Walking in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor from Rotterdam to Constantinople, Nick Hunt found that, 78 years later, everything and nothing has changed.
Interview by Adrian Bridge
First published in the Telegraph, 12 Sep 2013
This month the last volume was published of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople, a journey he undertook in 1933/34. But how much has changed since Leigh Fermor’s day? Nick Hunt, a modern-day adventurer, is in a good position to say because he has recently retraced Leigh Fermor’s footsteps. This is what he found:
Why did you want to undertake this journey?
I was given A Time of Gifts when I was 18, the same age as Leigh Fermor when he set off on his journey. He was describing exactly what I wanted to do, which was to go out and have adventures and explore the world. I decided I’d do that journey one day: and 12 years later, at the age of 30, I did.
What was it about the route itself that appealed?
The books conveyed a great sense of freedom and wildness, mystery and wonder. The Europe of those books is a very magical place and I wanted to see if that magic still existed. These days we assume that Europe has become homogenised and dull; that it is a very tame continent. People go away to the other side of the world – that’s what I did as well – seeking this wonder out there somewhere, and I really wanted to see whether it is still possible to find it in Europe.
And is it?
Yes. I was amazed by how quickly things changed across borders: borders that are unmanned and unguarded. The most amazing crossing was at the border between Austria and Slovakia, when immediately everything was different: people smelled different, looked different; roads were different and buildings were different. For 50 years this was the crossroads between East and West, and it is still the place where you move between the Germanic and Slavic worlds.
How long did it take you and what did it cost?
I set off on December 9, 2011 – exactly 78 years to the day after Leigh Fermor did – but whereas it took him 13 months, I completed the walk in seven. I gave myself a budget of £50 a week – the equivalent of the £1 a week Paddy allowed himself back in 1933. In total I walked some 2,500 miles through eight countries: Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.
So initially you were walking in the winter?
I wanted to walk through Germany and Bavaria in snow – that seemed to be the truest manifestation of that kind of fairy tale. Walking on dry snow is quite pleasant, and you don’t get too hot and sweaty. Of course it got dark early and night times were hard.
Were people you met aware of the Leigh Fermor books and still interested in them?
Before I left I was shocked to discover how well known he was. People from all over the world wrote to offer support and encouragement. Many said they had dreamed of doing something similar: there was a lot of vicarious enthusiasm for what I was doing. Once I was on the road, people were very curious about this account of their village written by an English writer who came through it nearly 80 years ago. One of the things I enjoyed most was showing people the passage in the book where their village was mentioned and reading it aloud.
What did you find that chimed most with Leigh Fermor’s account?
There was a lot more continuity with Paddy’s journey than I expected, especially in terms of how kind and generous people were. There was also continuity in the landscape. Even in Germany, walking along the Rhine is still quite special. There may be a big road running alongside it now, but it is still possible to see this older, wilder Europe.
I was also amazed by how little people’s prejudices had changed, especially in the east. Some of the things Slovaks were saying about Hungarians, Hungarians about everyone, Romanians about Hungarians, Romanians about Bulgarians – it could have been cut and pasted from the pages of the books. People have long memories.
Were you, like Paddy, entertained by counts?
No, but I did experience extraordinary hospitality. For the early part of my journey I stayed on people’s couches (arranged through the couch-surfing website). I was constantly amazed at people’s generosity, and the farther east I went the friendlier they became: in the latter stages of the journey it became common for people to say, “I’ve got friends in the next village, I’ll give them a call,” so I started staying with friends of friends rather than booking.
I had a tent with me, and once the weather turned warmer I began to camp out. Towards the end I struggled to spend my £50 a week: transport was covered, I hardly ever had to pay for accommodation; it was just food and occasional chocolate treats.
What was most different from what Leigh Fermor experienced?
Right away you see the impact of the war, especially in Holland and Germany. Rotterdam was flattened – one of many cities whose medieval hearts had been wiped out and turned into corporate, commercial hubs full of the same shops you can see in London.
Farther along the route the hydroelectric dams on the Danube summed up for me the process of industrialisation that has tamed so many of the wilder parts of the continent’s rivers. Also, although I didn’t stay with a count, I did meet one of the descendants of one of the families that hosted Paddy. Their country home, once a place of dinners and dances, had been nationalised after the war and turned into a psychiatric hospital. That spoke volumes.
What were your favourite parts of the journey?
Walking through Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains: the culture was warm and generous and I loved the fact that people still have time for old-fashioned courtesies. I was amazed at how little impact Ceausescu’s attempts to remodel that society had. It was in the Carpathians, too, that I felt completely alone. I was quite high, above the snow line, and not altogether sure about what I was doing. In terms of the adventure, that was pretty wonderful. Earlier on in the journey I had fantasised about the baths of Budapest: they didn’t disappoint.
And the not-so-good bits?
I didn’t enjoy trekking through miles of suburbs. Or walking on tarmac. In the southern German city of Ulm I had to stop for three weeks because of an Achilles tendon injury. On the plus side, I discovered the wonder of the German health service, but it was frustrating. Getting attacked by stray dogs in Romania was pretty hairy – as was coming face to face with a wild boar.
I can’t say I liked the “Sunny Beach” in Bulgaria between Varna and Burgas. Paddy described this stretch of coastline as one of the most delightful – offering solitude and peace, space and silence. Today it is just a long strip of concrete: one hotel after another.
Is walking the best way to go?
Absolutely. When you walk you are exposed to everything. You feel everything – the weather, you absorb all the atmosphere of the place around you – and you notice things that in a car would just be a blur. That said, much of the route I took was not pretty.
My advice to anyone doing a trip of this kind would be to try to find interest in everything you see. When I was in Budapest and said I was heading for the Great Hungarian Plain I was told to prepare for the 10 most boring days of my life. It is true the plain is no longer the wild place that Paddy described. But I found it quite extraordinary just having this space and silence, huge empty horizons, dust and heat. It felt a bit like walking through a desert. I’d advise avoiding tarmac (even walking through leaves and mud is preferable). And I’d advise taking a very good pair of boots.
What was the most important thing you learnt from your walk?
That the woods are not full of axe murderers and that people are generally quite kind and helpful and hospitable. That was heart-warming, and that was what I had wanted to believe. I also learnt how to slow down. At the beginning I got frustrated at how slowly I was travelling. It took a while to shake off the mentality of having to get somewhere quickly and to realise that I wasn’t trying to get anywhere in a hurry: that the destination was much less important than the getting there.
Are we going to have to wait 80 years for a full account of your walk to appear in print?
No. The book will be out next spring.
* ‘Walking the Woods and the Water: in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn’ by Nick Hunt (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) is due out in spring 2014.