Romantic masochism invested in and infected by a new age

9 October 2011

Last week I met Paddy's great-nephew, James Kenward, at the house of a mutual friend. He told some very wonderful stories about staying in Paddy's house in Greece, and talked a lot about the essential courtesy and gentlemanliness of the man. I wanted to share some of James' thoughts on my upcoming journey (taken from an email to Artemis Cooper, Paddy's friend and biographer -- which is why I am referred to in the third person):

Personally I always find it difficult to understand why someone would seek to follow the line of someone else's arrow ... but the mission statement that emerged through our conversation seemed full of fresh intent and knocked the aforementioned out of me. Perhaps the very course of a great journey holds its own through time's passing like the essence of structure provides timelessness to a heroic tale. The breadth of Europe will not cease to be a story and having such an incredible point of reference in Paddy's writing adds another dimension.  I think that Nick will dig deeply and write well of his journey and my hope and suspicion is that the seed of his inspiration -- his regard for Paddy and his adventuring ways -- will yield entirely new crop that Paddy would admire. Frankly his romantic masochism invested in and infected by a new age interests me -- previously there was snow, and there will still be that -- but imagine the frigging motorways.

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May be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths

20 September 2011

I've finally got around to updating my route page, with more detailed maps to show the journey to Istanbul in three stages. It's as accurate as I can get it for now. Some place names have changed since the books were published, especially around Hungary and Romania, but I've given the modern names whenever I could find them. Let me know if you spot things that need updating.

And here is a list of all the cities, towns and villages I'm walking through. If you live along my route and would be kind enough to offer accommodation for a night, in exchange for some traveller's tales -- or know of anyone who does -- please do get in touch.


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Every tribute holds a trap

19 September 2011

Since I decided to do this journey, and set a date for my departure (9th of December, if you're not keeping up), I've discovered that, inevitably, others have touched this idea before me. This should have come as no surprise -- I'm sure many people who read Paddy's work fantasise about doing the same -- but I'll admit it still gave me that slight sinking feeling. First I discovered that Benedict Allen made a BBC documentary following the route in 2008 (although he didn't walk the whole way), culminating in a meeting with Paddy in his house in Greece. Then I found out about Matt Gross, the New York Times Frugal Traveller, who walked the stretch between Vienna and Budapest in 2010. Now I've had my attention drawn to Blue River, Black Sea by the travel writer Andrew Eames, published in 2009, in which he travels the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub. Although Eames doesn't set out to follow all of Paddy's route (and his travels finish in Romania, not Turkey), he does take Paddy as his inspiration and retraces much of his journey, including riding a horse across the Great Hungarian Plain and tracking down the surviving remnants of Middle European aristocracy.

I must admit that I haven't yet seen the BBC documentary (although Benedict has sent me a copy), or read Blue River, Black Sea. I will, at some point soon, because they are obviously important and have a bearing on what I'm doing. But I think it's equally important to not get too hung-up on the fact that other writers and travellers have trodden the same, or similar, ground. The fact that others have had this idea, or variations on this idea, does not invalidate my own journey, or make it less interesting or exciting. (Unless my writing, and the story it tells, turns out to be less interesting and exciting... and if I believe that this is happening, if I realise one day that my writing and walking has morphed into a passionless trudge, I'll be on the first bus home, that's for sure.)

I'm not setting out to write a history or biography. Nor even, perhaps, a travel book, in the strictest sense. History and politics fascinate me, but what I'm really seeking out here are the shadows of the half-forgotten Europe -- 'myths, lost voices, history and hearsay' -- that Paddy captured like no-one else, exploring the changes to landscape, culture, attitudes and feeling. Although others have done sections of the route, for TV or travel literature, no-one (as far as I know) has walked it in its entirety, from Rotterdam to Istanbul, as I intend to do. This is important, because what I'm interested in above all is the experience of walking. I don't intend this to be a tribute tour, a step by step reenactment of a voyage, but a new journey along an old road. The route I follow is Paddy's route -- and his words are my travel guide -- but the journey I make can only be my own.

The title of this post comes from this review of Eames' book by Dimiter Kenarov of The Nation. I'll stress again that I haven't read the book yet, but the review makes some interesting points about what I guess could be called the 'creative limitations of re-creation.' It carries a warning about the dangers of harking on about the past, and reminds me that, although the ghosts of an older Europe are in my mind, my journey takes place in the modern day, and the modern day is as vivid and thrilling (if not, perhaps, as picturesque) as anything we may half-glimpse through the beguiling mists of history.

Finally, it contains the observation:

The main strength of Leigh Fermor’s work is its freewheeling, uncharted nature, taking life as it comes.

To which I can only say 'Yes!' And note that down as a piece of advice more important than any research.


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To walk is to inhabit the world

22 August 2011

I've just returned from Uncivilisation, the Dark Mountain festival. Dark Mountain is extremely hard to define, but it's basically a journal of essays, short stories, poetry and artwork -- as well as a wider social movement -- exploring new myths and new narratives arising from the cultural confusion of environmental and economic collapse. They've published four of my short stories, and I hope to write them a piece of non-fiction during my walk to Istanbul: as an exploration of Europe's changes -- its landscapes, environments, cultures, people -- this project has a definite Dark Mountain feel, especially as Europe seems to be going through various collapses of its own.

Among the many incredible people I met at Uncivilisation was Adam Weymouth, a writer and storyteller who walked from England to Istanbul last year. He followed a very different route from Paddy's, through France, Italy and the Balkans (ie. the sunny bits!), over the course of 8 months. On a wander through the woods he talked about his reasons for the journey, and I'd like to share a few of his words with you here:

Walking into big cities isn't lots of fun. There are all these places that are dehumanised now -- unfit for walking. Places you zip through in a car, and only when you walk you realise they are real places.

During transport we're encouraged to forget about the journey -- we have the idea that good things only start happening when we arrive. But to walk is to inhabit the world. Wayfarers are not unsuccessful occupants, but successful inhabitants.

Before planes and trains, pilgrims had to return from their destination by walking. Constantinople or Rome was the journey's centre point -- your real destination was your front door. 

He also talked about Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who analysed the structure of myths to identify the basic narratives that underly all cultures. A mythical journey, Campbell says, does not end with the slaying of the beast, the apparent achievement of the quest -- it ends when the hero returns to integrate the knowledge he has gained into everyday life, to 'bestow boons on his fellow man.' In recent times, we have forgotten the importance of the return.

How does this relate to my journey? Will Istanbul be my centre point, before I turn round and walk home?  To be honest, probably not. I am not undertaking a pilgrimage, and if you ever catch me referring to myself as an archetypal hero on a mythical journey, please give me a hefty slap. What I can try my best to do, though -- without sounding too ridiculous -- is to bestow boons on my fellow man through the writing I bring back. Europe is changing, the world is changing, and the stories we tell are important. Paddy's words are my map on this journey... perhaps my words can be a map for something else, who knows?

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Thank you all!

18 August 2011

Thank you, dank u wel, dankeschön, ďakujem, köszönöm, mulţumesc, благодаря and teşekkür ederim to everyone who supported this project on We Did This. Forty five people in seven different countries have funded me a grand total of £1,730 towards my walk to Istanbul. My feet will walk true, my eyes will be keen, I will be a bipedal writing machine. You're all marvellous. Read and comment

Waving at cars

11 August 2011

I've just been talking to Matt Gross, the ex New York Times Frugal Traveller, who walked a section of Paddy's route -- from Vienna to Budapest -- last year. Matt Gross is a man who specialises in getting lost in foreign countries, and one of the things we discussed was the potential, mind-aching dreariness of trudging alongside major highways (numerous people have warned me that this is something I'll have to face, especially in Slovakia and Hungary). Two fine pieces of advice stand out:

Wave at each oncoming car. The proportion of people who wave back will tell you a lot about where you are.


Keep track of trash along the roads. See if the things people throw out of their cars differ from country to country.

Matt's Getting Lost column is well worth following. (If you can follow the lost.)

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The magic underneath the surface

8 August 2011

I've now reached (surpassed!) my We Did This funding target, and am up to an amazing £1,660.Thank you so much, everyone who's supported me, and I look forward to thanking you more eloquently in the form of postcards, books and CDs, which will be lovingly prepared and sent from the long walk across Europe.

Over the past three weeks, support has come from all over the world. It does seem as if this project has struck a chord with a lot of people, and I've had requests to document many aspects of Europe's changes. I'd just like to quote one person (someone I've never met) who funded me:

It wasn't Patrick Leigh Fermor's writing as such that sparked my interest in your project, but more my connection to Europe, having spent a lot of time travelling throughout Europe the last few years.  I am an artist myself, and was wandering around the internet looking at funding sources, then came across your project.  I loved the idea of uncovering 'wild' Europe.  I had always sensed that in the land, as I'd been travelling, and was thrilled at the idea of someone investigating and documenting that -- the magic underneath the surface.

I will be doing my best to scratch at the surface to find the magic. Thank you so much, once more, everyone who's helping me do this.

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The lost art of postcard writing

4 August 2011

An article was published today on 'the lost art of postcard writing.' As funding is still coming in, I haven't yet counted up the total number of postcards I'll be sending (each complete with a short short story) as rewards for funders on my walk through Europe, but it must be into the hundeds by now. It looks like I'll be doing to bring this dying art back from the brink.

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An endless succession of corn fields

1 August 2011

I've been thinking a lot about the landscape and terrain. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is an excellent place to get advice, so I posted something about my journey on the thread for each of the countries I'll visit. I received some thoughtful and detailed responses, and even some kind offers of accommodation, along with many replies along the lines of 'why the hell don't you do this in summer?' and 'why don't you follow a more picturesque route?'

Of course, walking across Europe back then was probably simpler and safer, not as much traffic and slower at that. Also, then you didn't have artificial barriers of limited access highways where it is illegal to walk...

This is one of the least interesting regions of Slovakia to walk through, it's pancake flat with few sights to see apart from the Danube river itself. In the middle of winter it will be especially bleak...

You are basically going to spend all your time in Hungary walking through the boring agricultural landscape of the Great Hungarian Plain, most of the time along major roads, and unless you're very lucky, in miserable weather...

Wet, wind, foggy, snow even. All of those can be expected in December. The days will be short, and even shorter when the weather is dark and gloomy...

The puszta landscapes can indeed be deadly boring. Cycling from Romania to Budapest, with strong headwind and an endless succession of corn fields and nondescript villages, we just gave up after two days and hopped on a train. But all this is necessary if you're following PLF!

All of which serves to remind me that the route will not necessarily be pretty. (I have a dull recurrent nightmare of finding myself trudging down dual carriageways for hundreds of miles with nothing green in sight.) But my aim is to document the journey as it is, the changes to Europe's landscapes and cultures, not to stroll from one pretty village to another. Ugliness (or lack of beauty) must be mapped as well.

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He drank from a different fountain

20 July 2011

There's a long post about my project on this fine blog about Paddy's writing. Many thanks, Tom.

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Project launched on We Did This

19 July 2011

Today this project launched on We Did This -- basically an online marketplace which connects artists who need funding with people who want to fund the arts. I have exactly one month to raise £1,500 for the journey, and I'm offering a range of rewards for funding, including short stories sent on postcards, mysterious souvenir packages from the road, handbound books and CDs of audio from the road.

To get involved with funding (and rewards!) see here.







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Describing difference

21 June 2011

From a recent Guardian editorial:

'Leigh Fermor was lucky, in that he walked through an archaic and aristocratic eastern Europe soon to be obliterated by the second world war. His two greatest books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, take readers into a time and place that can never exist again...

Few of today's writers have this advantage. They must describe a world in which it is easier to communicate, and travel, than ever before. No teenager setting off from Tower Bridge now would find themselves amid ballgowns, hunting parties and lonely mountaintop shepherds. Facebook and text messaging have brought Bucharest and Birmingham closer. Describing difference has been made harder.'

I think this is true, to a large extent. But this is partly why the journey excites me. I'm starting from the premise that Europe, and the world, is still an exciting and unfamiliar place, that it hasn't been Facebooked and easyJetted into monotonous dullness. Fascination and adventure still exist -- perhaps just in different forms.

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