On Hannibal's Trail: Cycling from Spain to Italy via the Alps

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My brother Sam is the brains, or lack thereof, behind BBC Four's On Hannibal's Trail. After a cycling holiday in the Pyrenees his suggestion for our next trip was following the 2,500 mile route Hannibal took when he invaded Italy.

Sam is an archaeologist and one his heroes is Hannibal - the Carthaginian general who brought Rome to the brink of destruction when he marched an enormous army and herd of elephants from southern Spain, over the Alps and into Italy.

Hannibal's Carthage was fighting Rome for the domination of the Mediterranean. They had lost the first great war to the Romans and Hannibal planned to restore Carthaginian pride and prestige with this audacious march.

Sam's plan wasn't so audacious but it was slightly ambitious. He suggested we film it and we hadn't made a "film" together since I was 12 and Sam starred as Chuck Norris (it's very embarrassing - you can watch it on YouTube).

Luckily our other brother, Danny, came to the rescue. He was working as a journalist in Madrid and his contacts at the BBC loved Sam's idea.

So, after an involved commissioning process and an exhausting yet exhilarating two and a half month film shoot/cycle ride, we are now on the brink of transmission and thrilled that the plan came together. Thanks mostly to the fantastic crew we worked with.

Before we left to start our epic cycle though, I was a little worried about what I had gotten myself into. The cycling wasn't so much of a concern - I had done similar trips to this before - but the TV presenting was an unknown quantity.

I've worked as a software developer most of my life so I'm more comfortable joking with computer nerds about how to set the laser printer to stun than talking to a camera about an ancient Carthaginian general.

I love riding and I love cycle touring - I can't get enough of the freedom and the satisfaction you get at the end of a hard day of riding - but I was very nervous about talking to the camera. At the same time I was very curious about how you go about making a documentary.

I tried as best I could to prepare myself mentally and physically for the journey. My brothers and I were living in different parts of the world at this time so we spent endless hours on Skype discussing everything from which pass Hannibal may have used to cross the Alps to what sort of brakes we should have on our bikes.

I was in Sydney, in our native Australia, and in between work and reading everything I could about Hannibal, I followed a strengthening programme in the hope it would stave off injury during filming. I also cycled absolutely everywhere and went for long training rides a few times a week.

Before I knew it we were arriving in Murcia airport where we were met by our location manager Jason. He had illegally, but conveniently, parked our support vehicle which doubled as the crew's living quarters right outside the front door of the airport.

I initially thought this is what happens when you are on a film shoot - you do whatever you like - ignore all the rules for the sake of art. I started to get a little carried away, thinking innocent bystanders and local laws had to bend to accommodate artists and the cultural vanguard we represented.

But just as I was about to demand a nearby civilian carry my bike box for me (and get me a mineral water) I noticed Jason was busy fending off a few different sorts of Spanish parking police. It turned out the camper van was just too big to get into the car park. So we packed it up as quickly as we could and headed off to Cartagena without a parking ticket.

This was one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. Everything was new. I was excited about starting the journey.

The local Spanish were so welcoming and friendly. We hung out with the crew who were all so engaging and entertaining - they would all make way better TV presenters, I thought.

We quickly came to appreciate the effort it takes to put together a TV documentary. Filming requires patience, imagination and expertise - qualities the crew had in abundance. And what I had imagined was going to be a physically strenuous but mentally soothing touring bike holiday quickly became an intense film shoot plus demanding cycle ride.

We had 10 weeks to cover 2,500 miles and film three hours of documentary. So a full day of filming followed by 60 miles on a fully laden touring bike meant we would arrive at our campsite completely and utterly exhausted.

One of the lowest points on the trip was after just such a day. We pitched our tents in a hungry and frazzled silence and realised all too late we had chosen the local dog poo park for a campsite!

There were so many more high moments on the trip than lows though and hopefully that will be obvious in the programme. I hope you enjoy it. All comments are very welcome!

Ben Wood is the co-presenter of On Hannibal's Trail.

On Hannibal's Trail starts at 8.30pm on Monday, 19 June on BBC Four. To find out tranmission times for all episodes, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

On Hannibal's Trail is part of The Call Of The Wild, a season of programmes on BBC Four.

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by painfulcharacter

    on 28 Mar 2011 09:43

    Great Show really enjoying it, I saw the last couple of episodes when it was first on so good to catch the first few this time round. Go for Marco Polo next longest ride ever!

    I noticed the Hewitt bikes too -good English build that. Keep up the good work and look forward to watching the next incarnation.

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by Dale

    on 11 Nov 2010 22:08

    When is this coming to Australia!!!! I saw one episode while I was in the UK and now I can't watch any of it here in Aus, yet 3 Aussies have presented it! BBC please sell this to Australia, I saw episode 2 and was looking forward to watching the rest on Iplayer when I got home only to realise it wasn't available! It looks fantastic and it is brilliant to see Australians actually presenting a quality historical documentary rather than the usual stuff which gets produced out here.

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by mikevalentine

    on 11 Nov 2010 10:26

    Great show lads really enjoyed it! Good to see young guys presenting history rather than the usual old men. The show looked great in HD too. What about Julius Caesar next - lots of nice Gallic riding and even a visit back to England. Or even Marco Polo, if you didn't want a war man!

    Good luck with the next project whatever it is!

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by Ben Wood

    on 21 Oct 2010 16:23

    Thanks everyone for your nice comments.

    MrB69 I'm sorry no DVD release has been planned.

    And Mark we don't know if it will be aired on BBC1 or BBC2. There were rumours it might be shown as part of the Classical World season which has lots of good programmes:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2010/05_may/27/ancient.shtml

    And we are hoping there will be a next time! Following Alexander the Great's route would be great but cycling through Iraq and Afghanistan may not be too easy at the moment! Any other ideas??

  • Comment number 21. Posted by markjsarge

    on 21 Oct 2010 10:25

    Loved the show on BBC4 and enjoying it again on HD, it looks great.

    Will it get an airing on BBC 1 or 2 Ben?

    Also what's next? How about Alexander? I'd like to see you 3 do that! He went a bit further than Hannibal but at least he won in the end!!

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by James

    on 9 Sept 2010 21:11

    I for one really enjoyed the series. As the BBC's mandate is broadly to inform, educate and entertain, this surely fits the bill so please ignore the unwarranted criticism from the minority. Television like this makes me want to actually watch TV.

    This is the kind of programme that will inspire further reading/research for those less informed on the subject as well as those who wish to rekindle their interest (like myself), whilst also inspiring travel, an appreciation for what we can learn about the past and ourselves...and perhaps even Australians!

    Well done and thanks.

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  • Comment number 19. Posted by rkg

    on 29 Aug 2010 08:29

    so far, i've only watched 1 1/2 episodes as i discovered the program online last night (while procrastinating about finishing my thesis : ) at first, some of the presenting seemed a bit stilted, but it quickly grew on me. now, i find it rather charming, as i do the camaraderie between the three brothers. for me (a lowly art historian, not historian), it's the weaving together of history, cycling, archaeology, shared adventure, IT malfunctions, personal revelations, etc. that makes this program more engaging than others in the same genre.

    so far, the only disappointment has been learning that the adorable sam is engaged! ben and dan's "status" hasn't been commented upon (unless i missed a vital piece of info : ) perhaps there's hope for us yet, zelda!

    in all seriousness, though, well done!

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by zelda

    on 25 Aug 2010 18:15

    How dare you Nick! I am very interested in the history and have hardly noticed the 3 very good looking lads from Australia and their legs and buff physiques at all.

    If only I could ride a bike! ;)

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by Nick

    on 24 Aug 2010 21:52

    Hi - I would like to second what MrB69 has posted. All good stuff - really enjoyed it - I'm still studying history so it certainly does wet the appetite and leave me wanting more.
    Not so sure about Zeldalicious's comments though...!

    Well done guys.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by zelda

    on 24 Aug 2010 09:59

    I am enjoying it. 3 good looking Aussie blokes. What's to complain about ;)

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