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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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Puszta

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.

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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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This is being threatened

23 March 2012

Approaching Budapest down the Danube, having spent the previous night sleeping wild in the woods underneath the full moon, I watched the double city take shape like the cardboard scenery of a puppet theatre -- domes, spires and bridges silhouetted in diminishing shades of blue. I had the impression that I wasn't moving, but the city was reeling me in. I was happy to be reeled. Budapest is a perfect city.

Soon I will have to talk about politics. But before that, these, in no order whatsoever, are some of its perfections:

Facades of nineteenth-century apartment buildings crumbling like corroded biscuits; wrought-iron balconies overhanging courtyards, deep windowed pits that never see the sun; stairs winding inside apartment buildings, rattling lifts that look and sound like ancient mining machinery; the netted stone heads of bulls and lions embedded in porticos of stained brickwork; covered markets with fruit and vegetables garish underneath yellow bulbs, banks of iced fish and bloody choppings of meat; stalls where you stand up to drink coffee and eat fried dough-cakes smothered in sour cream; innumerable luridly-lit Szex Shops and general backstreet seediness; the Parliament building that looks like the war helmet, spiked and crowned, of a savage prince; the bridges like necklaces strung across the Danube with startling and unexpected grace; the sixteenth-century Turkish bath where rugged stone pillars support a domed ceiling from which daylight filters through coloured glass, old pink naked sagging men wallowing in clouds of steam, or sprawled asleep on stone benches, or reading crisp-dry newspapers like a scene from a railway station waiting room at seventy-two degrees; the streets less streets than hollowed-out ravines, the buildings less buildings than deposits of architectural sediment; the sudden yawning gulfs between houseblocks, bomb devastation still unrepaired, the traces of doorways and landings six storeys high on cliffs of sheer brickwork; gutted townhouses, long since abandoned, now transformed into artists' bars, warrens of graffitied chambers cluttered with statues, salvaged furniture, orange and yellow and green coloured lights, the ceilings held up by wooden girders, the effigy of a hooved, breasted owl swooping from a courtyard wall behind scattering fuckchains of plaster rabbits, as if a great flood has washed through the building depositing the wreckage of a culture.

Chaotic, crumbling, grand, elegant, mysterious, seedy and beautiful -- Budapest is everything that a city should be. It has a bohemian energy that seems very genuine, rather than the gentrified artiness attempted in many other cities. But it doesn't take long, once you get in conversation, to hear how much this is being threatened by the government of Viktor Orbán, which came to power two years ago with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Rightwing, nationalist and anti-EU, Orbán is quite openly placing restrictions on the free presspoliticising the legal systemattacking independent cultural institutions, and has replaced the director of the new Budapest theatre with a fascist. Among the artists and musicians I've befriended in Budapest, there's a sense of disbelief and shock at how far these changes have gone -- extending far beyond the political sphere, deep into Hungary's social and cultural life.

On March 15th -- a national holiday to commemorate the 1848 revolution -- I witnessed the pro-government demonstration, led by hussars in dark green uniforms and martial drummers in medieval clothes, supported by rightwing Polish groups specially invited by the government, cheer Mr. Orbán as he dismissed  criticism of his reforms as meddling by EU socialists trying to destroy the country. He played the crowd like a pantomime performer, producing a chorus of boos and hisses whenever he named the baddies of the drama -- EU bureaucrats, left-wingers, whinging journalists, foreigners in general -- invoking Hungary's glorious past and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which stripped the country of much territory after the First World War.

Elsewhere in the city there was a small but nasty demonstration by the far-right Jobbik party, dressed in fascistic black uniforms and waving flags adorned with runes. The opposing anti-government demonstration was reassuringly large, but apart from a few Hungarian tricolours and an EU banner or two, there was hardly a flag to be seen. As always, the right-wing has co-opted the flags, the costumes, the national symbols -- in other words, the spectacle of power.

'Orbán is not just stealing our present,' I was told by one woman. 'He is stealing our future too -- laying down a foundation of something that will remain after he has gone.' It's a deeply troubling time for Hungary, a slide towards the kind of 'managed democracy' associated with Putin's Russia. I hope that something of what I've discovered under the surface of this wonderful city -- the energy, the creativity, the openness, the intelligence -- will be resistant to these changes.

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Surprisingly easy to Hungarian padded hands

16 March 2012

Ether Books, who are publishing some of my ramblings, have made me their current featured writer. There's an interview with me this week on their blog.

I was also recently interviewed by a journalist called Gábor Kiss for the Hungarian news and culture website Hir24. If you don't know Magyar you can get it Google-translated, producing wonderful sentences like 'Often I get lost, ask directions, and, surprisingly easy to Hungarian padded hands and feet can make myself understood.' The contents of my rucksack are rendered as 'Clothes, candles, knives, maps, sleeping bags and a laptop,' which I think makes me sound pretty damned dangerous.

Finally, a couple of local press cuttings: from the Günzburger Zeitung in Burgau, Germany here, (a slightly puzzling photo I know -- the couple beside my bed were my hosts Brigitte and Wolfram), and this one and the one below from Riedau, Austria, arranged by the wonderful David Witzeneder, also pictured.

 

 

 

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Bridge section

11 March 2012

The bridge linking Slovakia and Hungary, between the towns of Štúrovo and Esztergom, also links A Time of Giftsand Between the Woods and the Water. Here Paddy paused both in his walking and his writing, 'meditatively poised in no man's air,' before crossing into Hungary and the second phase of his journey.

I reached that bridge a week ago (or rather the reconstruction of that bridge -- the original was destroyed in 1944), and in a rather unbelievable way came to the very last page of my notebook standing above the Danube, the exact same point where A Time of Gifts ends and Between the Woods and the Water begins. This was never intended -- my notes somehow paced themselves that way.

I was going to leave my copy of A Time of Gifts there, now battered and torn and muddy and rained on and scrawled with undecipherable notes, to be picked up perhaps by some other traveller. But in the end I had the urge to drop it in the Danube. I placed it underneath the railing and pushed it forward with my boot until it hung above the water, and then with a final nudge it fell with a splash and a scattering of pages, then sped downriver cover-up and at an unbelievable speed in the direction of Visegrád, which I would reach two days later.

Who knows how far it'll get. The ice has gone from the river now but there will be hydroelectric dams, cargo ships, driftwood, fish from the east... perhaps, if it can navigate these perils, it might get through, in some pulped form, to the Iron Gates and on to the Black Sea.

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Slovak luck

4 March 2012

Even at walking pace, things can change so suddenly it's startling. A week ago, on a bright, windy day that felt like the first intimation of spring, I stepped from the border of a field into a rustling yellow wood and realised I was in Slovakia. Passing from the west to the east, the Germanic to the Slavic world, was a watershed moment in my journey – I knew it was coming, but was still shocked by the abruptness of the shift. On the long, mile-by-mile progression through Holland, Germany and Austria, change had mounted gradually, the cultures of different regions seeping into one another so slowly it was hard to see the changes taking shape. But now, with a single step, everything had become unfamiliar. After a few minutes walk through the wood I came across a graffitied old Communist-era border post, derelict and overgrown, its sinister-looking gun emplacement strangled by old man's beard. It was strange to think that a couple of decades ago, the invisible line I had just strolled over would have been one of the hardest barriers to cross in the world.

Perhaps it's a hangover from those times, but I couldn't help feeling trepidation to find myself in such a new land. Everything around me was different – the street signs, the faces, even the clothes, and above all the sound of the language. This nervousness, however, vanished on my first night out in Bratislava, when I took myself to a bar in the old town to watch a band I'd seen posters for – the Hugo Cáves Orchestra (a Slovak wordplay on Hugo Chavez). They were a nine-piece brass and strings ensemble playing the kind of gypsy electro that wouldn't be out of place in East London, and immediately and entirely by accident I made friends with them all at the bar.

'You're travelling and writing? Like Jack,' said one guy, grinning from over a beer.

'Jack?'

'Jack Kerouac. On The Road. I wrote that book.'

'You wrote that book?'

'No, I mean I read that book. Sorry, I am stoned.'

He turned out to have learnt English in Manchester, where he'd worked for Royal Mail. 'Sorting the letters. Like Charles,' he said.

'Charles?'

'Charles Bukowski. Post Office. My life was just like that.'

A few shaven-headed kids in denim jackets stuck their heads round the door, scoped the placed out, and then hurried away. My new friend spat as they departed.

'Skinheads. Fascists,' he said. 'You know our history? We fought with the Nazis in the war. I think it was a good thing that we lost.'

After the gig the band scooped me up and rushed me to the back-stage area, a dim and smoky attic room cluttered with bundles of hardback books – on investigation, they turned out to be antique German gynaecology journals dating from 1879, Russian manuals about biochemistry dating from 1963, and a few dozen copies of a book called Spisy, authored by Joseph Stalin, which various members of the band were using to roll joints on. I stayed until the early hours, being plied with plum brandy and rum and getting into increasingly strange conversations. At one point I was taken aside by a serious, secretive-looking man. 'You're a writer?' he said. 'I want to tell you something.' Then he gave me a detailed account of the business venture he was embarking on – acting as a kind of agent for a certain individual, a Slovak soldier trained by Russian Special Forces in every conceivable art of killing, 'like a cross between Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal, but with a very powerful mind.' This formidable man, he said, could pull down a tree with a length of chain and propel assailants across the room with a flick of his finger. The plan was to sell his services to whoever needed them. 'He will come in useful when the government falls,' he said rather ominously. 'But now I'm trying to decide whether to hire him to Brussels, or the Arabs.' He pondered, frowning, for a second. 'I think, probably, Arabs.'

The room filled up with more and more people, passing bottles of spirits around, painting each other's faces with black stripes and breaking into clapping and chanting whenever a glass smashed on the floor – broken glass, someone told me, brings Slovak luck. A dog with a handkerchief round its neck leapt and barked around the room whenever anyone started singing, and before the end of the night I'd had a poem written for me and been invited to the horn player's upcoming gypsy wedding.

Of course, events became a bit blurred. But something that one girl told me really stuck in my mind. I was telling her about crossing the border and how quickly the scene had changed, and she agreed – 'Yes, everything changes. Even the colours are different. It is much greyer here. The Communists did that. But perhaps the greyness is not really there, perhaps it's only in our minds. Slowly, I hope, the greyness is being washed away.'

Amid the drunken revelry in that attic, it seemed to me that the greyness was being washed away pretty fast.

-

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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The Persenbeug prediction

27 February 2012

My second sight of the Danube literally stopped me in my tracks. I was following a path through ice-snagged wetlands and I knew the great river was close, but wasn't prepared for the transformation it had undergone. When I last encountered it, back in south Germany, it had been little more than a respectably hefty stream. Now I found myself staring down at what looked like an open vein of ice, a heaving volume of snow and slush shouldering its way slowly eastwards under a luminous yellow sky, broken rafts and bergs of ice lumbering in the current.

The sound it made was extraordinary. I had to keep stopping to listen. The constant nudging and barging of drift-ice produced a shuffling, creaking, clicking, punctuated by pops of air and occasionally a quick shushing sigh as something in the structure gave way and a larger drift pushed through. It sounded like hundreds of people murmuring and licking their lips at the same time, engaged in a whispered negotiation. Along the banks the ice had been forced into serried ridges that looked like scales, bizarre crystalline formations caused by constant cracking and refreezing, like a sci-fi illustration of an alien planet. In the middle stood a solitary heron, dimly-glimpsed through freezing mist. It could have been the ghost of a flamingo.

The river looked utterly wild and strange, but, as I soon found out, this dramatic build-up of ice was essentially man-made. A few miles downriver, I reached the brutalist concrete hulk of a hydroelectric dam, a great grey girder holding back the river. It was only the first of many – I averaged about one a day during my week's walk to Vienna. Austria generates over half its energy through hydroelectric power, and one of the side-effects of these dams is to slow the Danube's flow to a speed at which the water grows sluggish, and eventually freezes over. Beyond the dams the river flows clear, even sparkling blue in the sunlight, so over the course of the next few days it felt like passing from winter to summer and back again as I walked.

Ice was backed up for miles on the approach to Persenbeug, a village whose name has loomed large in my mind since I began this journey. In 1934, in a riverside inn here, Paddy met an anonymous character named only as 'the polymath,' an old man of aristocratic descent whose monologues ranged from the fall of Rome and the wanderings of Germanic tribes to the creeping blandness of modernisation and the future of the river's wildlife. One utterance in particular has always fascinated me, a passage I have come to think of as the Persenbeug Prediction:

'Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! 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!'

I have many reasons for making this journey – some of which are probably obscure to me even now, and may remain so until the end – but if I had to summarise my original impulse for setting out, these words would be the easiest way to describe what I'm after. Has Europe been tamed? Has everything vanished? These are the vague, perhaps unanswerable questions that prompted me to repeat Paddy's journey almost 80 years later – and, maybe because of this vagueness and the fact that my feelings change every day, dependent on landscape and weather and mood and whether I'm walking past factories and billboards in seemingly endless suburbs or wandering through forested foothills, away from human sight and sound, I still wouldn't want to give any kind of definitive answer. It's a ongoing meditation, and my thoughts will keep changing. But Persenbeug felt like an important personal landmark.

Because of this, I had a vivid mental image of what the place would look like. I'd always imagined the polymath's inn perched on a rock, with a backdrop of vine-covered cliffs, and water raging wildly in a chasm far below. Of course, it wasn't like this at all. There were no vines, no cliffs, no chasm. The neat little houses of the village were huddled around a well-preserved schloss, and the schloss itself was huddled under the Ybbs-Persenbeug Donaukraftwerk – the vast hydroelectric power-dam, constructed in the 1950s, that bestrides the river. The polymath's prediction was more accurate than he could have known. Not only did they build a power-dam here, in the very place his prophesy was made, but they actually christened it after the village itself.

There was a kind of grim satisfaction to the completeness of this discovery. It made me feel very much like drinking a beer and brooding a while – and where better to do this than the appropriate inn? The appropriate inn, however, was elusive. My only clues from A Time of Gifts were that it overlooked the Danube, and was owned by an innkeeper whose daughter was called Maria. I could find no bar within view of the river, but made inquiries in an oldish-looking place in the square opposite the Rathaus, which turned out to have an interior done up like an American diner. I found myself ushered into a back-room occupied by a single old man with a baggy, liver-spotted face, immaculate in a light blue suit, sipping a large glass of white wine. He looked like an aged mafia don, but turned out to be the village's former mayor. With translation help from two pierced children who had come into the room to smoke, I tried to explain what I was looking for.

The old gentleman spent a long time scrutinising the map I showed him, intoning the names of Danube towns – 'Ach, Ybbs, ja, ja... Passau... Melk... ach so... Linz...' – and then began a rambling story about previous devastating floods, indicating the hochwasser flood marks with his hands – 'In 2002 the water was here. Look! Here! Where this shelf is now...' – and often he broke into laughter, his face creasing like a delighted monkey. The children soon gave up and drifted away. After some time we were joined by the cook, an enormous muscle-armed woman clutching a book called the Kronik von Persenbeug, a chronicle of village life from which she teased out a complex history of vanished guesthouses, taverns and inns, some of which may or may not have been owned by people with daughters called Maria.

In spite of the efforts of the ex-mayor and the cook, I left Persenbeug without finding a match for the inn in my mind. The image I'd originally held was further away than ever now – the inn was gone, the river bisected by a monolithic concrete block, and it seemed, in the dreary afternoon light, that this landscape had indeed been tamed. The prediction had proved true, and an older, wilder, more thrilling world had taken a big step backwards into history.

The following morning, as I walked on, the river appeared to be on fire. Freezing mist slid like smoke on the water, gliding and swirling with an eerie motion that seemed independent of wind, white-frosted trees appearing and vanishing like ghosts on the far bank.

A few days later I entered the Wachau, a valley of steep slopes and pine-stubbled hillsides, the rocks fanged with icicles as long as my body, great stalactites of yellowish ice and entire frozen waterfalls in jellyfish-like formations of domes and tentacles.

Still later, crossing into Slovakia, the Donau-Auen National Park stretched for almost three whole days – one of Central Europe's last intact wetlands, the  remnant of the Danube's natural floodplains. This boggy and mysterious mistletoed realm was a glimpse of what the river looked like before hydroelectric power – the only dams on the water in these parts were built by beavers.

As I said, my thoughts will keep changing. But with sights like these, the wildness returns. The Danube's vast power might be tapped for energy, but, as the ex-mayor showed with his hochwasser marks – and evident from the flood defences thrown up around the villages now – the river is still very far from tame. Its strength is still something actively feared, and its beauty, in these swirling mists, is still something to inspire a savage sensation of awe.

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