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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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 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 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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In this winter

14 February 2012

Crossing the border from Bavaria to Austria, I passed through forests so deep in snow that the trees looked like melted candles. Dense growths of icicles hung from the roadside crucifixions, and frosted pine branches had been placed at the bleeding feet of the Christs like offerings to a pagan forest god. It was so cold that after walking half an hour my beard and moustache had frozen into knotted clumps of ice, and the water in my bottle was a solid undrinkable block.

The Alps, I knew, lay somewhere to my right, but for the past three days they'd been hidden behind a white murk. I was starting to think I might never see them, but just as my mind formed that thought, I looked round and there they were. It seemed amazing that things so huge could have appeared silently, and even more amazing that I'd been walking in their shadow all week without being aware of that massive presence. Over the course of the next two days they seemed to merge in and out of existence, sharpening into perfect focus and suddenly disappearing again, as if trying to make up their minds whether or not to establish themselves in solid form. It was like some kind of vanished kingdom, taking and losing shape before my eyes.

I noticed that the people I met who live in or near these mountains have a habit of talking about them in almost human terms. They imbue them with moods and personalities. 'Sometimes we feel that the mountains decide to go away somewhere else for a day, as if they have a secret meeting place,' said the couple I stayed with in Traunstein. And I found myself thinking similar thoughts during the day I spent in Salzburg, where the mountains seem to crowd around the city at different times of day, as if trying to nuzzle their way in.

At this temperature, there is no soft ground. Tarmac has become my friend again – hard and flat being preferable to hard and bumpy. Ploughed fields and frozen molehills are particular perils for the ankles. My body has to work twice as hard crossing open stretches of snow. Step-sink, step-sink, the schoosh schoosh sound of dry powder, a new rhythm to walk to. Trying to avoid a major highway, I took a shortcut through a steep valley where the snow was surfaced with a frozen crust that collapsed when I took too heavy a step, sinking me knee-deep. I could only proceed with tiny bird-steps, concentrating on keeping my body as light as it could possibly be, but whenever my mind began to wander – even starting to hum an old tune – I would crash back through the crust. The task seemed impossible. I was hardly moving at all. Exhausted, I threw myself down in the snow to gnaw at my half-frozen sandwich and drink the last of my mostly-cold coffee. Sometimes giving up is the best strategy – suddenly, out of nowhere, appeared two riders on horses as hairy as dogs. I leapt up from my snow-hole, brushing the crumbs out of my ice-beard, gesticulating at them like some sort of desperate goblin. I asked for directions, and I think that if they had raised their eyebrows or expressed any surprise at that point I might have despaired entirely – but the purple-faced man in the fur hat merely pointed me on my way as if I was doing nothing particularly unusual. Perhaps because Austria is a country of wintery, outdoorsy people, where the mountains are never far away and activities such as mine are not as rare as they might be elsewhere.

From Frankenburg to Ried I walked through a region of deep forest, again going cross country to avoid a highway. I entered the woods up a track of pure ice – a stream must flow down here in the summer – and once the track and the ice had ended, no paths lay ahead. It was the first time on my journey – and I've been going for two months now – that I was walking without the benefit of a road, pavement, footpath, cycle-path, railway-path, hiking trail, track, dike, canal, river, stream, embankment, verge or the border of a field to keep me going straight. There was nothing but rocks and trees, jumbled and disordered.

Trackless forests are not easy going. It's extremely difficult to walk in a straight line – your eyes invent tempting trails to follow, which lead you in all kinds of wrong directions, and your legs automatically take you along the contours that suit them best, no matter how dogmatically your brain tries to keep them straight. I lost my orientation quickly. Everything looked the same.

A very different set of emotions took over in these woods. I felt a deep, fierce thrill to be in the wilderness at last, away from anything remotely human, but there was also an undercurrent of fear at the prospect of genuine aloneness. There was nothing and no-one to help me – all I could do was keep on going, and try to get out before dark.

After a couple of hours the trees thinned. Ahead was a clearing and telephone poles, half a dozen farmhouses scattered down a white hillside. I felt immediate relief at the sight of habitation – 'there are people there who speak a language!' – but also, with equal force, regret and disappointment. Suddenly the adventure had ended. Now I couldn't go wrong if I tried. The whole forest walk felt short-lived, its wildness just an illusion – it seemed totally absurd that I'd felt anything remotely like fear, with civilisation just over the next rise.

Most of our adventures, perhaps, are like this. Flirting with the wilderness but knowing you can't be part of it. Wanting to lose yourself inside it like you lost yourself in childhood stories, in imaginary realms – yet always fearing to go too far in, so far you might not get back.

But walking, I think, brings adventure closer. And in this winter, walking alone through a snow-covered landscape still seems like the greatest happiness I could know.

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

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Drunken theory of innocence

4 February 2012

All my long way down the Rhine Valley and through the hills of Baden-Württemburg, with the slow drumroll of the Alps approaching, I heard stories from other Germans about the Bavarians I would meet ahead. 'Bavarians are... different,' they said. 'They drink beer for breakfast,' they told me with expressions of disgust, 'and squeeze white sausages out of their skins like toothpaste.' Most of Germany, I heard, was happy enough with the German Red Cross – in Bavaria, they insisted on the Bavarian Red Cross. In the city of Ulm, where the Danube forms the dividing line between the two states, people jokingly referred to the rest of Germany as South Sweden – over the river lay North Italy.

My introduction to Bavaria came in a farmer's inn near Ulm. Gone were the dainty 0.1 litre beer glasses of Köln and Düsseldorf, gone were the green-stemmed wine glasses of the Mosel. Here I found handled china mugs, enthusiastically clumped together every five or ten minutes to mighty roars of 'prost!' The toasts occurred with increasing frequency and for no apparent reason, starting with a couple of people and spreading infectiously down the long table, with people elbowing past their neighbours to make sure no-one was missed. With regular beer, I was told, glasses can be clinked at the top – but wheat beer, for true Bavarians, must be clinked at the bottom. 'Weißbier und Frauen stößt man unten an,' the saying goes – roughly translated as 'wheat beer and women one bangs below.' Even the women seemed to find this funny.

Bavaria is the stereotype most foreigners have of Germany – lederhosen and oompah bands, woodcock-feathered Alpine hats, buxom barmaids with white breasts bulging over beer mugs. All this was to be found in Munich's Hofbräuhaus, a kind of temple to Bavarian drinking culture. When Paddy came here in 1934 he downed beer and schnapps until he lost consciousness, and was wheelbarrowed home by an obliging carpenter who put him to bed in his workshop. I'd been considering an experiment, guinea-pigging myself by knocking back drinks until I passed out, just to see what would happen – but the place is full of tourists now, and the staff seem a bit more jaded, unimpressed by the predictable drunkenness of American exchange students. I felt I'd come across less like an artist seeking the ghost of a journey, and more like just another Brit abroad, unable to hold my drink.

Nevertheless, I did get drunk. It was impossible not to. The beer is served in glasses almost as long as my forearm, as thick as my leg. And it was delivered straight to my seat, so I didn't even have to move. I sat at a long empty table, thinking I could slip out quietly, but it rapidly filled up with drinkers who squashed me down to the furthest end, half-curtained by hanging coats, with no possibility of escape. All I could do was order beer and watch my companions shovelling down slabs of meat and dripping lumps of knödel while the oompah band played on – a clumping, heavy, ponderous music, geared less towards dancing than digestion.

White-bearded men appeared in green Alpine hats adorned with feathers. Pretzel girls in checkered dresses posed resignedly for cameras. Americans boomed at each other down the aisles, while Japanese tourists sipped coffee rather nervously and smiled politely at the drunks. My first impression of the Hofbräuhaus was that it was just a tourist trap – the glasses all had HB logos, and there was even a gift shop. It seemed stage-managed, artificial. I found myself drunkenly mulling the question of authenticity. It suddenly seemed very important to pinpoint what this meant. All travellers seek the authentic – a real, original 'experience,' unadulterated and unspoiled – but what on earth does that mean? The closest definition must be 'innocence,' a lack of self-awareness. Once a place becomes self-aware (or the culture of that place), once it learns to see itself from an outside perspective, different from other places in the world, it learns to sell itself. It plays up to its quirks. Its oddness becomes a selling point. Branding and marketing follow. It's exactly the fault of travellers like me, or even of Paddy all those years ago, fuelling a market for the authentic, for an 'experience' you can write, record or take photos of. And the more people come searching for this, the more places like the Hofbräuhaus are obliged to provide that experience in a guaranteed supply – hence the hired oompah band, the bulging-breasted waitresses, the t-shirts in the gift shop.

I thought I was on to something. The more drunk I got, however, the more authentic it all began to feel. I tried to leave at one point, and a sinister black-bearded character motioned me back with a steak knife. 'Trink, Nick, trink!' he scowled, ordered me another huge beer, and went back to tucking into his shapeless pile of meat. Three old men commenced playing cards with an unfamiliar deck, tossing the cards down at amazing speeds and scooping small change into their laps. I learned from the man sitting next to me that they were here to commemorate a friend who died on this day last year, setting off a clanking round of 'prosts' and hefty handshakes. And when I looked again at the old guys in their feathered hats, leather trousers and green waistcoats adorned with assorted medallions and trinkets – their tables laden with china mugs, tubs of ham and pickles brought from home – I realised they weren't dressing up for the tourists. They were doing this from pride. Pride, tradition and separateness – the things that Bavaria is known for.

My drunken theory of innocence felt increasingly irrelevant and silly. This was self-awareness all right, but it didn't seem such a bad thing. A real folk culture still exists here, underneath the marketing. It just took a few drinks to track it down. It's true, Bavarians are different. And yes, they do squeeze white sausages out of their skins like toothpaste.


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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29 January 2012

Over the past couple of weeks, I've become more and more aware of other journeys crisscrossing my own. I'm following the route of a man who walked this way in 1934, tracing his path from the words in his books, but increasingly I find that his are not the only footsteps. The people I'm staying with bear testimony to the journeys of previous guests: 'someone stayed here for a few days last year who was walking from Germany to Morocco,' or 'riding a Vespa over the Alps,' or 'cycling from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean...' I am starting to glimpse a continent bisected by wanderers on strange, lonely quests, striking out on unknowable missions. Sometimes they leave traces.

My energy was low on the Rhine near the village of Rolandseck. It was a damp, dispiriting day and my steps were getting heavier – I still had a long way to walk before I had a place to sleep. At that point I came across a long metal plaque zigzagged into the paving stones, engraved with English words: 'a 2838 kilometre coast to coast walking journey on roads pavements tracks and bicycle paths from bilbao to rotterdam starting at the river nervion continuing to an alpine origin of the river rhine and following its course to the north sea ending at the hook of holland spain france switzerland germany the netherlands.' Nearby was a sign with further explanation, but actually I didn't want to know more. It was enough that someone had been here, that someone had walked this same path, and this evidence of a previous walker lightened my steps until nightfall.

Walking slightly drunk one afternoon (I was decanting whiskey into my hip-flask and the whiskey didn't all fit), acted as a weird charm – out of a sudden squall of rain appeared a wild-eyed, grinning man with broken teeth and an enormous, demonic-looking grey dog. 'Come, come, you must stay dry here,' he said, motioning me into the shelter of someone else's garage, and then embarked on a strange monologue: 'My name is Harry. Like your youngest prince! But I am not a royalist, never! I am free. I hate hierarchy! Do you know that this class system, this system of kings and earls and counts, was brought here by the Romans? Before the Romans came to this land the Germans were free, we were all equal, no one was better or worse than any other. We must still overthrow this Roman mentality, so we can be free again...'

He went on in this vein until the rain stopped, at which point I walked on. It was only later that afternoon that I came across a little sign – a centurion's helmet and the word limes – and realised I was inadvertently tracing the old boundary of the Roman Empire from Holland to the Black Sea. The Romans controlled the west bank of the Rhine but never conquered the wild tribes to the east. How amazing, a thousand years later, to meet a man enthusiastically babbling an ancient communal memory of tribal freedoms versus imperial oppression – however vague and inaccurate – through a mouthful of crooked teeth, on the line of that frontier.

Another route I constantly cross, follow for a while, lose again, and pick up a few days later, is the Pilgerweg – the pilgrim's way – that spreads through all the countries of Europe until it becomes the Camino de Santiago. Until now I hadn't realised that these paths were connected, branching and dividing and merging again like the map of a nervous system, until they converge, after thousands of miles, on that dusty little town in the north of Spain. I am heading east, not west, but I'm still tracing the same pathways. So far I haven't met another walker, but sometimes I get the notion that someone might be shadowing my journey, or I might be shadowing theirs – they might be half a mile behind me or half a mile ahead of me, perhaps even stopping when I stop, crossing the road where I cross the road, having a rest on the same low wall, sneaking off for a surreptitious piss behind the same tangle of trees.

For two days this week I found myself following a series of little brown and white signs showing the silhouette of a woman driving an antiquated vehicle, with the words 'Bertha Benz Memorial Route.' These signs didn't strike me as particularly exciting, but, I later found out, mark a journey of almost unimaginable significance – something that led, around the world, to cultural and environmental changes so profound that they seem better understood as a shift in consciousness. In 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of engineer Karl Benz, test-drove her husband's prototype automobile on this road from Bruchsal to Pforzheim. This seemingly unassuming jaunt was the maiden voyage of the world's first car – the car from which every other car, from the Model T Ford to the SUV, can trace its lineage. Even Karl Benz had his doubts about it, but by driving this route between the two cities, his wife proved that the automobile was a viable form of transport. Just how viable, she couldn't have imagined. Only fifty years later, Germany gave that first car's descendants the world's first autobahns, ensuring their dominion over the landscape. Perhaps a walker following this route is like a Carib Indian – if there were any of them left – retracing the voyage that Columbus took with the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Sketching the outline of a journey that led to the destruction of a world.

Looking at Europe's map today, the logical consequence of that journey can be seen in the webwork of red and yellow lines that divide and subdivide the continent, autobahns and their tributary roads that split the formless wilderness into abstract geometrical partitions – another branching nervous system like that of the Camino de Santiago, but one that has no end to arrive at, no destination. Walking alongside these roads, which I often find unavoidable, I see and hear and smell and feel that consequence every day. And yet, as I'm starting to discover, it's not the only map. There are roads between the roads, from the limes to the pilgrim's way, the cycle-tracks, the borders of fields, the Wanderweg – the wander way – the corridors of connected woodland left behind from carved-up forests, as well as the rivers and the streams that were Europe's first thoroughfares. This is the map I am starting to glimpse, tracked by the ghosts of travellers past. Sometimes they leave traces.

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

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