From February to December 2021, Isabel Del Real lived a real epic, from her native Brittany to the Iranian lands. At only 25 years old, the young woman is self-publishing this May the graphic novel of her cycling trip, ingeniously titled “ Plouheran “. An initiatory work, like an invitation to set sail and be tempted by certain detours, without ever turning around.

While she is destined for a career as a lawyer, Isabel Del Real dreams of only one thing: to escape. Going far away. At the beginning of 2021, on a whim, the then 23-year-old young woman repaired a bike with two friends from Plouër-sur-Rance in Brittany, then decided to travel alone in Europe and the Middle East. While the world is confined because of the Covid-19, she is going to cut the road, with the idea of ​​​​final destination: Tehran. Isabel criss-crosses the Balkans, first passing through Spain and Italy. Then the adventurer makes a stopover in Greece, joins Turkey and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, before reaching the Alborz mountains in Iran. Ten months later, upon her return, Isabel is bubbling with stories, hilarious anecdotes, moments of life. But how to tell them to those who were not there? The answer is quickly clarified: by drawing.

From her trip, Isabel creates a graphic novel. In 32 chapters, the young Breton takes us on her quest for identity, in her bicycle bag, and hides nothing. Touching encounters, nights alone and frozen, of her 15,000 kilometers covered, Isabel accurately shares the true meaning of the word “travel”.

RFI: Why did you have such a desire to hit the road?

Isabel Del Real: I’ve always said to myself: once I’ve finished my studies, I’ll go and see what happens. As soon as I graduated in June 2020, I decided to go travel. First, I imagined going on foot to Central Asia. Then I realized that it was going to take me three years. Suddenly, a friend suggested that I build a bike together, so that I could go with it. I’m sporty and I’ve traveled solo before, but I’ve never ridden more than 30 miles on my bike and I’ve never been on my own for so long. Once the bike was ready, I left.

Excerpt from the graphic novel
Excerpt from the graphic novel © Isabel Del Real

How did you prepare for the trip?

I wanted to take the Silk Road, so I looked in advance at all the points of interest to see, as I love ruins and archaeology. I wanted to go through the mountains as a priority, so I took all the side roads. And I knew that I wanted to go to Tehran. My father, a great traveler, told me about the mountains of Iran as being the most beautiful in the world. And an Iranian friend told me many stories of the capital, of the revolution… It shaped my imagination of this distant, mythical, somewhat unreachable city. Before leaving, my parents supported me a lot, even if they weren’t very reassured at the idea of ​​their daughter leaving alone, in winter and in the middle of Covid. But they got used to it. At the beginning, I called them every day, I told them where I slept, where I was going. And little by little, on the way, I started to meet other cyclists with whom I traveled for two or three days, or sometimes several weeks.

How did you imagine making a comic strip of your journey?

From my stage in Dubrovnik in Croatia, the idea flowered in my head to make a graphic novel. To tell my loved ones all the cool things that happened to me, I chose the comic book format. After the trip, I returned to my parents in Plouër-sur-Rance, and for eight months, I did a civic initiative service where I could carry out my comic book project. I wanted everything to be done by hand, in ink and paper, so the drawings in the book are my first attempts. There were no drafts. I had to document myself, read comics, books, watch series. And I drew a lot of inspiration from The Little Prince, from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, from Riad Sattouf… The novel is also full of small tributes to the character of Corto Maltese! I am not a great designer. So I tried neither to write well nor to draw well, but to be as sincere as possible.

Did you make the draft of the book during your trip, or once back? How could you remember so many details of your epic?

It was on my return to Brittany that I started making the book. It was my first time writing. I told myself that my memory would sort it out! I have a very good photographic memory, because when you’re all alone, everything imprints itself even more strongly in your head. From Istanbul, I also used my phone to take pictures, supermarket interiors, cafe terraces… When I want to draw a scene where I buy Russian pasta in a store in Armenia, I want that these are the real pasta brands.

Watercolor at the end of the work of a mosque.
Watercolor at the end of the work of a mosque. © Isabel Del Real

What was the most memorable grace moment for you?

Every day of this trip, I was happy. There were always very strong emotions. During the first half of the trip, until Istanbul, I asked myself at least once a day: ” But what am I doing here? » Then I let it go. But there is one day in particular that sticks in my mind. We were seven cyclists, met by chance during my journey, and we camped in the Euphrates gorges in western Turkey, on a road with very little traffic, far from everything. We were in a place steeped in history, there was nothing for miles. And with them, I felt unstoppable. We bathed in the river, we drove. It was happiness.

How was your last stage in Iran?

I didn’t expect it, but in Iran, the culmination of this adventure, I felt safe. I had no problem. It was also because I am a foreigner, and I went there before the national uprisings. The young people I met were incredibly generous and hospitable. But there is especially one sentence that marked me. In a cafe, a student threw me : Of course it’s Iran, when you’re a tourist, because you know you can go back. And I think that pretty much sums up the feeling among young people of feeling trapped at home.

When you came back, you had just experienced months of wonderful encounters and discovered breathtaking places… Wasn’t it too brutal after ten months of itinerancy?

The return of travelers is a real subject. It’s not because you travel to the other side of the world that you have extraordinary and interesting things to express. I sincerely wondered if it was worth telling this story. It was very hard trying to relate what I had experienced to my friends. The stories wouldn’t come out. I only got there by drawing. I wanted to transcribe the atmosphere in a tent, the nature of certain exchanges, the warmth between people… I tried to mix my personal story with larger questions, with lots of touches of humour. At the beginning of the book, I try to convey this feeling of wanting to go far and fast, and to show that the further you go, the more you get lost on the road. That’s why the comic’s epilogue doesn’t have a title, but could be titled ” The stories to tell ». Because maybe at the end of the road, I was just looking for stories to bring back and tell!

Throughout your comic strip, this desire to hit the road raises a whole host of questions for you. With the publication of your graphic novel, do you think you have found the answers you were looking for?

You have to read the book to find out! If I found all the answers? No. But there was really a quest for identity. I had told everyone that Tehran was my final destination. However, what I absolutely wanted was to be on the move, in motion. A nomadic life. I felt good on the road. And in the end, this need to move was satisfied. I got more than I could have hoped for. I made incredible friends, I lived precious moments. Then the desire to make this comic strip was stronger than anything. And I think I really came to the end of the road when I put down my pencil a month and a half ago. It was cathartic to put words to this search for elsewhere.

Can we expect a volume 2 to this comic? What’s next for you?

Volume 2, I don’t know. But I would like to go back for one or two years to do documentary comics. Always with this question in mind: Where can traveling and drawing take me? “I want to continue to find out.

Plouherana graphic novel by Isabel Del Real, self-published and to find on its website. Sending comics from the end of May.