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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Hobbled in Ulm

22 January 2012

For the past two weeks I’ve been laid up in Ulm, on the outskirts of Bavaria, suffering from Achilles tendon strain. It dates from the sudden steep hills of Baden, when I pigheadedly continued walking despite a nagging pain in my ankle, which increased in jolts and jumps until I was practically hobbling. Luckily I found refuge with exceptionally lovely people who didn’t mind me sitting around  rubbing ice on my feet all day, necking ibuprofen, growing my beard and generally feeling sorry for myself.

It’s been an anxious, frustrating time, but at last I’ve reached the point of no pain, and I’m setting out again tomorrow. The German healthcare system is amazing — I’ve been given free ultrasound therapy and acupuncture, and have been fitted with an ankle support and custom-made insoles for my boots. The most important thing, of course, was simply resting up. And it taught me a lesson I needed to learn: pain is a message — don’t ignore it!

Pain is almost entirely absent in Paddy’s account of his journey. Now and then he mentions being tired or sore, but that seems to be the extent of his suffering. Either he was uncannily fit (and I’m not forgetting that he was 12 years younger than me when he did this — that’s 12 years of bad habits he had yet to accumulate), or, as I’m starting to suspect, with a time-lag of several decades, his memory edited out the bad parts and retained the happier ones… the rolling in haystacks with peasant girls and smoking cigars with counts. This is the kind trick that memory plays, mechanically rose-tinting the past. I’m sure when I look back on this, it will be the same.

It seems appropriate, at least, that I commenced to lame myself while inadvertently following the Bertha Benz Memorial Route from Bruchsal to Prorzheim… the route that marks the maiden voyage of the world's first car. In the birthplace of the automobile, a healthy walker is a fitting sacrifice. More to come on this topic soon, in another article for Dark Mountain… until then, I’ll be walking on, and listening to and learning from any pain.

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Dragons' blood

13 January 2012

It takes a week of following the Rhine upstream into Germany before I know I have truly left the Low Countries behind. After the port city of Koblenz, where the Rhine and the Mosel converge, the banks either side of the river begin to rise into folded foothills, jagged peaks and escarpments dotted with gothic ruins. During the next few days, castle after castle appears with almost frantic regularity: Stolzenfels, Rheinfels, Gutenfels, Furstenberg... in this valley, I have entered the realm of German Romanticism.

My introduction to fairytale country is the nightmarishly-named Burg Drachenfels, a tapering stump of weathered stone perched above the river. In the book I'm using as my road-map, Paddy mentions 'the Siegfried-haunted Drachenfels,' and I ask about this with my hosts that night in the village of Sinzig. Siegfried, I discover, was a mythical hero who showered himself in the blood of a dragon (drachen) to gain immortality – of course, myths being what they are, a leaf landed on his shoulder during the immortalising process, leaving that spot unprotected. Later he was betrayed by a friend, who skewered him with a spear. 'You can look it up on Wikipedia,' my hosts assure me, waving at the laptop, but stories like this don't need to be confirmed. It feels much better to hear it from them – this legend of the Teutonic Achilles – in a cosy, wood-smoke-smelling room with the rain beating down outside.

They also talk of a connected legend: the treasure horde of the Nibelungs, who were either – depending on what you choose to believe – the royal house of the Burgundians, or a race of dwarves. I choose dwarves. It seems no less unlikely. The fabled stash of gold and jewels is reputed to be buried in Worms, but later, when I reach that city with vague fantasies of stumbling across it – glinting, perhaps, at the bottom of a drain or at the border of a municipal flowerbed – the only evidence I can find is a signpost that says 'Nibelungenring.' It is sad, but not surprising, that the best the modern world can do with the legend of a dwarfish treasure horde is covert it into the name of a ring-road.

If Siegfried was the Teutonic Achilles, my walk also brings me to the lair of the Teutonic Siren. The towering Rock of Lorelei marks the narrowest point of the Rhine, and the river bends sharply to create treacherous shipping conditions. In these waters dwells the Lorelei, a golden-haired water maiden who lures sailors to their death. Over the years, Romantic poets have rendered the legend thoroughly twee, but the Lorelei has not lost her teeth: only last year, she capsized a barge carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid.

(That statistic came from Wikipedia. But hopefully, in a few hundred years, travellers will hear the story – in a suitably distorted version – sitting in a cosy, wood-smoke-smelling room with the rain beating down outside. Meanwhile, reconstruction work on the Worms outer-city ring-road will have uncovered caverns of gold, and armies of furious dwarves.)

So far I've escaped the Lorelei's clutches, and haven't yet been skewered with a spear. I am, however – in a vague nod to at least one of these legends – having problems with my Achilles tendon. Myths are there to teach us things. I'll use more dragons' blood.


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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Late Dutch

9 January 2012

This post is a little retrospective -- from my first couple of days on the walk. It appeared on The Times online just before Christmas, and I forgot to put it on this blog. I'm in Ulm now, resting up for a few days, and I have time to remember these things. So: from the top.

I was woken soon after dawn by 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' emanating from hidden speakers in the ceiling. My ferry – the hulking Stena Hollandica, less of a ship than a shopping mall – was just docking in the Hook of Holland. After a perfunctory passport check I watched the other passengers head for the train, then stubbornly turned inland to walk the 20 miles to Rotterdam. Hail rattled off my hat and tinkled musically in the bare branches, but the sky soon cleared. The countryside unfolded into a scene so Dutch it felt quite surreal – dikes and polders, cycle-ways, old windmills and modern wind turbines, with the occasional cargo ship slicing its way through the fields.

Almost nothing is left of the Rotterdam Paddy wrote about in 1933. The Nazi bombardment of May 1940 literally flattened the medieval city, leaving nothing but the town hall, the damaged belfry of the great church, and a bronze statue of Erasmus turning the page of a book. Paddy's 'beetling storeys' and 'hump-backed bridges' have long since been replaced by glass-fronted insurance buildings and expressionless office blocks, high streets crammed with corporate stores competing for trans-national blandness. The house in which I stayed that night, in a street of red brick and plasterwork with a faintly gingerbread feel, only survived because it stood 500m beyond the 'fire line,' the point at which the annihilation ended.

The following day I attempted to find the same route Paddy walked out of the city – 'a wonderful flat geometry of canals and polders and willows' – but found myself trudging instead through a dreary sprawl of suburbs and ring roads. The coffee in my flask had gone, the wind was blowing colder, and just as my spirits were starting to ebb a woman pulled up in a car: 'My husband and I saw you walking, and thought you might like to come in for a cup of coffee and some cake.' Their home was only a minute away, so I bent my no-lifts rule, and was soon ushered into a house of chirruping budgies and children. Much may have vanished since Paddy walked this route, but it seems the essential goodness of people still remains intact.

After coffee, the husband took me outside for a tour of his honk – 'a honk means just a cosy place' – a kind of garden shed he built to double as a spare room. He invited me to stay the night, but Dordrecht was just a few miles away, and I knew its wharves and cobbled streets had been spared the same destruction as Rotterdam – hopefully, traces of that older world might be more apparent. So I thanked them and re-hefted my bag. I had to be getting on.

... and on I got. And, hopefully, will continue getting.

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