Among tea-sippers

12 July 2012

Flags carry a strange power. Apart from a wider, better-kept road, nothing in the landscape changed as I crossed the border into Turkey, through the same rolling oak and beech forests I'd seen since leaving the coast. The trees and the mountains, the insects and birds, looked and sounded just the same. But the appearance of the Turkish flag, the white crescent moon and star on a field of fluttering red -- along with the frequent portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, his eyebrows flared like a B-movie vampire prince -- somehow shifted everything into a different reality.

I saw no other person for an hour or more, until I turned off the main road towards the village of Dereköy. At first, it looked much the same as the Bulgarian villages I'd passed through -- tiled roofs and sun-bleached wooden walls, chickens and dusty roadside grapevine -- apart from a white minaret instead of a church's dome. Then suddenly, another world. I found myself following a group of women in long, patterned skirts, billowing trousers and brightly-ormanented headscarves to a small square lined with tobacco-exhaling men -- only men, I noticed -- sitting in the shade of corrugated roofs, tinkling tiny spoons in tiny glasses of copper-coloured tea, and yelling at each other amiably. I stood, bewildered, for a moment. There was nothing for it but to join them. Tea swiftly appeared before me and old men swivelled to take me in -- dark, creased faces grizzled with white, pale blue eyes peering from under cloth caps, with expressions that were somehow a scowl and a smile at the same tıme.

I shook hands with everyone within range, noticing the graceful new gesture that accompanies shaking hands here -- the palm of the hand pressed to the chest, as if taking the greeting to heart. One of them, a man called Nihat, spoke a little English. When I explained my journey, he said: 'The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon hım, says that a journey is good for the health -- physical and mental.' He told me he had done the haj to Mecca several years before. 'What was it like?' I asked. He thought for a long tıme, then said very sweetly: 'Oh, it was super.'

I stayed for three cups of tea, and when time came to leave, no-one let me pay. 'You are our guest,' said Nihat. 'This is our culture.' On my way out of the village, another man stopped me, shook my hand, then gave me a bar of halva.

The road led east as I made my way slowly back towards the Black Sea. I walked through low green hills, planted here and there with unknown crops, my boots tacky from the tar melting underfoot. Every car and motorbike hooted at me as it passed, and I caught glimpses of curious faces and hands raised in greeting.

Another minaret announced Karadere, the next village on my route. Almost at once, I was back among tea-sippers, tinkling the spoon in my glass under the shade of grapevine. Old men seem to look older ın Turkey, and young boys sit and drink tea in the same way, watching and listening to the adults as if quietly studying how to be men. Apart from the halva, I'd eaten nothing since breakfast in Bulgaria, so used my few words of Turkish to ask where I could buy food. Immediately, one of the men went off and came back with a round loaf of bread, and another produced a lump of salty, rubbery white cheese, along with a photograph of a cow to illustrate its origin. 'Thankyou,' I said. 'How much?' Solemnly, they all shook their heads, spreading their hands out -- nothing.

So far I'd only talked to men, and it was a relief, a few miles on, when two headscarved women called me over and asked where I was going. I explained as best I could, and they showed me the road with strident gestures -- the right-hand road, the right-hand road -- the left, they made clear with what sounded like warning, led back to 'Bulgaristan.'

Two days later, I'd regained the Black Sea. The coastline is much wilder here, with dense forest hugging jagged white cliffs interspersed with long, sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see without a single parasol. Not that people don't like the sea -- my sense of altered reality struck again when I saw my first Turkish campsite. Turks doing camping is a phenomenon -- they seem to pack the entire contents of their houses into cars and caravans and reassemble it on the beach, spilling out of giant tents extended with strung tarpaulins, hammocks, dining tables, chairs, real carpets laid out on the grass, ornate silver teapots bubbling on stoves, with washing fluttering on lines hung between the trees. Then they cement their claim on the territory with crescent-moon flags and Atatürk portraits flying from driftwood flagpoles, which makes it look like the coastal encampment of some nomadic army.

I found a spot to camp under a tree. Once more, I was overwhelmed by the amazing hospitality that has made my arrival in Turkey such a joy -- my new neighbours delivered a table, a chair, and a watermelon. They stood around smiling as I ate, though from time to time I caught them regarding my lonely one-man tent rather sadly. I got the feeling they might have felt a bit sorry for me.

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Summer metropolis

29 June 2012

'Thank God for the crisis,' said Big Ivan. We were eating tiny fried fish and drinking beer on the beach at Varna, the biggest city on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. 'If the crisis hadn't happened, there would be nothing left of our coastline.'

'You will see it further south,' said Vassil, the archaeologist who was letting me sleep on his sofa. 'All these places used to be fishing villages – now they have merged together into a kind of summer metropolis. I think they are trying to create an entirely concrete coastline.' 

For months in my imagination, the Black Sea had taken on a kind of talismanic status. Through the long white winter, crunching through snow, and then in the sweltering heat of summer down endless roads of yellow dust, I had pictured the moment of arrival – cresting one last green hill to gaze down on an empty beach, the sea gleaming out to the horizon, the almost unimaginable pleasure of cool, rolling water. Of course, it hadn't been like that. Not many moments are. The night before I reached the coast I had camped in the woods above a small village, staying up late and feeding oak branches to a hungry fire. That place wasn't quite what I'd imagined, either. The 'lake' that I'd seen on the map, and spent all day confidently walking to, turned out to be an artificial reservoir containing the poison-blue effluence of a PVC factory – I'd had to walk another couple of hours, through a confused landscape of industry and agriculture, as if, the closer it got to the sea, the less the land knew what to do with itself. But despite the disappointment of the lake and the monstrous attacks of mosquitoes, I felt thrilled to have got where I was. It was a good fire, and those were good woods. It was the night of the summer solstice, and the next day I would reach the Black Sea.

In the end, my first sight of the sea was strangely flat. I glimpsed it from a four-lane motorway on a towering concrete-legged bridge, a hazy band of blue beyond the cranes of Varna's industrial port. Then it disappeared again behind streets of tall buildings, and I paced sweatily through the city determined not to let it get away, hurrying without much interest past a golden-domed cathedral, dwarf palm trees in municipal pots, a maze of pedestrianised shopping streets, mobile phone shops and ice-cream stands, pausing briefly to allow a woman to spray me with free perfume samples – I'd been camping for seven days, and thought this might mask my stench until I got in the water – past a row of stone columns, Greek or Roman, I didn't care which, until at last I came to the sand, threw off my rucksack and my clothes, and stumbled into the water. I felt as if no-one else on that beach had more right to do so.

The water felt very, very good. That moment, at least, was everything I'd imagined it to be.

Three days later, I was off Vassil's sofa and following the coastline south. I camped on beaches, my tent door open to feel the cool night breeze and hear the gentle shump of the waves. The cliffs and low hills I followed had a very ancient feeling – eroded slopes of broken rock and spiky, scrubby plantlife. I swam at every beach I came to, replacing the sweat on my body with salt, and often saw no-one but cormorants and gulls, cows huddled in the shade of trees, and occasional little clusters of nudists nodding hello politely.

And then, I reached the 'development.' I'd been expecting it. On the far side of one last, wild cape sat a white hotel as big as a cruise ship, marking the beginning of what I knew would be tourist hell. 'Sunny Beach' seems an unlikely name to dread, but this is what lay ahead of me – Bulgaria's original, ur-resort, from which everything else had spread after the Transition.

The Transition is what Bulgarians call the change from communism to capitalism in 1989. Several weeks before, in the mountains, I'd been told stories about these times by a young film producer. He explained how the communists saw the change coming, and started moving money out of the country before the Iron Curtain fell. The wealth was hidden in foreign banks, and after four or five years it started trickling back into the country in the form of private investment. Much was placed in the hands of the mutri – swaggering, nouveau riche wheeler-dealers of the big-necked, shiny-suited type, who had the advantage of being new faces, unassociated with the old regime. In the cowboy years of the 90s, with the country suddenly up for grabs, their power was unassailable – he told me a popular anecdote of how they parked in the middle of the road, causing chaotic traffic jams, and then sat back sipping cappuccinos, just to show they could. This attitude, he suggested, had filtered down through society – people saw them getting away with murder, and tried to emulate it. The result, coming after fifty years of the government telling everyone not to think, was a lack of civil society – and, when the construction boom came around in the 2000s, an unregulated free-for-all on the Black Sea coast.

I walked with the consequence of this for much of the next two days. Hotel after hotel after hotel after hotel, a seemingly never-ending repetition of balconies and balconies, looming over jam-packed beaches where the oiled and the glistening sprawled under corporate-branded parasols whose shade you had to pay for. Inland it was even worse. Casinos, sports bars, fitness centres, bingo halls, discos, all-day English breakfasts, souvenir stalls, beachwear shops, arcades, restaurants, swimming pools as luridly blue as the chemical lake I didn't sleep by – interrupted, occasionally, by small plots of beach grass and weeds surrounded by fences and For Sale signs, condemned land waiting sadly for its turn.

This was the 'summer metropolis' Vassil had spoken of. The conjoined resorts of Elenite, Robinson, Sveti Vlas, Sunny Beach, Nesebar – actually an ancient peninsula city reached by a narrow causeway, which, due to its unfortunate location, has been turned into a cute little toy town – stretching as far as I could see, a self-replicating architectural virus. 'Thank God for the crisis,' Big Ivan had said. 'If the crisis hadn't happened, there would be nothing left...' The Bulgarian government is currently proposing a change in the law to open up the rest of the country – not only its remaining beaches, but the mountains and forests as well – to further tourist 'development,' which will destroy even more of wildness and beauty. As far as I was concerned, this was crisis – and if economic collapse is what it takes to stop it spreading even further, then I hope it continues. Perhaps one crisis can cancel out the other.

I wandered inadvertently into an all-inclusive resort. Everyone apart from me was wearing coloured plastic wristbands to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular package deal, like some form of indentured servitude. The broiled bodies on the beach didn't look particularly happy – in fact most of them had the frowns and down-turned mouths of deep dissatisfaction, as if they didn't quite know why they'd come here or what they were meant to be doing. I stood in horrified fascination watching fifty people performing a synchronised high-energy dance routine led by a grinning, whooping girl in lycra, until a security guard arrived to escort me off the premises. I guess he noticed my bare wrists, and he was actually quite reasonable – we both knew that I didn't belong there.


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Traverse l’Europe très très lentement...

28 June 2012

I've just found out that Florence Arié, who helped fund this project before I started walking, has been translating this blog into French. So if you want a break from English, you can read a far prettier-sounding version of my writing here.

Many thanks, Florence. I feel most honoured.

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East and south

14 June 2012

The rains have stopped, the storms have died, and the heat is rising. The almost luminous greenness I saw in my first two weeks in Bulgaria is becoming ever so slightly duller and dustier. The leaves are slowly losing their shine, the mud in the fields is starting to crack, and the cherries and mulberries along country roads have just begun, in the last few days, to lose their deliciousness.

Give or take coming twists and turns, my journey is simple now. Only east and south remain. East will take me to the Black Sea, and I can almost feel its pull -- in these climbing temperatures, when it's too hot to walk at midday, the thought of water feels like a salvation. South will take me to the Turkish border, and to Istanbul. 

Intimations of that city's power -- the lodestone of the east and south -- are already becoming apparent. From Istanbul, the Ottoman Turks ruled these lands for five centuries, after defeating the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396. And from Constantinople, its previous name, the Byzantines launched an invasion that brought down the First Bulgarian Empire in 1018. Bulgaria struggled against that city, in its various incarnations, for over a thousand years.

The more I look, the more I see clues of this ancient intermingling -- and the more it reminds me how far I've travelled from Germanic lands. In the green Rodopi Mountains (the legendary birthplace of Orpheus), isolated villages are still inhabited by Bulgarian Muslims whose ancestors converted to Islam during Ottoman rule. In the city of Plovdiv, the remains of a Roman stadium lie underneath a fourteenth-century mosque, still used by the city's Muslims. (In Sofia many of these mosques no longer function -- the story goes that the communists hid dynamite in the minarets, and blew them up one night during a 'thunderstorm.') Turkish words have slipped into the language, the wheedling reel of Bulgarian bagpipes sounds like something from a bazaar, and people shake their heads to mean 'yes' -- a sure sign that I've passed a significant cultural fault-line.

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Seven days of thunderstorms

5 June 2012

Bulgarian forest

My arrival in Bulgaria was marked by an earthquake and seven days of  thunderstorms. Apparently such weather is rare this time of year, but I had no way of knowing that – of all the countries I’ve walked through, Bulgaria is the one I knew the least about. The only things I knew about the country were five centuries of Ottoman rule and the Cyrillic alphabet – Romanians had cheerfully joked about how the Bulgarians would drug me and sell my organs on the black market, but none of them seemed to have any clue about what the place was like either. I’m glad I had so few preconceptions before I took the little ferry across the Danube to the town of Vidin, because exploring a country without expectations, either good or bad, is far more wonderful. Everything is new and unexpected. The process of discovering it is a process of letting the unknown reveal itself, until, by a slow-working magic, it becomes familiar.

The first thing I noticed was the plants. Romania was a green country, but here the greenness was somehow lusher, brighter, more vivid. I followed a small road eastwards through dense foliage, poppies scattering the verge. There were lime trees, acacia trees, banks of wild flowers in yellow, purple, pink and blue, unknown stalks densely clustered with buds, and thickets of wild cannabis. With the humidity and the rain, the atmosphere was almost tropical – a sense of the south, the other side of Europe.

On my second day out of Vidin, hoping the rain had stopped at last, I looked behind me and saw clouds gathering like a child’s picture of an approaching storm. A brilliant band of light lit the sky, but the storm soon broke. I took cover beneath a dripping tree under my inadequate umbrella and waited for the rain to end. The rain didn’t end. The light was dying and I was far from any village, so began vainly casting about for a sheltered spot to camp. There were no sheltered spots. I resigned myself to heading for the fields and pitching my tent in the pouring rain, then decided to walk on, for just another fifteen minutes. After ten, I rounded a corner and came upon the only guesthouse I’d seen all day, with windows lit and smoke rising from the chimney. The owner greeted me delightedly: ‘Come in – you can take a hot shower, dry your clothes and then come down and drink a glass of rakiya with me.’ These were the finest words I could imagine.

The next afternoon, in the town of Lom, I was resting in a café by the Danube and wondering whether or not to walk on. The table next to me was occupied by a group of Bulgarian men, and when they saw me switch from coffee to beer, a look passed between them. One of them, a lean man with the permanent squint of eyes adapted to a never-ending stream of cigarette smoke, introduced himself as Vesco. ‘Tomorrow is a holiday – we’re having a big party in my village. You should join us. There’s a spare room. You can stay a few days.’

We drove to the village the next afternoon, having spent the morning picking up supplies – meat, vegetables, fresh goat’s cheese, beer, rakiya, homemade wine, bread, more meat, potatoes, more beer – and then coming back to the same café for ‘a drink to relax from all this shopping.’ At last we arrived at Vesco’s village, a ramshackle house built by his grandfather, adjoined by various sheds and outhouses all in a state of glorious decline – buildings of crumbling wattle and daub, surrounded by vegetable patches and trailing grapevine. Vesco worked to fix the pump so we could drink water from the well, while me and his friend Itso, a great bristly hog of a man, heaped the table high with chopped vegetables. I glanced outside to see Vesco wringing water out of something that looked like a long white dishcloth.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Guts,’ he replied, flinging a flailing wet lump of it to the waiting dog. ‘We will fry them later.’

More friends arrived, Petar and Georgi, bearing an enormous jar of red wine. They swept out the little tin pagoda – unused since last year’s party – and the eating and drinking began. Vesco seemed to be cooking about seven things at the same time. First he served chicken soup, then came salad and rakiya – in Bulgaria, these always go together. ‘Drink slowly,’ Petar said. ‘We have a long time, and this ends tomorrow morning.’

I settled in for a long night. A sheesha pipe went round the table, sweet apple and pear tobacco. Wine was poured. Meat was grilled. Potatoes were fried. The rakiya got stronger, and it was explained: ‘The first bottle was for kids and ladies. This one is for normal people. There’s another bottle later, and that’s for professionals only.’ Darkness fell, dogs yelped in the lanes, and the wheedling rhythm of Balkan music drifted from the village.

‘There’s a big gathering in the square,’ said Petar when I asked what this was, ‘but you don’t want to go there. It’s full of Gypsies. We have a big problem with Gypsies, like with you and niggers.’

When I objected to this, he shrugged like he was expecting it. ‘You are tolerant people. We are more racist than you. They are not human beings. They’re animals, they’re not people.’

Instantly I felt my good mood spoil, and a sense of exhaustion come over me. I’d encountered the same attitude towards Gypsies all over Eastern Europe – Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, here – and had long-since ceased to be surprised by it, but the casual hatefulness of this language, the ancient and endless tribalism, suddenly got me down. Drunkenly I tried arguing with him, but there wasn’t much point. ‘You believe that people are good, that different races can live together happily,’ he said with a kind of wistfulness, as if he never could. It was an abrupt reminder of how different our cultures were, how conflicting our beliefs, no matter how well we might be getting on. I was a total stranger here, and yet they had taken me into their home, fed me, given me a bed, entertained me, translated for me, offered me everything. How could I reconcile this warmth, kindness and generosity with such unpleasant views?

I couldn’t. Some things just don’t fit. I continued drinking.

In some strange act of reconciliation, sensing how my mood had changed, Petar approached me later with two long nets. ‘Here, take one of these, I’ll show you something. I’ve been waiting for weeks for these little bastards, and now, after the rain, they’ve come out. We’re going to catch them and eat them.’ The little bastards turned out to be snails, working their way through the vegetable garden. Georgi already had a whole sack of them. ‘You call black people animals,’ I was tempted to say, ‘and you’re crawling round the garden eating snails?’ But already my bitterness was dulled. I just had to let it go.

Much later, sometime after the professional bottle of rakiya appeared, Vesco was dancing in shuffling steps around the little tin pagoda, howling with laughter which descended into a hacking smoker’s cough. They were telling jokes about the Bulgarian folk hero Krali Marko, with most of the punchlines centring on the size of the great man’s penis (large). Vesco was still howling and choking when I finally collapsed in a bed. My last vision of the night was Itso wolfing down fried guts from the sizzling plate before him.

I walked on, severely hungover, the next afternoon. I had the sense they were slightly offended that I was leaving after one night – they were only just getting warmed up – but I was itchy to move. I headed away from the Danube, out of the flatlands, south.

Days of rain followed, and days of green mountains. The night before I reached Sofia, I turned down a dirt road towards a monastery, hoping to find shelter. The church was locked up, the monastery deserted, but a glimpse of lined-up slippers in the corridor convinced me that someone lived there. I sat down to wait, and after a while a guy puttered up on a motorbike – a tough, friendly man with a humorous face, who didn’t seem at all surprised to see me. His name was Ivo – from what I could gather, he worked as a kind of caretaker there. He located the keys under the doormat and ushered me into a neat, cosy room where I could stay the night. But first – in what I am quickly learning is true Bulgarian style – he insisted on driving me down to the village to eat and drink at his home.

His family and neighbours gathered round, piling the table with beer, bread, meat, stuffed peppers, strawberry compote, salad fresh from the garden, and, of course, rakiya. Ivo said something, and everyone laughed. His neighbour’s daughter translated for me: ‘When he saw you outside the monastery, with that beard, he thought you were one of the monks!’ My glass was filled for the third or fourth time. The rain continued falling.

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Valley of the shadow

26 May 2012

A week ago I met the Danube again, for the fourth time on my journey – flowing between Romania and Serbia, dividing Middle Europe from the Balkans.

Here, in the the riverside town of Orșova, is the point where Between the Woods and the Water ends. Since Paddy sailed from here, however, on a steamer bound for Vidin, Bulgaria, the town and the landscape around it have undergone apocalyptic change. Between 1972 and 1984, the communist governments of Romania and Yugoslavia constructed two vast hydroelectric dams across the legendary Iron Gates, turning one of the river's wildest and remotest stretches into an enormous reservoir. The valley was flooded for hundreds of miles, displacing many thousands of people from villages along both banks, completely submerging Orșova's old centre and wiping the island of Ada Kaleh – an ancient Turkish enclave oddly left behind when the Ottomans withdrew – out of existence.

Paddy wrote later, in the book's appendix:

Let us hope that the power generated by the dam has spread well-being on either bank and lit up Rumanian and Yugoslav towns brighter than ever before because, in everything but economics, the damage is irreparable. Perhaps, with time and fading memories, people will forget the extent of their loss... Myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow.

These words, along with those I wrote about in the Persenbeug prediction, inspired me more than any others to recreate his journey. My intention was to discover how much of Europe's wildness has vanished, what remains, what has been lost, and what has grown up in its place. As I really, really hope comes across from what I've been writing on this blog, I've encountered much wildness, much mystery, much myth and adventure on my journey – I've seen extraordinary places, and met wonderful people. Of course I've also encountered ugliness, loss, degradation and dullness – I've come to dislike business parks and industrial estates with a passion. But questions like 'has Europe been tamed?' or 'has everything vanished?' or 'what's it like to walk from Holland to Turkey in 2012?' will have to wait until my journey is finished, and my book is written. These themes are too intricate to deal with here.

So too, while I'm still on the move, is the full story of this flooded valley, these drowned towns and villages, the submerged and already half-forgotten landscape from the Kazan to the Iron Gates. It's a lot to take in, and needs time to process. So for now, all I will say of Orșova is that, along the waterfront, is a little artificial island with a wooden pier sticking out, jutting into the raised and swollen waters of the Danube. Somewhere below, in the murky depths, lies the submerged quayside of the old town, where the second stretch of Paddy's journey ended. On a rainy afternoon, I walked to this point and dropped my battered copy of Between the Woods and the Water -- the  guidebook I've followed from the bridge at Esztergom – onto the still surface of the water. Face-up, it drifted away towards the main channel of the river, revolving very slowly in the current. Perhaps it reached the Iron Gates Dam, or perhaps it sunk long before then – even, perhaps, to Ada Kaleh, to be nibbled by fish or disintegrate quietly among the submerged streets and alleyways that Paddy once walked down.

And now, without his words to guide me, the final part of my journey begins. I am in Bulgaria now – tramping on, towards Istanbul.

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The reality of being here

19 May 2012

I kept two stories in my head as I scrambled into dense pine forest, winding my way upwards through the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The first was the legend of Iorgovan, who travelled to Transylvania to obtain a mace with which to fight the dragon who dwelt in these peaks. After a long, bloody battle he managed to defeat the dragon, who scorched all the grass and trees from the mountains in his fury. The dragon told Iorgovan he would send plagues of flies to take revenge on him and his herds, before crawling away to bleed to death in the Mountains of Mehadia. His fire heated up the cave and roused swarms of angry flies, which have been tormenting the cattle on the mountain ever since.

The second story was even more fantastic. Before there were mountains here – before there was even Iorgovan – this region was a subtropical island lying in the Tethys Ocean between the long-vanished continents of Gondwana and Laurasia. The island was roamed by horse-sized sauropods, miniature dragons whose dwarfism was caused over millions of years by their environmental isolation, shrinking to fit their landscape. In these steep, tangled woods, both the 'legend' and the 'science' seemed equally strange and wonderful – I found it hard to truly believe in one more than the other. Of course, the fossils of dwarf dinosaurs have been excavated here, so the second story is backed by physical proof. But I'd also been told that on Piatra Iorgovanului, Iorgovan's Rock, two days walk to the south, the mark of his horse's hoof could be seen imprinted on the summit...

It certainly felt like a magic wood. The moss-covered rocks resembled hunched forms, the rounded backs of lurking beasts, a suggestion probably made more potent by the knowledge that bears lived here. ('Oh yes, we have many bears,' said the mountain rescue man cheerfully as he helped me plan my route, 'but they only attack occasionally.') On several occasions I was sure that one of them lurched in my direction, but when I looked again, everything was frozen. The roots of trees, tentacle-like, clenched and embraced the stones in innumerable suggestive ways, and at one point I was sure I heard voices – garbled words and fragments of sentences – until I realised it was the water gurgling over pebbles in a stream, changing its tune and pitch with every step I took. It was enough for me to say, without really meaning it out loud: 'I'm friendly. I'm just passing through. I appreciate you deeply.'

After several hours I broke through the tree-line, wandering through a rubble of rocks and shoulder-high juniper groves. Suddenly there were patches of snow, stubbornly clinging to their winter in furrows that never saw the sun. And above me rose Mount Retezat, the highest mountain in this chain, dazzlingly crowned in white. I saw from my map, with a note of shock, that the trail I was following led directly to its peak.

The path began to tilt sharply upwards, and soon I found myself slipping and sliding on a slope of pure snow, walking in the eroded bootprints of a previous climber. I was unprepared for this – from down below the snow had looked like a decorative touch to the landscape, and I hadn't really considered the reality of walking through it. The slope got steeper, the bootprints vanished, and I found myself having to chisel steps in the snow with my walking poles. By the end I was practically crawling, hands sunk deep into snow, until at last, with a final push, I could grab at juniper branches and haul myself back onto solid rock.

I realised I had reached the point where there was no easy way back – the realisation felt good, for it meant I could only go on. It was a hard climb now to the peak, avoiding precipitous slopes of snow that were too tough to scale, even using the poles – scrambling up slides of broken rock, hand over foot, stones clattering behind me, my legs suddenly trembling from exertion, or altitude, and probably from fear. At last, heaving for breath, I emerged at a great rounded dome of snow, with nothing beyond it but the bright, cloudless blue of the sky. There was something strangely terrifying about approaching the peak, knowing there was nothing above me now – that I could go no further up, and everything else was down. It felt like walking off the edge of the world.

From the top of Mount Retezat I could see almost two days of walking behind me. Immediately below was the grey, snow-veined rock I'd just climbed, the menacing darkness of pine woods, dropping steeply to the almost luminous green of the lower beech forests, and below that the flatlands, the scattered villages, the road I had followed to get here. Beyond that somewhere, lost in the distance, would be the line of the Mureș River I'd traced almost a month before. I knew that once I descended this peak, I'd have turned my back on that whole green world. Ahead – for the next few days, at least – there were only mountains.

Psychologically, there is something different about walking through mountains, in order to get from one place to another, to recreationally walking in them – leaving your car at base camp and looping around to return to the same point in order to drive away again. Looking back at the way I'd come, knowing I would not see it again, I felt this very strongly. The mountains stood between me and where I wanted to go – I had no choice but to cross them – it felt more daunting, but somehow fundamental.

As I turned from the peak the next view opened up, and it seemed too much. My eyes didn't know what to do with it. They couldn't comprehend the scale. A dizzying plummet to a river-tangled valley hundreds of feet below – I could distantly hear the crashing of water, snowmelt cascading into the valleys – and beyond it the rock soared up again to another, vaster chain of peaks, a visual collision of plunging angles, deep creases of snow shining brilliantly white like arcane calligraphy. A complexity of tormented rock, scooped and gouged and chiselled and scarred, utterly empty, utterly strange, hidden from the world below.

After an hour of following the ridge, I descended into a new landscape of fissures and moraines, a great stepped bowl of glacial lakes and still half-frozen marshland. The nearest lake was an improbable robin's egg blue with peculiar cracks running through its ice, the shape of a giant footprint with splayed toes. Below that lay a darker lake in a scalloped crater of snow, and below that on yet another level were two more lakes, all straight lines and angles, and still below that was a fifth, weirdly patterned and mottled, shattered like an exploded crystal. This was where, in my tent on the shore, surrounded on all sides by mountains, I would spend the night.

On my way down, skirting the marshland over a stretch of dirty snow, I found myself following a line of paw-prints I took to be a dog's. Then I realised there was no sign of human tracks alongside them – and what would a dog be doing up here, alone, miles from anywhere? The cheerful mountain rescue man had told me that wolves lived in these mountains, 'but you probably won't see them.' This was as close as I got, following its solitary trail for a while before it branched away downhill, back towards the forest below – I was fairly glad to see it lead away from my sleeping place.

That night, sipping whiskey as the light slowly leached from the lakeside, I found myself saying these words – again, out loud, without meaning to (you can get away with this sort of thing in the wilderness): 'When I die, my death will not change the fact that I was here.' And this was my best attempt at summing up the feeling of being in these mountains, my overwhelming gratitude that places like this exist. In the same way that my eyes couldn't cope with what they saw from the peak of Mount Retezat, my conscious mind couldn't describe the reality of being here. It seemed incredible that the same road I'd started following five months ago – from the ferry terminal at the Hook of Holland, along a cycle-path and down a canal to Rotterdam and the suburbs beyond, through petrol station forecourts and supermarket car-parks, along railway sidings and business parks and in and out of cities inhabited by millions of people – had taken me to this point. It is only one road – a road with many twists and turns, but still only one road – and it leads to this place directly, if you follow it a certain way.

The following morning, having regretfully left the glacial lakes behind me, I stopped for a last look at that range and saw the peaks suddenly disappear, obscured by a swooping mass of white cloud. Within minutes, it had swooped on me as well, reducing my world to an opaque whiteness.

A horrible mixture of sleet and hail splattered down without warning. I spent the next few hours inching along a bare limestone ridge, barely able to see the next paint-daubed rock that marked my trail. Sight, sound and sense of direction were swallowed up in the gloom. Occasionally the cloud would lift and the forested valleys open up below, allowing a few minutes of clumsy orientation, and then it would descend again and I'd be alone in the murk. Staggering up a narrow, snow-filled gulley, practically blind, unsure of my trail, my boots squelching with cold water, a sense of despair came over me. The journey seemed shapeless, endless. I was suddenly aware of how alone I was up here.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, it appeared – Iorgovan's Rock, my final landmark, a hump of lichen-spotted limestone looming from the haze. I dropped my rucksack and my poles and scrambled deliriously up to the peak, the last one I would climb before descending these high places. The cloud fell away and the land swam into focus, a glimpse of how far I'd come. There was the plunging void to my right, and there to my left the tree-tangled slope that would take me, zig-zagging down through scree, back towards gentler, greener land – the far side of the mountains.

And there at my feet, as promised, was the hoof-print of Iorgovan's horse, unmistakably scarred in the rock. A mighty-sized horse, for a mighty man.


This article can also be seen on the Dark Mountain Project blog – a cultural movement for an age of global disruption.

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Most dangerous to walk due to movement awkward

12 May 2012

In the Bánffy castle at Bonţida, near Cluj-Napoca, I was interviewed by the Romanian daily Adevarul. Also in the photos you'll see David Baxter from the Transylvania Trust, which is doing an extraordinary job of restoring the castle to how it was before the Nazis burnt it down.

Read the interview here.

(Some things have changed a bit in translation -- I more or less said most of these things, apart from the bit about being hospitalised and finding inner peace. Hospitalisation and enlightenment have not occurred on my journey so far, though I'm not ruling either out. Also, the guy didn't hit me with the stone. But it was a pretty good shot.) 

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Objects, like people...

2 May 2012

They'd been burning off the winter grass along the banks of the Mureș River. I walked through a stubble of scorched black stalks, pushing my way through pollarded willow that whipped across my face and arms, giving me charcoal stripes. The sun was hot, and I got coated in sweat, dust and ash. I arrived in the village of Căpâlnaș looking like I'd escaped from a fire.

The big house loomed down an avenue of trees. The building was a great white block half hidden by overgrown bushes, fronted by a statue of a stag with upraised antlers protruding from the greenery between two curved, sweeping flights of stairs, no longer used. Dogs slumbered in the sun. Dressing-gowned figures wandered vaguely between trees. I approached with some trepidation – which, perhaps, is only natural when strolling up the drive of a psychiatric hospital in a foreign country. This was actually the third psychiatric hospital I'd visited so far on my walk – the first was in Slovakia, the second also in Romania – but it was the first one I'd been invited to stay the night in.

A stocky, powerful-looking man in late middle age was walking in the garden. He was wearing what looked like a walkie-talkie, and from his authoritative bearing I took him for some kind of attendant. It was only after he'd seized me by the hand, firmly linked arms and marched me to the house that I realised he was one of the patients – the walkie-talkie was actually a blaring radio. Weirdly, he looked a lot like Jack Nicholson.

'Ion,' he said, introducing himself. 'Like the singer, Elton Ion.'

'My name's Nick. Nicholas,' I said.

'Sarkozy?' he cried, then slapped himself resoundingly on the forehead and erupted with laughter. 'Vive la France!' Then suddenly he seized me by the head – a slightly alarming turn of events – and landed a rough, stubbly kiss on each of my cheeks.

A curious circle of other patients gathered around, shaking hands and smiling – men and women, old and young, in plastic slippers and dressing-gowns, tracksuit bottoms and woolly hats, all of them chain-smoking. One young man with a shaved head and white socks pulled up to his knees approached me with an expression of rapture. Ion impatiently shooed him away, circling his finger in the air and giving me a meaningful look.

'Crazy,' he explained.

Enormous double doors of polished wood led to a dim, tiled hallway. A marble staircase laid with dirty rugs led to the upper floor, where an ornate wrought iron gallery looked down on the glass-panelled ceiling of the room below, which used to be a famous library, the centre-point of the house. Now it's used as a recreation room, scattered with old sofas. What used to be the dining room is now a dormitory, where daylight from the French windows spills onto hospital beds piled with slumbering forms, disordered heaps of pyjamas and legs, men in various stages of exhaustion or depression. The other two hospitals I'd visited had been gutted and sanitised, walls painted institutional green, the corridors lit by florescent strip-lights. This was a place of mildewed hallways and mysterious half-open doors, dimly lit by flickering chandeliers, where patients shuffled in semi-darkness in a dense fug of tobacco. An old woman in a shawl peered suspiciously round a doorframe. The upstairs bathroom seemed to be occupied by fierce stray dogs.

By any standards, it was a creepy place.

This was one of the string of country houses in which Paddy stayed in 1934 – the guest of the amusing, generous, erudite and intellectual Count Jenö Teleki, whose family lived here until Communism tore their world apart. A significant chapter of Paddy's book is devoted to the weeks he spent here, living a charmed and blissful life of picnics, parties and conversations that ranged from butterfly collecting – the Count was an eminent lepidopterist – to history, politics, art and literature. This is now a vanished culture, a bubble long since burst. Like most of these properties, the house was nationalised in 1948, the family driven out and persecuted, humiliated as state policy, some imprisoned and tortured, forbidden to set foot on the estate even to lay flowers on Count Teleki's grave. Their descendants won the property back in a court case in the 2000s, and continue to rent it to the state for use as a hospital. A couple of months into my walk, I was contacted by a girl called Ileana who offered to help me track down some of the places Paddy had stayed. It was only when we'd met the day before, further down the Mureș Valley, that she'd revealed the reason for her interest – Ileana is Count Teleki's great-granddaughter.

She arrived soon afterwards, as I sat in the sun with Ion, and led me up to the room we'd be sharing – three adjustable beds with hospital sheets and a great ceramic wood-burning stove the colour of a glazed pie dish. I was brought vegetable soup and boot polish. It was an odd place to find myself, but most of the patients, like Ion, turned out to very sweet and friendly people – one lady even kept telling me she loved me – and apart from nerve-wracking visits to the bathroom, the creepiness wore off. The night was cold, so we summoned someone to light the wood-burning stove in our room. 'Excuse me – one fire!' the assistant yelled, charging through the bedroom with a flaming log balanced on a shovel. As soon as he thrust it into the stove the room filled with thick smoke, flowing through cracks in the tile walls and pouring out into the corridor, where patients gathered anxiously, wondering if they should evacuate. We doused the flames with bottles of water. Luckily, there were no smoke detectors in the hospital.

Ileana was great company. Over the next couple of days she told me the story of her family – the story of a social class and culture caught on the wrong side of history, victims of a brutal change that left nothing of the old world intact. It's a narrative repeated in countless permutations across Eastern Europe. Together we explored the grounds, the overgrown gardens reverted to nature, the half-collapsed outhouses, the attic of the house, the roof, the labyrinthine cellars. We visited Count Teleki's grave in the woods, vaulted with trees, as she pointed out, like a green cathedral. The atmosphere of melancholy, of dereliction and decline, was palpable everywhere. But despite the ruination and neglect, it was still a beautiful place, and I could see why she has grown to love it.

The house, like its current inhabitants, sits outside society now. Both are in recovery from some form of trauma, refugees from the modern world. Ileana told me of something Ion said, when she'd been talking to him of the difficulty of renovating the building, restoring it to the way it was.

'Why renovate?' he'd replied. 'Objects, like people, get morally damaged.'

A damaged house full of damaged people. It seemed appropriate, somehow.

On the night before I left we sat on our hospital beds and shared a bottle of red wine. Dogs howled in the garden, and patients griped in the corridor outside. The lights intermittently brightened and dimmed as if controlled by an unseen pulse from the staggering, overworked heart of the building. As I tiptoed to the dripping bathroom, hoping the dogs were no longer on guard, I heard the quiet rumbling of patients snoring in their beds.

I left on a grey, overcast day, the birds singing as if before rain. Ion shook me firmly by the hand and planted two last stubbly, tobacco-smelling kisses on my face. He was standing at the gate to say goodbye, his hand raised in salute. 'Long live the Kingdom of Great Britain!' he roared as I went by. Then the greenery closed over the house, and Căpâlnaș was gone.


For Ileana's account of our meeting, read the article she wrote on the blog for moNUmenteUITATE, which documents and helps preserve Romania's forgotten (and not so forgotten) old houses and monuments... scroll down for the English version.

This piece, and the others to come, can be downloaded on the Ether Books app, available for free from the iTunes Store.

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Freedom of the woods

25 April 2012

On the side of a hill a few days ago I met a boy of around seventeen, swathed in a rain-dripping leather cloak, tending a herd of brown and white cows. He was so surprised to see me there that he almost couldn't speak, as if he couldn't imagine what I was or how I possibly came to be there. As I fumbled for the map in my bag his eyes flickered nervously from my face to my hands and back again, as if half expecting me to pull out some kind of weapon, which made me extremely conscious of the axe he cradled in his arms. It was the first time in Romania that I've experienced a fear of outsiders – people so far have been overwhelmingly open and friendly – but it reminded me very much of this passage from Between the Woods and the Water, as Paddy walked into the Carpathian Mountains further south of here: 

'Unknown figures in the wilderness boded no good. In the past, they were bent on rounding up laggards for feudal corvées; nowadays, it would be tax-gathering, census-compiling, exaction of grazing dues, the search for malefactors, deserters, or runaway recruits overdue for their military service – a whole range of vexatious interference with the freedom of the woods.'

In the end, I seemed to convince him that I wasn't any kind of threat, merely weird and foreign. I continued up the hill and into the woods, where I promptly became completely entangled in a dense thicket of blackthorn which held me like some clumsy fly in a spiked, dripping web. I must have looked ridiculous. His axe would have probably helped -- but I'm glad he was out of sight.

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Wilder country

20 April 2012

Looking back, the landscapes of my journey are reduced to pure colour. Austria was  frozen white, Slovakia scorched ochre brown, the Hungarian Plain the yellow of rushes and the blue of a cloudless sky. Two weeks walk across the border, and Romania has flooded my mind as the green of unfolding leaves, the explosive white  of blossom, and the dense, mysterious blue of the distant Carpathian Mountains. Water suddenly fills the land – in puddles, leaves and village wells, in swollen rivers, and falling from the sky. Following the Mureș River into Transylvania, through villages of red-tiled roofs and houses peeling to reveal walls of crumbling wattle and daub, filling my bottle with buckets from wells and my hip-flask with powerful homemade țuică, I feel like I've entered a land of enormous natural wealth. Away from the highways – made perilous by Turkish truck-drivers racing for the border – the smaller roads are practically deserted, the traffic slowed by potholes, dogs and clattering horse-drawn carts. Walking feels more natural here, and people express less surprise when I tell them that's how I'm travelling. Camping, too, feels easier. It may be the illusion of a foreigner, but I get the impression that this sort of thing isn't so much minded here. The rules are looser, the land less bound. It's a wilder country.

A deep consciousness of this wildness exists in many of the Romanians I've met. They tell me happily that their country has the largest population of wolves and bears in Europe. (Deeper into the mountains, this might cause me to retract that comment about camping being easier here.) They are extremely proud of the fact that much food is produced in traditional ways, by people maintaining a peasant culture. Milk is often unpasteurised, and homemade cheese and butter are served in shapeless cloud-like lumps. Many families produce their own țuică from homegrown plums, apples and pears, as well as thick greenish wine that tastes different in every home. People from towns still drive to the countryside to fill carloads of bottles with mineral water from natural springs rising in the hills. Village households slaughter their own pigs, a winter tradition that provides the family with meat and fat for the long months of cold. Shepherds maintain the ancient practice of transhumanța, living with their flocks in the mountains and leading them down to the valleys for winter – something that people speak of almost as an ideology, of living with a deep understanding of nature, solitude and freedom, a tradition of pastoralism that goes back to the Dacians.

The Dacian culture, which ruled this land before the first century AD, is another source of pride. The ruins of their cities reveal an advanced civilisation, with temples, highly-skilled metalwork and even running water. (Unfortunately they also had vast amounts of gold, prompting a massive Roman invasion that annihilated the culture. This resource curse is still evident today – the inhabitants of Roșia Montană are struggling to fight off a Canadian mining corporation that plans to dynamite the mountain and extract its gold with a devastating process that uses forty tonnes of cyanide a day.) The Dacians rode into battle under the standard of a snarling wolf's-head, trailing a tube-shaped length of fabric that produced an unearthly howling as they charged. Contemporary myths said that their warriors underwent the ritual of lycanthropy – transforming themselves into wolves – which may explain local werewolf legends. I wonder if it could also explain the enormous number of stray dogs that are a part of everyday life here, existing as some collective consciousness of Dacian wolf-culture. Probably not, but as a walker I'm completely exposed to these things, and negotiating through mangy packs staking a territorial claim to rubbish dumps or abandoned buildings – as well as the enormous woolly sheepdogs that look like canine incarnations of sheep, sheep-demons protecting their flocks – it's more fun to think so.

Modern enthusiasm for Dacian culture is rooted in nationalism, especially in Transylvania, where Romanians and Hungarians both claim precedence. The Romanian national narrative depends upon an unbroken lineage stretching back to pre-Roman times – the Hungarian version basically argues that the Dacians and  Romanians are unrelated, and that the Magyars got here first. History resonates in everyday life. It's hard to escape it here. Stoned around a campfire by the Mureș, melting lumps of white pig fat on green branches over the flames, the people I was staying with – a young, modern-minded crowd into eco-friendly living and drum 'n' bass – enthused about ancient Dacia for hours. 'The Dacians were strong, free, independent people with everything they wanted... mountains, rivers, a beautiful country, salt, gold, natural wealth. Then the Romans came and stole it all...' It was an uncanny echo of the wild-eyed man I met four months ago on a rainy day by the Rhine, who spoke of the freedom of Germanic tribes before Roman oppression. It's a kind of hippy nationalism, a mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures. Both visions of history are undoubtedly simplified and romanticised, but they speak of a similar longing for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbound by rules.

In Romania, this hippy nationalism dovetails with deep suspicion of the EU. People mutter darkly about legislation to ban homemade alcohol, restrict the use of traditional medicines, crack down on cottage industries producing local cheese and milk. There is particular scorn for new rules requiring pigs to be sent for slaughter in approved abattoirs, to be killed with electricity, rather than as a once-yearly celebration that involves the whole community. Many seem to regard the EU almost as a new Rome – an interfering, regulating force bent on suppressing traditional culture, stifling the folk knowledge and resilience that makes life here so rich.

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2 April 2012

The seemingly never-ending flatlands stretching east from Budapest go by various magic-sounding names – the Alföld, the Pannonian Steppe, the Great Hungarian Plain – but the best of them is the Puszta, which translates as 'the bare,' 'the mere' or 'the empty.' The Puszta is the westernmost of the Eurasian steppes, and modern Hungarians are descended from nomads who swept across these steppes into Europe the same way as the Huns and the Mongols. Today it's mostly agricultural land rather than empty grasslands, and when I started planning this journey, someone – I don't remember who – gave me the impression that crossing the plain would be mind-numbingly dull, a scrappy waste of farmland and urban sprawl crisscrossed by highways.

Often it's a good thing to begin a journey with low expectations. Yes, the landscape was monotonous, stretching levelly on and on towards absolutely no horizon, but the feeling that it could go on forever, in any direction I looked, wasn't dull at all but deeply thrilling. The Puszta felt like another world, a vastness of open space and silence, in which I often walked for hours without seeing another person. I followed country roads, rivers and occasionally railway lines, or navigated by distant church steeples visible across many miles of uninhabitation. The cloudlessness of the sky began to feel quite unnatural, as if the workings of nature had stopped, the weather as unchanging and endless as the landscape. During the days there were almost no sounds apart from skylarks and the wind, the clattering of yellow reeds, and the steady crunching rhythm of my boots in the dust. I saw deer so frequently I almost stopped seeing them, and in amongst trees found their yellowing skeletons, the tattered remains of foxes and hares, and once, beside a railway line, exactly half a dog.

For several of these nights I camped, pitching my tent beside the Körös River in the uncertain hour between daylight and dusk. Each evening became a period of adjusting my senses to the new surroundings, my nerves familiarising themselves with the local night noises. The rustlings of small beasts in the undergrowth, magnified by the silence, sounded as big as horses. Sometimes there came a furious cry, somewhere between a grunt and a scream, from some unknown hunting bird, and one night it took a long time to relax to the sudden pop-clunk of plastic bottles on a driftwoody beach as the temperature dropped, releasing mysterious pressures. There was always the comforting chorus of birds settling in the trees, the evening outrages of dogs, the church bells of distant villages – birds, dogs and people all marking another day's death with their own forms of music. One morning I woke to the shadow of a polecat leaning up against my tent, its little clawed hands outstretched, peering at me through the mesh like a person gazing through a shop window.

For various reasons, both conscious and unconscious, I returned to Budapest for a few days after almost reaching the Romanian border – the distant outline of blue hills the first intimation of a new land – jumping on a westbound train and unravelling in a few hours a week and a half of walking. It was a strange sensation. The land was reduced to a yellow-brown smudge, a blur of 'scenery.' Once I was back in the neon-lit streets I could suddenly empathise with the people I'd met in the Alföld who practically shuddered at Budapest's name, saying, as country people always do, the capital was too big, too crowded, too frightening, too noisy. Almost immediately, that emptiness started to feel like a dream – a desert squeezed between two different cities – and, in the way of dreams, it altered my perception of the present, defamiliarising the streets I thought I'd come to know. After the expanse of the plain, the silence, the hugeness of the skies, I was suddenly aware of the way in which buildings hem you in, channel your movement, control not only where you walk but where you see as well. Perhaps most of all, I was aware of the sudden reappearance of horizons – in every direction, as far as the eye can't see.


This article can also be seen on the newly-designed Dark Mountain Project blog – a cultural movement for an age of global disruption.

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