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

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Ben Wood Ben Wood | 12:05 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

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.

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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.

Brothers Danny, Sam and Ben Wood on their bikes.

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.

Ben, Sam, and Danny pose in front of The Alps

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Programmes like this make me want to demand the return of my licence fee or become a refusenik. Why should I have to pay for such drudgery? This should be such an interesting show but is ruined by the Wooden Brothers blathering on about their bikes and talking-about-hannibal-in-a-really-dull-way. Please hire some professional presenters, stop dumbing everything down and go back to making great BBC travel and history programmes like you used to do.

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice to see some young presenters for a change. Interesting format too, I really enjoyed the show!

  • Comment number 3.

    It makes a change to see a travelogue presented by some complete unknowns - I'm sick of seeing famous people enjoying world trips at our expense. I don’t think it is intended that a series of 30 minute travelogues are regarded as a definitive study of one the greatest leaders of all time. I think the intention is to spark an interest in a subject and inspire us to investigate it ourselves (and to get on our bikes and go and explore).

  • Comment number 4.

    Totally agree with Steve. As a cyclist with an interest in history I thought the program was very poor. In fact I switched it off because the Wooden Brothers started to drive me up the wall with their incredibly dull presentation, and trying to tell us how brave and adventurous they are due to their exploits on the bike. I will not be watching any more episodes...

  • Comment number 5.

    Is this for real? I paid for this? Seriously, these people shouldn't pass an interview as presenters. Worse still, look at the crumpled lids on the front and rear panniers - they're EMPTY. There's no way the tents fitted in them anyway. These people blatantly didn't cycle much of this route and I'm disgusted at this cheap spin on a travel programme.

  • Comment number 6.

    I've liked the series so far and thought the second episode was better than the first. I hope they keep improving. And I must say I actually enjoy the fact that they aren't professional tv presenters. Looking forward to the rest of the series. Thank you.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm with Kate, Andrew and David. This is a fun series and I like the mixture of history and travel. Sure they aren't professional presenters but I doubt any professionals would take on something like that anyway. I'll keep watching.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks Kate and co for the positive comments! We're sorry you're disgusted Ranger Steve. We did cycle the route - over 2,000 miles - and our panniers were as full as they needed to be to carry our stuff. My brothers Sam (an archaeologist) and Ben (an IT developer) are not professional TV presenters and would be the first to agree with some of the comments! I'm a BBC radio and tv news journalist but I'm sorry if that didn't shine through in the presentation! If you and others who haven't enjoyed it so far can stand it, try one of the later episodes - there's more history content and we're all better in front of camera so you might find it easier to watch.

  • Comment number 9.

    young energetic faces on tv - where did this shock come from

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm enjoying the series, and the new presenters; three brothers following Hannibal and his brothers is a neat idea. It's great that you are showing cycling for exploration, rather than for sport or fund-raising. Being filmed cycling is demanding and very time consuming (I know, I've done it) so congratulations to all concerned - those behind the camera as well as those in front - and the bike-cam shots add a nice touch.
    For me, its the obvious lack of authenticity that lets it down. Empty panniers, nice clean colour-coded T-shirts, flapping tents. Looks like you rode a few miles for the cameras when there was a quiet, picturesque road in the sunshine - and why not, that's fine. If the tents and most of the luggage went in your support vehicle - OK - but don't carry 4 empty panniers each and pretend you were loaded if you weren't. I think we saw the tents on the racks in part 1, and not since: 3 guys - 3 tents - no, real cyclecampers don't do that!
    I'm looking forward to the Alps crossing, wondering where the route goes and resisting the temptation to look it up. And I'm off to the Alps on my bike soon, so I'll miss the later episodes...

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks for your experienced comments Helen and well spotted with the panniers. As with any trip like this I have always found that after a few days what you felt you packed as the minimum is nowhere near. We dumped a lot of stuff very early on - our personal copies of Polybius and Livy were first out of the panniers! The TV crew wasn't with us all the time either so we had no choice but to carry all our gear.

    As you so rightly say being filmed cycling is demanding and time consuming. Typically the crew would recce ahead for somewhere picturesque to film. We would ride to them, film a little and keep going. We'd leap frog each other throughout the day making sure we made it to the next campsite. Hand washing our shirts each night was an extra duty - the things you do for television!

    So the main reason we took a tent each was to give us some privacy and quiet in the evenings after long, intensive days. I would have carried more than 2kgs for this luxury!

    Thanks again for your comments, it is good to have banter to about all this! I hope you enjoy the Alps crossing and have fun when you get there yourself!


  • Comment number 12.

    I am still watching the show as I have been on holiday in Spain for the last two weeks and have only just discovered it (the programme that is!). I am really enjoying it. The irony though is that whilst is Spain I had exactly the same idea to do this only on a motorcycle instead! Currently I am in the research phase and am reading Livy's account of events. I went to work yesterday and my mate said "Have you seen this?" indicating this programme...I nearly fell off my chair! I say well done you guys - it's not easy making history enjoyable and interesting for people - hopefully programmes like this will encourage others to find out more and take an interest in the past.
    By the way - any advice you might have would be most welcome.

  • Comment number 13.

    Thanks Nick - glad you are enjoying the programme.

    As far as advice goes we have tonnes of it! Hopefully some of which will be semi useful. Reading-wise after Polybius and Livy I enjoyed Serge Lancel's Hannibal, Dextor Hoyos' Hannibal's Dynasty and Richard Miles has a new book out too called Carthage Must be Destroyed.

    Route-wise I think we enjoyed everywhere we went so I'm sure you'll have a great time. For beautiful riding/motorbiking the northern coast of Spain, southern France and the Alps, Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio, Puglia, Tunisia. All of them were lovely. We left Cartagena in September when the Roman and Carthaginian Festival is on which was lots of fun and highly recommended. And perhaps try the Col Agnel - it feels like a forgotten pass over the French Alps into Italy. Hannibally bits are more difficult to find but Sagunto, Empurias, Crotone and Carthage are nice ruins. There is a Punic monument in Dougga in Tunisia which is an amazing Roman ruined town. If you can get into the Quirinale Palace in Rome the Hannibal bust there is worth a look. And under some opaque glass in Taranto there is a bit of a Punic counter defensive wall.

    Please email us if you have any specific questions though and we'd be very happy to help out (info at woodbrothers dot tv).

  • Comment number 14.

    I have a degree in Classics, though I've forgotten a lot of my Ancient History, and I'm interested in cycling, though not to the point of obsession over groupsets or whatever, and I'm really enjoying the programme -- it doesn't get bogged down in either the history or the bike-y aspects and gives an original slant to the subject. The brotherly banter is great and the scenery is beautiful. I think focusing on the contents or otherwise of the panniers is missing the point ...

  • Comment number 15.

    Could I just say first of all, is there a chance it is going to be released on DVD with extras that were not shown on the tv programme? If so, I will certainly purchase my copy.

    As a mature student in ancient history, I would have liked more of Hannibal's history included but it did wet my appetite to research further myself. However, I thought it was a brilliant programme and I will miss it now your last episode has finished.

    So if it could be released on DVD with lots of nice extras and extended episodes with anything not included in the televised programmes will be greatly received.

    Thanks guys, a great series!

  • Comment number 16.

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

  • Comment number 17.

    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.

  • Comment number 18.

    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! ;)

  • Comment number 19.

    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!

  • Comment number 20.

    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.

  • Comment number 21.

    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!!

  • Comment number 22.

    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:

    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 23.

    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!

  • Comment number 24.

    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.

  • Comment number 25.

    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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