Dominic Green has given Walking the Woods and the Water a fantastic review in the Wall Street Journal. Full text reprinted below.
In the winter of 1933, 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot from London for Constantinople. Traveling “like a tramp, a pilgrim or a wandering scholar,” with a notebook and a volume of Horace in his rucksack, he hoped to catch Europe’s castles and peasants before they faded away entirely. “Everything is going to vanish!” cries a morbid Austrian to Leigh Fermor along the way. “They talk of building power-dams across the Danube . . . They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East—they would never come back. Never, never, never!” But neither man could foresee that a greater erasure was imminent.
Decades later, “Paddy” Leigh Fermor wrote two books about his epic walk and the “part-remembered, part-fabulated landscape” of his lost youth and interwar Europe. “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986) are elegant, elegiac and among the best travelogues of the 20th century.
Nearly 80 years after Leigh Fermor made his trek, another intrepid young Englishman, Nick Hunt, has repeated the same trudge. For seven months and 2,500 miles, Mr. Hunt pursued Leigh Fermor’s erratic diagonal down the Rhine and Danube, transecting Europe from the Dutch coast to the Black Sea.
Retracing a legendary journey is the literary equivalent of method acting. The friction between inspiration and emulation generates heat, if not light. With “Walking the Woods and the Water,” Mr. Hunt has created an illuminating addition to what the travel writer Robert Macfarlane calls “the literature of the leg.”
Mr. Hunt is pedestrian only in his footsore method. Like Leigh Fermor, he walks in an alarming “time of collapse.” It is 2011. The euro is faltering, xenophobia toward Arab and North African immigrants is rising, and Europe seethes in debt and resentment. “I want to see how things have changed,” he puts it to an anarcho-hippie at an Occupy camp in Holland. “Has all the mystery and wildness gone? What has Europe lost in the last eight decades?”
From the Atlantic to the Ruhr, Mr. Hunt wanders a “nowhere space”: a noisy mesh of suburbs, warehouses and factories, sliced by motorways and hostile to pedestrians. Walking to his first objective, Rotterdam, Mr. Hunt heads for a church spire. It turns out to be the minaret of a mosque. Burnt by the Luftwaffe, rebuilt by the welfare state and repopulated by immigrants, Leigh Fermor’s Rotterdam survives only in name. At Worms, the Nibelungring has no Wagnerian dwarves and treasure: The name is a municipal pun, for the ring road around the city. By the Rhine, Mr. Hunt sleeps rough in “cracks in the landscape,” burrowing into shattered castle walls.
Then, halfway across Germany, Mr. Hunt detects Leigh Fermor’s world. The beer still foams at the Red Ox in Heidelberg, where Leigh Fermor met his first Nazi, a “lint-haired” youth with schnapps on his breath and Jews on his mind. Today, the inn is identical, still jammed with heraldic and hunting trophies. Sleeping in Leigh Fermor’s old room, Mr. Hunt, awaiting “some echo from the past,” receives news that his grandfather, a man of Leigh Fermor’s generation, has died.
Exhilaration and terror still await the wanderer in the snowy woods of Bavaria. “The world is muffled in white,” Leigh Fermor wrote, “motor-roads and telegraph poles vanish, a few castles appear in the middle distance, everything slips back a couple of hundred years.” The only sounds that Mr. Hunt hears are the chopping of “far-off axes” and the “shuddering reverberations of woodpeckers.” As Leigh Fermor staggered at dusk into peasants’ huts, so Mr. Hunt reels frozen into kebab shops and mountain cottages.
In Austria, Mr. Hunt sleeps poorly in quaint Mauthausen, its pleasant villagers seemingly untroubled by the atrocities perpetrated in the nearby concentration camp. But beyond the old Iron Curtain, the people become more hospitable, the dogs more hostile and history more palpable. The Iron Gates of the Danube, once rocky battlements against Ottoman invaders, are now a lake, their rapids dammed for hydroelectric power. The Romanian salmon are denied their spawning grounds above Ada Kaleh, the drowned island where Leigh Fermor saw his first Turks. Now, monster catfish patrol the waters among the bones of Romanians who, fleeing Cold War, swam for the milder coast of Yugoslavia only to be shot by border guards.
Since 1989, the past—pristine or rotten—has floated to the surface. The peasant costumes may be gone, but the antagonisms endure. No one confuses a Slovenian with a Slovakian. The Hungarians still drink palenky (plum brandy) for breakfast, then itch the “severed limb” of Transylvania, lost to Romania in 1920. Nobody talks about the Jews. And everyone still hates the Gypsies.
Descending the wild mountains of Bulgaria, Mr. Hunt finds the Turkish villagers and Karakatsani nomads vanished. The Black Sea coast is a concrete dystopia of all-day breakfasts and all-night techno. One night, Leigh Fermor nearly drowned here among the rocks, then caroused in a cave with Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen. The shepherds and the fisherman are long gone, but Mr. Hunt controls his nostalgia and mostly avoids mimicking Leigh Fermor’s flamboyant style. Still, his inspiration rubs off, like the skin on Mr. Hunt’s feet. Camping by a river in Hungary, Mr. Hunt swats mosquitoes at sunset: “The Körös turned molten at dusk, a murky golden soup lit with magnesium-bright flecks from the dying sun. Clumps of twigs floated past like knots of hair.”
Leigh Fermor was a champion charmer—Somerset Maugham dismissively called him “a middle class gigolo for upper class women”—and his path eastward was gilded with parties, picnics and bicycle polo on the lawn. (The communists killed or exiled the aristocrats who feted him.) Mr. Hunt is not similarly celebrated. In Romania, the author meets the great-granddaughter of one of Leigh Fermor’s friends, who shows Mr. Hunt the family seat, now a dilapidated mental hospital. Her family has reclaimed the house but cannot afford its renovation. They lease it back to the state, and retain a guest room where, as Mr. Hunt puts it, travelers sleep in the “post-aristocratic world” and awake into the nightmare of history.
Yet as Mr. Hunt advances, he sloughs off Leigh Fermor’s shadow. Tenderly, he kicks his copy of “A Time of Gifts” into the Austrian Danube. “Between the Woods and the Water” takes the plunge at the Iron Gates.
Leigh Fermor never completed his long-gestating third and final volume about his trek, though an edited version, “The Broken Road,” appeared after Mr. Hunt’s walk. Thus, on the last third of the journey from Bulgaria to the Golden Horn, we encounter Mr. Hunt without Leigh Fermor’s guiding ghost.
Bearded and filthy, his boot soles flapping, Mr. Hunt staggers through Istanbul, a megacity of 14 million. The Islamists are erasing what’s left of Ataturk’s secularism; the new minarets resemble “telecommunications infrastructure.” President Erdogan’s convoy roars past and Mr. Hunt reaches his journey’s end: “There was nothing left of Europe,” he writes.
—Mr. Green is the author of “The Double Life of Dr. Lopez” and “Three Empires on the Nile.”