window and that of a neighbouring parked car. It was not a pretty sight and we got soaked trying to tape some plastic over the window. Kindly the neighbour took Poodge to the police to make statements, but with limited success. Too long of story to go into here!

Day 38, Mon 28 May – Villa

The rain was still slashing down as Pooge and I drove with zero visiblity into town to order a new window for the car. Returned to a housebound crew and it must have got the better of all of us as everyone was in a niggling mood that night…I wished for finer weather and better demeanour tomorrow.

Day 39, Tues 29 May – Islands of Lake Maggiore

My wishes came true. It seemed impossible that such rain could ever stop, but it dawned fine and clear and the rows of peaks around the lake had an icing sugar dusting of snow. Our spirits lifted and we quickly decided to make the most of the conditions by taking a ferry to the much touted islands of Bella and Madre. Both were owned by the rich Borromeo family for centuries and had extensive gardens and villas on them. We all agreed they were worth every euro of the travel and entrance fees we paid. Tiny Isola Bella had a botanic garden with plants from all around the world, complete with parading white and normally plumaged peacocks. The villa on Isola Madre had hosted famous visits by Napoleon, and a meeting between Mussolini and his British and French counterparts in an unsuccessful effort to avoid World War Two.

Day 40, Wed 30 May – Luino Market and Australian Institute of Sport, Varese

The market at Luino provided the morning’s entertainment and lightened our pockets. For some the money went on food delicacies, for others handbags, and the remainder purchased clothes. Can you play ‘match the person with the purchase’? Returned to villa and got a carload with Billy, Cal, Alex and Jordy to accompany me to the AIS sports accomodation facility and bicycle squad training centre at Varese. The visit to meet manager Shayne Bannan and resident road and mountain bike Australian Youth teams was organised by the Australian Embassy in Rome, and I offered to speak to the riders on motivation. The speech follows…

“I am not an elite sportsperson and never have been; nor am I sports physcologist with an expensive motivational video to sell you. I am just a farmer with something to say on what motivates me; maybe there is something in it for you? Because I’m not going to talk about maintaining motivation when everything is going well, anyone can be motivated then. But what do you do when the weather is not fine, you are carrying an injury, you are homesick, and winning seems an impossibilty?

On a farm things are rarely perfect for long; there is always something going wrong and three things motivate me during these times…

1. I dream, and I dream big! Like cyclists, farmers have a lot of time to dream, and I have dreamt of riding the 2000km from Rotterdam to Rome for over 20 years. I imagined all the French bakeries I would visit, how I would relish the challenge of climbing the Swiss Alps, and the elation I would feel riding into St Peter’s Square in Rome. And in that time I always expected my dream to come true. Because I always knew when the timing was right all I needed to do was to develop my plan, do the necessary training and preparations, and put the plan into action… What is your dream?

2. I believe my worst day is behind me! It doesn’t matter what falls my way in the future – my darkest day is gone. And it was not the day my father died, or my wife miscarried, or even when Essendon lost the Grand Final to Brisbane. It was a day when I nearly gave up. When I was 18 I came to Europe as a tourist and decided to cycle around Holland. It went brilliantly, and at the 32km Afsluitdijk/sea wall in the north of the country I felt like a king because I had a very rare gale of a tailwind. I hardly had to pedal and did the trip in just over half an hour! Then it started to rain, it got freezing cold and I had to turn back into the wind to my destination. I could barely move the bike. I started to doubt I could continue. After a while I began to cry. “This is too hard” the voices said, “I don’t have to do this…I can quit and just go home”. Suddenly a farmer appeared cycling out of the gloom towards me. With a hearty chuckle he called out “Hey, you should turn around and come my way – it’s easier, you just won’t get to where you want to go!” I thought about it, smiled, and pushed on. Where do you want to go?

3. I like to help others. Oddly, it is a selfish thing to do when we help others less fortunate than ourselves, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. And when we feel good about ourselves, we are happier and more able to cope with our hard times. It has been a tough period for farming in Australia – for many, too tough. If I had not been planning this ride to help others by raising the awareness of the worldwide work of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, then maybe I would not have coped with my own problems on the farm that well. I had a big picture, some perspective about the world. I avoided becoming depresssed or self-obsessed – a pitfall for elite sportspeople when times are lean. Who are you going to help?

Thank you; and once again…dream big and expect them to come true…always believe your worst day is behind you…and help others whenever you can.”


Day 41, Thurs 31 May – Agno to Saronno 71km

Got the glass replaced in the car for an excellent price, and fuel from a service station that actually served you – still common in Italy. A hazy day as we were dropped back into Switzerland at Agno near Lugano where we had branched off days prior to head to Luino. Lugano created a favourable impression. On the lake with sheer cliffs rising out of it, attractive promenade, ferries and tourists on the move, and advertisements for all sorts of quality, international events from World Cup athletics to touring opera companies. Busy highway south but a couple of pleasant villages before we returned to Italy at Como. It did not create a favourable impression. Got lost initially, tawdry suburbs, closed tourist office, grey day, and expensive ordinary cakes from the bakery! An uninspiring ride to Saronno in heavy traffic completed a pedestrian day, so it was great when our rendevous with the support car for the return to Luino went well.

Day 42, Fri 1 Jun – Saronno to Milan, 32km

It is not possible to take a bike on the train from Laveno/Luino to Saronno on a Friday – only on a Sunday! Well that’s what I eventually worked out from the unhelpful; fast Italian-speaking, not a a word of English, train ticket lady…unless you speak to the conductor, convince him to turn a blind eye and quickly go back to the ticket lady, hope she is in a better mood, and get the tickets before the train departs! This we managed to accomplish just as rain started to pour down…and we had to resume our ride to Milan in it. But it turned out to be a hoot! Sure there were puddles with more water then Australian reservoirs, and constant traffic, and we were unsure of the route…but we rode at 30kph, watched a funeral procession, passed our first Milanese prostitutes, zoomed past the stationary peak hour vehicles, found our way to our apartment accomodation without a hitch, and the McGuirks had some food shopping ready. Brilliant…Milano here we come!

Day 43, Sat 2 Jun – Milan

Sightseeing! Made more intriguing because it was a Festival of Sport weekend with lots of free activities and demonstrations. First up it was the famous Duomo/Cathedral. A little quirky that confessions were going on in full view of the hundreds of tourists wandering around but the parties involved didn’t seem to mind. Then it was gelatis and a gatecrashing entry to a ceremony to present a handful of famous Italian sportspeople with their membership of the National Sports’ Hall of Fame. Back to the better known Hall of Opera – La Scala. Lovely place of course, excellent museum, but the toilets were nothing special! Through the Victor Emmanuel gates and past the flash designer label shops, then watched the Italian Rugby Union team play a practice match against a Barbarian team. Returned home for tea before returning to the Piazza for La Scala orchestra to play a public concert for the Anniversary of the Italian Republic. Now this was ‘ssspppeeecial’ – topped off with a thumping finish to Ravel’s Bolero. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Pity Elly missed it; at home with a sore throat and headache.

Day 44, Sun 3 Jun – Finish of the Giro d’Italia, Milan

More magic moments. With Jordy and Maggie in tow I took them in to the Duomo, got gelatis, entered a family olympics competition, and staked our spot at the finish line of the Giro by 2pm. The kids were rapt! Lusciuos ice-creams, some simple fun games; and a multitude of giveaways can make a kid’s heart sing – and mine! The olympics involved 10 activities including bocce, singing in chorus, and shooting a basketball. At the end of the day we noted we had come equal tenth out of over 200 families. And we saw the finish of the famous bike race – bang on the finish line, about 3m from slapping stage-winner Alessandro Petacchi on the back. Loaded with hats and other freebies we returned home to find the others, equally enthralled with their day at the races – and with even more stuff than us. The official packs of pink t-shirt, cap, sunnies etc plus some metres of Giro banner to be divided up like spoils from a sacked Roman Empire. Which it was when you come to think about it!

Day 45, Mon 4 Jun – Milan to Fidenza, 149km

One of our hottest days riding so far – 31 degrees. But we had an 8am start to try to beat the heat and the Milan traffic and did both successfully. It was the 10km on the edge of town that gave directional problems as you cannot necessarily follow the road signs when on a bike or you will end up on the autostrada. With help from an old man, and a couple of fellows cycling to work we ended up on a linking set of small rural roads through the flat agricultural plains of Lombardy. The wheat crops were approaching maturity whereas the maize had a long way to go. Met Poodge, Alex and the kids at Piacenza for lunch after crossing paths with what seemed like a Russian national cycling team – maybe they were Giro riders on a recovery ride, or their European training base was in the city? Rode to the spectacular fortified town of Castell’arquato before encountering another interesting cyclist on a real pilgrimage. A well publicised and travelled route called the Via Francigena [Frankish Route] goes from Canterbury in England to Rome through France and Switzerland, and its use has been documented since the tenth century. Our Path to Rome following Hillaire Belloc’s walk from eastern France in 1902 intersected this ‘Way of the Faith’ many times in Italy. Do a net search…it’s quite interesting.

Day 46, Tues 5 Jun – Fidenza to Busana, 105km

Sometimes when you wake up in the morning to a hearty breakfast you forget about the dramas of the previous day. When we arrived at Fidenza it was 6pm and we had no accomodation; Alex had missed her train back to Milan to see an opera with Cal at La Scala using her last minute cheap 20 euro ticket, and Poodge’s toilet bag seemed to have gone west when we were travelling south. But the sumptuous hotel breakfast bouyed our mood and we were off again. We ticked off the highlighted villages and towns on our marked map, had lunch at Calestano, before we hit the hills of Tuscany. They were tough in the afternoon heat but scenic. Our last climb of the day was a real killer; steep and high. But once we came down the other side there was a huge dinner of takeaway pizzas in a celebratory mood at the agritourismo lodge the support crew had found late in the day. As with most places it worked out at about 20 euros [Aus 30 dollars] per person including breakfast.

Day 47, Wed 6 Jun – Busana to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, 70km

The weather changed for the worst; a few thundery showers late in the previous day turned to full on rain and a drop of fifteen degrees in temperature. What promised to be one of our more spectacular days cycling over the1580m pass into the Serchio River Valley became a wet slog with visibililty at about 100m. Initially it was enjoyable in a spartan way – we were on a very minor road and in 25km or so only the mail lady passed us. There was little wind so we could ride beside each other and chat to make the slow 8kph climb go a little more quickly. It was only nearing the top of the pass that we got a little frustrated with the conditions; and that was more to do with the ‘Ramisetto Ruse’ being played on us. This is a ploy first noticed yesterday on the climb to the hilltop town of Ramisetto; the Italian road authority plays with your mind on steep ascents by having roadsigns that denote a winding road for say 1.5km. Great you think, only a little way to go. You do the 1.5km and there is another one…then another…then another. We may be masochistic but they are sadistic! It was a testing 14km descent to Sillano – wet slippery road at 50kph, and the cold wind biting through our jackets. Lucky we met Saint Roberta of Sillano! We entered her grocery shop as she was about to close for lunch, shivering and hungry, and left her house an hour later still dripping wet, but warmer, well fed, and hot chocolated. Grazie mille Roberta!

Day 48, Thurs 7 June – Castelnuovo to Lucca, 57km

(Billy’s turn on the blog)

Our wet, cold bike shoes contrasted with the dry white toast we had for breakfast, and the already hot morning sun. The river-valley stretch provided a hoot as we cruised along often at 35km/h. The speed slowed considerably as we climbed upwards to Barga, renowned for its medieval centre. Conversed with our first Aussies since Reims when my chain came off, the South Australia shirt I got from the AIS at Varese sparked the question “Crows or Power?”, of course there is only one answer to this question; “what are you talkin’ about mate, there’s only one team; the mighty Bombers!” Aunty Poodge will probably remember Barga simply as “Bugger…….the bloody town where I got a parking ticket”. At the famous Pont di Magdalene close to Lucca we chatted with some friendly Canadians about our trek, they remarked on the perfect weather; too soon, as 5 minutes down the road the rain came down with a vengeance, complete with a sound and light show! Inside the intact walls of Lucca Dad and I did well to find accomodation at all, let alone one that would take all 10 of us – the Colley clan had caught up. Alfredo and his wife at La Torre B&B took us in with waving, open Italian arms. I took a stroll by myself around the town, and I reckon I went the whole way around too. A hint for walking Lucca, don’t try use a clock tower as your landmark; there are millions of them!

Day 49, Fri 8 June – Lucca, Pisa

The rest day was well deserved, we had not cycled 4 consecutive days this trip, and they were hardly easy days by themselves! But it wasn’t a ‘lie in bed all day’ kind of rest, we took the 11:00 bus to Pisa and were stunned on arrival; the leaning tower is in a huge grassy expanse with the Duomo and Baptistry, both amazing buildings in their own right. We had a lovely picnic in its shadow. Despite the thousands of tourists from around the globe and equal amount of harassing sunglass vendors it still felt very open. Dad and Aunty Poodge took Jordy (he for free) through the Duomo and Baptistry while Mum, Alex, Maggie and I walked through the town a bit, the guide book says Pisa is more than just its tower complex, but I didn’t see how someone came to that conclusion. Jordy lucked out and got to come up the bell-tower with Mum, Maggie and I, Dad was happy to save his money for cakes and wave to us from below. It is one of the modern wonders of the world; easliy justified. The climbing may not have been easy, but the view was worth the effort. Back in Lucca we had a fine restaraunt meal with Aunty Lisa, Uncle Nigel and Grandma, who had rested up during the day. In Lucca it was election time and one candidate had thrown a rock concert to woo voters. If not for one band, the free wine and music would not have won our support.

Day 50, Sat 9 June – Lucca to Tuscan Villa (Montechiaro), 133km

After another grand, home-made breakfast we waved goodbye to the crew at La Torre and hit the road again. Getting out of Lucca was typical of our efforts to leave most Italian cities; circuitous! Dad was struggling badly with a sore back that ‘twinges every time I put my left foot down’ and it turned his mood sour. I rode infront for a very long time. The heat and busy road were no fun, but by Certaldo trees began to line the road and the shade was very welcome; dad’s voice had returned too. Despite his state he still wanted to take the uphill detour to San Gimignano, one of Tuscany’s ‘must visit’ places. Inside the medieval town we bought a gelati from the 2006 national gold-medal gelateria but didn’t hang around too long. Quite a magnificent place, but still a long way away from the Villa. The 40 k’s to the Villa was broken every 20 minutes to let dad play dead fish on the side of the road. It may have have been slow work, but it made the Villa so much more attractive, and by our arrival at eight pm we didn’t have to unpack, shop or cook tea (method in dad’s madness?) Marja – Poodge’s Dutch friend – had arrived from Pisa airport and Ken and Monica had found their way from Geelong to Siena via Rome. The Villa took all 12 of us with ease, and the beautiful table made for a grand occasion at tea. For the adults, the celebratory champagne carried all of one thousand kilometres from Epernay was appropriatley popped.

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A tiny Swiss update

(Originally posted Wednesday 13 June, 2007)

First of all, apologies for the tardiness. Internet access has been almost non-existant for the past 3 weeks. Furthermore, after typing for an hour today at an internet cafe my computer decided to crash.

This certainly doesn’t bring it up to date but I will give anything possible at the moment.

Day 26, Wed 16 May – Giromagny to St Ursanne, 76km

We returned to the Ballon d’Alsace but thankfully didn’t have to climb it again. Instead we zoomed to Belfort; a very lovely city even if we didn’t stop. The Swiss border came and went with nothing of note, except the weather was holding (just). We lunched at Porrentruy, tried the famous cheesecake (literally cheese in a cake, not to our taste at all!)
It started raining within five minutes of leaving town and we had it all the way home, including the 800 metre height of Sur la Croix. Lunch was starting to tease our stomachs. After arriving back absolutely soaked even the best shower I’d had in Europe couldn’t revive me.
Day 27, Thur 17 May
Thanks to the weather and sicknesses we decided to stay another night but it meant shifting rooms to allow the pre-booked Swiss on their public holiday in. A carload went to Solothurn to look around and to drop mum and Maggie off at the station, ready to go to Vienna.
It was still raining.
While they were gone Cal and I found a small creek that came splashing out of the mountains and decided to get dirty. After a good 50metres of climbing we finally found a waterfall complete with cave behind it.
Day 28, Fri 18 May – Glovelier to Langnau, 97km
The sun was finally shining as Aunty Poodge dropped us off at Glovelier, where our hike had finished. We came straight into the magnificent Gorge du Pichoux; a slow climb between two sheer cliff faces, with a swollen river crashing beside us. We came down a big hill into Moutier, heart of the Jura, and were straight out again. We had an expensive yet delicious restaurant sandwich at the foot of the Weissenstein, where we luckily bumped into the support crew who took our packs.
The 15% gradient was a killer on my fragile stomach, by the time we got to the top of the 1700m we were both gulping in the air. Going down was a stomach churning 22%, it was just too scary to go as quickly as possible.
I can say that I visited Solothurn, if only for fifteen minutes. We were running late and took the bike path to Burghdorf then to Langnau. The legs had had enough by the time we reached the finish line.
Accommodation was tough to find and the McGuirks had gone to Bern. Dad, Jordy, Poodge and I stayed near Langnau. Jordy had a great time at the Burghdorf fair.

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The end of France and beginnings of Switzerland

(Originally posted Thursday 17 May, 2007)

Day 12 – 16. Wed-Sun 2-6 May
Much needed R&R in Epernay courtesy of famille Gallois. Five weeks of consistent travel may have caught up with us! Big sleep ins, emailing, eating, diary-writing, sunning on the terrace overlooking the Marne Valley, eating, chatting, washing clothes, eating…and I haven’t even mentioned the champagne yet. Did a tour of champagne houses large and small including Moet et Chandon, Mercier and a Gallois cousin, drove a scenic circuit of sights and places around Epernay including the stunted forest of Verzy, visited Reims Cathedral and caught up with sister Jenny and children Alex and Cal who had arrived from Paris, shopped for lasagna and BBQ ingredients to make dishes for our hosts, and serviced the bicycles. All necessary tasks and timely. Many thanks Michel and Madeleine! We are restored for the rest of our Path to Rome which began for Belloc in Toul, our next destination.

Day 17, Mon 7 May – Epernay to Laneuveville-derriere-Foug (near Toul) 175km
On a rain-affected morning we hit the Marne canal towpath, a 40km stretch that had us going over dirt, gravel, bitumen, pebbles and a length of plain grass. A young deer having a dip in the canal gave us a fright, for a second I thought I was looking at a Kangaroo!
The riding between Chalons-en-Champagne and Bar-le-Duc was a long time of pushing through the drizzle. The warm tourist info centre at BLD was welcome, we had been feeling quite tired and a little bit dispirited.
The food and recess gave us some new strength, not to mention the sun pushing away the rain. We found a beautiful single-lane country road all the way to St Aubin, and the freeway. Here was a little problem, the freeway seemed to be the only road over the 2km stretch. Luckily, a harvester came by and the driver waved at us to follow him, down the farmer’s access track we went, rattling all the way. Problem solved.
Between there and our gite the weather changed tact as many times as we crossed La Meuse canal, which, over 50 odd kilometers was quite a few times.
Finally we made it; worn out but satisfied with the effort.

Day 18, Tues 8 May
The gite is at Laneuveville-derriere-Foug, a smaller town than Dartmoor, 20kms from Toul. Inside is perfect for the nine of us, and we had it packed to the rafters.
With Aunty Poodge as driver, Dad, Aunty Jen, Alex and I traveled to Verdun. Fittingly, it was in a dreary, wet atmosphere. Our visits were to the French forts built just before WWI and the Douamont Ossuary. All very somber.

Day 19, Wed 9 May
Nancy, spearhead of the Art Nouveau movement, a very good-looking city. We spent most of the day inside its Musee de Beaux Arts, admiring the multitudes of works. It is a fantastic museum for a city of such size. Cal rejoined the party late-afternoon, back from his trek to London.
Traveling with nine is a bit too much for one car, so it seems like we’ll be buying plenty of train tickets for a while. The price to rent another vehicle is phenomenal.

Day 20, Thur 10 May
Bonne aniversaire à moi! 18 at long last.
The excitement obviously had got to me, I was first awake. A party of nine family/relatives in Europe wasn’t the kind of 18th party I would’ve expected before planning this trip, but it was lovely all the same. Thanks to the family who could come, because it would otherwise have been just dad and I, and that would’ve been stretching it.
It was a very low key day, some soccer at the park and some delicious cakes from Toul, complete with candles.

Day 21, Fri 11 May – Laneuveville to Remiremont, 143 km
A freakish wind swept us to Toul, where, in the true footsteps of Belloc and Brown, we left from the cathedral and the Nancy gate. Their path is now our path as well. A Frenchman who noticed our bikes and shirts stopped to talk ask what we were doing, very kind of him. We took the hot-mix Moselle towpath as long as possible, the surfaces really do affect speed. Lunch was at Tonnoy, the sun was out but that alone does not make it a pretty town. By the time we had made it to Charmes we were both breathing hard. Checking the map we winced at the remaining 50kms. At Epinal we had some interesting times in the traffic, being tooted and cut off. I didn’t find Epinal a very nice place. Halfway to Remiremont I set our new speed record: 67.8 km/h, should stand awhile me thinks. The last 20kms to Remiremont was testing dad a lot more than me, but I was still very happy to finish and take the car to our caravan park at Plombieres-les-Bains.

Day 22, Sat 12 May
We were still resting as lunchtime came upon us, glad we weren’t cycling again!
Plombieres has certainly stuck to its early 1900’s architecture, the old-English houses stand very grand along the valley’s slopes. Each step down the hill seems to take one back another year in time. We gathered information to plan our next few days and Cal, Jordy and I managed to join in a small game of street soccer.
For my 3rd night as an 18 year old Cal took me to the Casino, I’m glad he did because I came out 60 Euros in front, a sight better than him!

Day 23, Sun 13 May – Remiremont to Giromagny 54km
Starting from the train station taught us one thing; don’t look for public transport on a Sunday, it just won’t be there.
Dad sat with his bum as far back as possible the whole two hours it took us to cycle the 34km bike path, the suspected hemorrhoid lump meant he was keen to take it slowly.
The Ballon d’Alsace is a 1200m high mountain near Belfort, its nine kilometers of ascent was our target, so that we didn’t have to worry about it the next day.
In the end, the expectation was worse than the reality, we just stuck to our lowest gear and persisted. Unfortunately, the descent was also a let down. The tight hairpin turns ruined all hope of breaking 70km/h, I only just beat 60.
The family plus Cal took the relaxing package at the bathhouse in Plombieres, I never knew a shower could hit so hard! We even sweated it out in the Roman-dated sauna. Very relaxing.

Day 24, Mon 14 May
As we drove, fully loaded and squeezed in, we decided that today is a day for traveling, not cycling. The rain was heavy and continuous. The Swiss border came and went with little notice, thanks to the country lane we had chosen to drive. Once we arrived at St. Ursanne we had a time of finding accommodation, we eventually booked into a lovely hostel-style place, 6kms away. I was not the only one to be feeling sick and went to bed clutching my painful tummy.

Day 25, Tues 15 May
Let it be declared that Tuesday the 15th of May be a day of rest.
With half of everyone being sick nothing big was going to be accomplished, until dad decided we needed to do a spot of hiking. There was a big hill that Belloc and Brown had crossed that can’t be done on bike. So we spent the next 3 hours walking from St Ursanne to Glovelier, a very pleasant yet solid trek. We timed it perfectly as we happened to be in forests both times it rained. I was surprised to find that the Swiss cows do actually have bells around their necks.

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Finally cycling

(Originally posted Saturday 05 May, 2007)

A Letter From Epernay, Champagne, France

First update! A little tricky to get internet access or time so far – sorry.

Over a quarter of the way to Rome already – 500km – or is that roughly 500 towns? [It’s actually 637km in 7 days of cycling; average 91km per day.]

Highlights! For cyclists and farmers it’s the same topic – the weather. Not a drop of rain and only a day of moderate head wind – has suited us but not the farmers.

Day 1, Sat 21 April -Rotterdam to Rockanje 41km

Rotterdam is not looking its best at the moment despite having many buildings draped in purple to celebrate its modern architecture. The city streets will be a construction zone until 2010 when a whole new public transport system is finished. The Erasmus Bridge did give a great view though as we cycled away. Arrived at my sister’s home intact and in time for tea, despite Billy having a collision with the kerb 50 metres from the house.

Day 2, Sun 22 April – Rockanje to Brugges, Belgium 121km

Packed for an overnight stay, so we noticed the extra weight up the hills. [Hills meaning the slight variation in flatness of the bikepaths that we used across the islands and Belgian mainland!] Being a Sunday there were thousands of people out walking and cycling around the coastline, enjoying the sun. Lunch at Middleburg where we chatted with other tourists who were acquainting themselves with the medieval town. Ferry trip to Breskens gave additional rest time, before marveling at the Schwarzeneggers of the cattle breed – the Belgium Blue. A deepfried tea at Dudzele where we camped at a youth hostel.

Day 3, Mon 23 April – Brugges to Bailleul, France 91km

Breakfast then Brugges. Well-written about in guide books and for good reason. Magnificent fortified town with all the trappings to match eg cobbled streets, churches, horse-drawn carriages for the tourists, old buildings and monuments. A must visit. In our 3 hours we checked out a Salvador Dali exhibition, sampled the wares from the Chocolate Museum and lunched with guess who…the support crew of family who arrived from Holland at a parking place beside us at the moment we were putting on our helmets to leave town! Met them again of course at our gite [self-catering farmhouse] at Meteren. Billy was happy with the day because I fell off into nettles when stopping at an intersection – unclipped the wrong foot!

Day 4, Tues 24 April – Quick drive to Moringhem village to see the scarecrows that everybody there makes during the month of April. Not a must visit. To Ebblinghem Cemetery to photograph the grave of great uncle Edward George Spencer, died of wounds World War One. Repeated the process later for Elly’s great uncle Samuel Harold Northey at Ploegstreert after a picnic lunch of regional delicacies from the Bailleul market. Into Lille city still squashed in the car. Not overly impressed, but our main purpose to visit was to catch up with Johanne, the sister of Pauline, a French exchange student we hosted in 2005. Also chatted with MSF volunteers who were canvassing the malls of Lille for potential subscription donors – the French population are good supporters.

Day 5, Anzac Day Wed 25 April – Forced everybody out early to get to 9am Australian service and breakfast at Zonnebeke. Other Aussies in attendance including the Ambassador to Belgium, and the brother-in-law of MSF past president Rowan Gillies. [If you read this Rowan, it was partly your interview on ABC radio years ago that inspired us to do this project.] Onto Tyne Cot Cemetery, Paschendaele to lay wreaths, then quickly to Ypres for 11am March to Menen Gate. Last Post played then returned for speeches with the New Zealanders at the famous Cloth Hall. Sensational, emotional, inspiring…Toured old trenchlines at Diksmuide then returned to Ypres for the 27,001st playing of the Last Post at Menen Gate at 8pm. Got the audio and that was played back a few hours later during an interview with ABC Radio Mt Gambier.

Day 6, Thurs 26 April – Bailleul to Ayette 114km

Just a moving on day really. Tried to choose a quiet route through Dieppe Forest [nice], Bethune [not nice], and Arras [nice]. Again not much time to do anything other than look at things briefly. And despite some unintended deviations was happy not to have detailed maps because if you knew where you were all the time, you wouldn’t meet people to ask them directions. We were chuffed when an 80 year old lady invited us in for morning tea and a chat, very disappointed we had to decline and push on. Mont St Eloi was the standout sight of the morning – ruined church on hilltop overlooking Arras. Checked emails in Arras and thereby managed to pick up nephew Cal in Bailleul as we returned to gite by car.

Day 7, Fri 27 April – Billy and Cal went to Amiens by train while we all drove. Checked in at hotel and went out 10km to Franco-Australian Museum at Villers-Bretonneux to prepare for our presentation that night about the Great Ocean Road and MSF for ‘Recontres Australiennes’ week. [See speech elsewhere on blog site]. Tea at the local kebab house shouted by Monsiuer Le Mairie [the Mayor] was delicious. Not a huge crowd at Victoria Hall; having limited preparation time with the French translation and powerpoint show that was probably a good thing. A few glitches in the gig, but made up with by all the presents we gave away.

Day 8, Sat 28 April – Ayette to Amiens 60km

Poodge and Elly drove us back north to resume our route. The rest got dropped at Samara Gaul Prehistoric Park to spend the day. This was our best day of all the good days thus far. Perfect weather, deserted lanes, picturesque scenery, opportune passings, and an unexpected phone call from Australia. The rolling hills and valleys of the Somme belied the tragedies of the past. Even the numerous cemeteries could not darken the day. Finding the paddocks of Mouquet Farm in which my great uncle Jack McDonald lies was a satisfaction rather than a horror. Through Pozieres and Le Hamel to Villers-Bretonneux.

Met up with friends, Dickmans from Dusseldorf, picnicked in the park, and then went to the town church to listen to classics played by the Orchestra of Picardy. Brilliant experience.

Day 9, Sun 29 April

Met Dickmans at Vill-Bret for the last of the ‘Reconntre’ week’s activities – a walk across country from the Aust Memorial at V-B to the 1st Division Memorial at Le Hamel about 8-10km away. About 40 local strollers to guide and talk with us so it was a great experience wandering past the fields of peas, wheat, canola and sugar beet while trying to converse in foreign tongues. Picnic lunch back at V-B Memorial before searching for the local Dartmoor district names inscribed thereon who have no known grave on the Somme. Into Amiens for a perusal of the famed twice-yearly antique and bric-a-brac stalls. Mandatory souvenirs purchased of questionable appeal! The appeal of Amiens Cathedral – the largest in France – is not questionable however. Another must see. Finished the day with our first restaurant meal…special 3 course deal at one of the Buffalo Bill chain of eateries. Yee haa!

Day 10, Mon 30 April – Amiens to Vailly-sur-Aisne 146km

Our biggest day on the bikes so far. More undulating country made it reasonably tough too. Nice countryside, but the town of Roye was uninspiring. Passed through Noyon at siesta time [12-2pm] so were glad the family had lunch organized there. The others inspected the cathedral in which Charlemagne was crowned, but we were away along the roads still adorned with poppies even though we had left Flanders and the Somme. Old wars were in our mind too when we saw an old artillery shell by the side of the road waiting for the bomb squad to come along to handle it – it had been uncovered by trench digging equipment and painted flouro orange to highlight it. Long freewheeling descent into the camping ground at Vailly was just reward for a long day. Major discovery was that Monday is lawn-mowing day in France!

Day 11, Tues 1 May – Vailly to Epernay 64km

We didn’t leave Vailly until after lunch, having driven into nearby Laon for a morning wander. It was a public holiday for Labor Day so most shops were shut but not the old cathedral or of course the medieval ramparts that surround the hilltop city. Only 60km of cycling in the afternoon but it seemed 3 times as long. Blustery head winds and solid climbs took our attention away from what was an attractive route along the Aisne River to St Gobain, then through forest and field to the vineyards of Champagne. What could have been a 2 hour cycle became 4 hours. But we did see lots of people out walking in the forest collecting Lily of the Valley flowers to present to family – a tradition on May Day in northern France.

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Villers-Bretonneux speech

(Originally posted Saturday 05 May, 2007)


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.

Thank you to the Rencontres Australiennes Committee for allowing us to speak tonight.

There are two parts to our presentation that link some current events to our shared Franco-Australian history of World War One.

The first presentation is about the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia – appropriate given we are in the Victoria Hall surrounded by magnificent photographs from the Great Ocean Road. [Our family lives on a farm near one end of the road.]

The second presentation outlines the reasons why it is us here tonight giving these presentations in Villers – Bretennoux, and what links we have to the village!


Today is the 75th anniversary of a date Australians know little about – 27 April 1932. It was the day when the Great Ocean Road Trust, the supervising body of the construction of the Great Ocean Road, officially announced the roadworks as completed.

It is Australia’s, and considered the world’s, biggest war memorial…245km of roadway…but today does not rank in our important historical dates!

And yet all Australians know of the Great Ocean Road. We revere it for its beauty. Many of us have travelled it – it is known internationally as one of the Top Five travel destinations in Australia along with the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland , Uluru [Ayers Rock] in the Northern Territory, Sydney in New South Wales, and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Given the iconic status of the Great Ocean Road, why do not commemorate today then?

The answer…because few of us know of its relationship with our World War One military history!

The road was built between 1919 and 1932 by more than 3000 returned soldiers, in honour of their mates who fell in the First World War. They called it ‘Our Boys’ Memorial.

However, plans for an ocean road in this rugged part of Victoria had emerged as far back as the 1880’s. The region’s coastal settlements like Apollo Bay and Lorne had sprung up to handle the tall timber dragged from the extensive, inland Otway Forests. From these little ports, the timber was shipped out to help build the new state of Victoria. But it was a hazardous sea journey and shipwrecks littered the coast; despite many prominent lighthouses, ships were still going aground in the 1930’s.

Conveniently, when World War One ended, there was a ready-made workforce to build the road. The Government War Office was faced with having to employ tens of thousands of returned servicemen. Many had no job to go or could not work effectively. Labour schemes were introduced, often in agricultural industries. Farmland was made available to those who aspired to be farmers. Sometimes the schemes failed miserably, especially as the economic ‘’Great Depression’ hit hard in the late 1920’s.

And although the Great Ocean Road ultimately succeeded, it was not an easy project. The Diggers, many from the Victorian 8th Battalion, who worked on the construction of the Great Ocean Road, lived in isolated camps set up in the rugged forest. Sometimes there were hundreds of men working; at other times they numbered in just the tens. It was difficult work with long hours [five-and-half days per week] and it resulted in a high turnover of workers.

It was a tough life and some Diggers joked that things had been better on the battle front in France! Occasionally they were criticized for working too slowly, but they felt they owed their country nothing, having already spent up to 4 years of their lives in war service for their nation and allies.

When the road first opened in 1932 it was a tollway, but the tolls were abolished in 1936 when the Great Ocean Road Trust handed the road over to the State Government of Victoria. Today the 245km Great Ocean Road Memorial winds and bends between Torquay and Warrnambool, and links with a further 200km coastal route westwards to the border with the state of South Australia. For tourism marketing purposes, the road from the provincial city of Geelong to the border is called the Great Ocean Road Region.

It is indeed one of the most scenic road journeys in the world.

Today, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the completion of the road a sculptural work has been unveiled to remind people though, that the road was first and foremost a war memorial.

Fittingly, funding for the latest addition to the memorial will come from the same source as the inspiration behind the original Road – the former Mayor of Geelong, Howard Hitchcock, known as the ‘Father of the Road’. When Hitchcock died in August 1932, he left money in his will for a charitable trust, some of which has been used to fund the new work by prominent Melbourne sculptor Julie Squires.

Squires’ research for the art project began with a visit to the Lorne Historical Society to view original photographs of the building of the road. It was essential for her to get all the information right: clothing fashion, hairstyles, the average age and physicality of the individuals and general mood of the men. She was affected by one image that showed a group of men in front of their accommodation barracks. On the door was the word “Courage” written in bold print. It reminded her that these men needed courage not just to fight in trenches, but to adjust to being back home and to work so physically hard each day on the road.

Other observations focused on the individuals, such as the way they swung the tools, the expression on their faces, the looks of depth behind their eyes…eyes that had seen too much. There was a dominant feeling of mateship in the photographs, and perhaps one of the greatest benefits to the men working on the road was that they were able to stay together after the war. This was a time when men were expected to repress their feelings and yet find a way to process the horrors of war. These men had work to occupy their time and they were surrounded by those who could understand their past. They were able to continue living like a battalion, a bond that no doubt helped them through the arduous physical task of cutting out the road by hand.

The sculpture captures the spirit of the men who built the road, with one of the two life-sized figures handing his co-worker a drink bottle – sharing what he has in a time of need – the essence of being a ‘mate’.

According to the chairman of Great Ocean Road Tourism Roger Grant [who provided the video for tonight’s presentation], “it is very important that all generations of Australians, as well as tourists, are aware that the Road was borne out of great sacrifice. The new memorial will achieve that in the most stunning and poignant way – a graphic representation of the mateship that built not only this road, but our nation.”


Billy and I, and our support crew of family, are part-way through a 2000km cycling journey from Rotterdam to Rome raising awareness about Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. For five days during March in Australia we cycled 500km from Mount Gambier, South Australia to Melbourne, Victoria for the same purpose.

In part I chose MSF to support because of my interest, and family’s involvement, in World War One.

In so many places in the world today MSF deals with the fallout of war – the injured, the displaced, and the disillusioned. As one individual I don’t think I can stop those wars, but through MSF at least I can help patch up the wounded from them. [They are often referred to by military and political leaders as the ‘collateral damage’!]

My great uncle, Captain David Peter Greenham, patched up the wounded from World War One. He was a doctor in Egypt, and here on the Western Front, and developed great surgical skills because of the volume of cases he dealt with; he also learned to improvise because of the basic conditions in which he operated.

When he returned to Australia he could have gone to a large city and had a comfortable suburban practice. He could have continued his sporting pursuits; he was an outstanding athlete, and had represented Victoria in athletics, rowing and Australian Rules Football. But he was a country boy at heart from a simple farming family [we still farm that land]; he had achieved his credentials as a doctor through gaining academic scholarships and he felt like he owed his community.

So he chose to go to the remote Snowy Mountains area of Victoria, around the village of Corryong in the north-east of the state. Then, as it still is now really, the population consisted of scattered families involved in the timber and cattle-grazing industries. It was wild country, home of the famous ‘Man from Snowy River’, the mountain horseman who Australia’s well-known poet Banjo Patterson wrote about.

Doctor Greenham served that community until he died in 1945. There is a street in Corryong named after him, as is the operating ward in the local hospital. He continued to serve the old Diggers of the region. He set up a local branch, and was president for 19 years, of the Returned Services League that provided friendship and assistance to all who had served in the Great War.

In 1938 his care and work was recognised when he was invited to be part of the official guard at the opening of the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretennoux. I hope it gives extra meaning to your next visit to this significant national monument.

Doctor David Greenham and MSF…both humble, honorable and humanitarian. N’ést-ce pas?

Our home town of Dartmoor has other links with Villers-Bretennoux. Eight men have their names on the memorial because they have no known grave in France, including another uncle of our’s Jack McDonald.

Joseph William [Joe] Sullivan has his name on the monument. When Joe left Dartmoor to embark for France, the citizens of the village held a farewell party in the local hall in his honour [as they did for all departing enlistees]. There was music and dancing and a big supper, and a presentation was made to him of a fine, leather money wallet. Joe Sullivan did not return to Australia, but his wallet did, with a jagged hole in it from shrapnel that had pierced the wallet while in his breast pocket when fighting at Villers-Bretennoux in April 1918.

His story is remembered in our town’s memorial Avenue of Honour. Seventy trees were planted in 1918 to honour our servicemen and nurses; nine of them that had become dangerous in recent years have been carved into figures depicting stories like Joe’s. The sculptures have become a tourist sight, and travellers along the Great Ocean Road come inland 40km just to view the carvings.

Because of the links Villers-Bretennoux has with Robinvale, it would be remiss of me not to talk about another veteran from our local town of Dartmoor – Edwin John [Jack] Dowling. After the war, he worked as an agricultural laborer in the Sunraysia area. Unlike almost all World War One veterans, he spoke long and vehemently about the ‘Not so Great’ Great War. He became an avowed pacifist, and was a keen advocate of trade unions so that workers had a collective voice against unfair bosses and conditions. His passions were based on his realisation that much of the wasted life of the First World War was due to grandiose, wilful plans of generals safely removed from the agonies of the frontline. He opposed being exploited in civilian life and wanted common men and women to have the right to have a say in their own fate….egalite, liberte, fraternite!

So in finishing this evening what can we say for those who cannot speak – the 3000 veterans of the Great Ocean Road construction crews, and Diggers Greenham, Sullivan and Dowling who have close links with Villers-Bretennoux?

Their deeds have spoken for them. Remember our past, learn its lessons, honour each other, and enjoy the beauty around us. Maybe one day we will stop fighting our fellow man, and we can support Medecins Sans Frontieres in dealing with natural, not man-made disasters.

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