Mountain Books for Rainy Days: ‘Walking the Woods to the Water’ – Reviewed

‘Walking the woods to the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn’ by Nick Hunt, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in 2014. In 1933 Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. The books he wrote about that journey (A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road- published posthumously) remain classics of the travel genre, evocative pieces of writing that depict a continent in the years before the Second World War. British writer and journalist Nick Hunt has retraced Fermor’s steps, and his journey from Holland to Istanbul is no less evocative of the people and places that make up the heart of the continent. Hunt’s narrative is, like all good travel writing, a flow of anecdotes and vignettes which unfold step by step across Europe. Sometimes Hunt’s stories remind me of Eric Newby’s writing, they share a laughing wonder at the sheer variety and extravagance of human life, and appreciation of the strange and the comic. As far as travelling companions go Hunt is wonderfully undogmatic in his approach to this act of literary pilgrimage. Fermor is an everpresent guide, but Hunt’s journey remains his own. Wilderness travel is all very well, but lately I’ve been rereading some of Joe Cruz’s wonderful blog posts from his bike travels (this one – describing his attendance at an Indian wedding is one of my favourites) and revelling in his accounts of meetings and cultures around the world. Nick and Lael are off in the Middle East at the moment having passed through southern Europe recently and their posts have been similarly brimming with the hospitality and generosity of the communities they have passed through. Travelling through wilderness is a wonderful sensation – the feelings of solitude, of self reliance and introspection and the camaraderie between yourself and your companions are feelings to be savoured. I know that when I can’t have this feeling I yearn for it. Travelling in populated parts of the world is a different sensation altogether and while it is one that I find myself craving less often, I do occasionally feel an urge to explore other places and cultures. In 2008 I was fortunate enough to spend a little time in Italy and Egypt, two places I had never previously visited. It was a marvellous time of eating new foods, doing new and exciting work and cementing friendships with my travelling partners. Perhaps even more importantly it was a period of personal discomfort – the shock of the new and the foreign, the challenge of new languages and customs and the demands of seemingly constant human interaction. I experienced the generosity and hospitality of strangers, understood at last that humanity’s common trait was kindness. At a village festival in a small Adriatic Italian town I ate pasta and drank sparkling wine while the historic and recent conflicts fought in the hills above the town were explained to me by farmers who still plough up shell fragments in their fields. In Egypt I ate cheese that had been wrapped in orange rinds and then buried to ferment. It’s aroma and texture mirrored the stink of Nile water to my uncultured nose. Surprisingly this smell gave way to a mild flavour and Brie-like richness. I think of Egypt and remember being given cups of tea in exchange for American cigarettes, and of the time spent enjoying the two while the Nile flowed by our feet. Hunt’s journey is a celebration of generosity, made possibly by his many hosts and guides. In Bulgaria Hunt reflects, “Walking, as so often before, became less a means to an end than an end in itself. Like an act of meditation it answered its own questions.” This is a book about walking, about human interaction, and inescapably about landscape. The Danube river is one of the secondary characters of the narrative, an artery that flows through Europe. Hunt spends much of the book wandering along its banks and I see it as a thematic link between the different worlds he traverses and the strong contrasts he notes between ways of life as his journey progresses. History is an obvious part of the story, from the contrasts between east and west along cold-war lines but also in older and more intriguing layers. Hunt comments on how the EU is seen as a new Roman Empire – demanding conformity and rules from regions which are struggling to establish stability in the Soviet vacuum. Hunt rejoices in the peasant cultures he encounters and their historical memories, “This appreciation for wildness and tradition cropped up again and again over the next few weeks. It was a kind of hippy nationalism that dovetailed with something else that emerged as the fire burnt low: a mystical appreciation for the ancient Dacians.” Hunt’s journey reveals fault lines and veins that criss-cross the continent, only occasionally lining up with national and topographical boundaries. These boundaries are often linguistic or cultural and are sometimes imprinted in the collective consciousness like scars – it is through this landscape – simultaneously fractured and united that Hunt takes us, revealing a Europe of story and legend and perhaps most vitally personal memory and encounters on the road. As spring rain falls here in Vancouver, I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t time for a journey…

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