Tag Archives: Walking the Woods and the Water

Beneath the surface: Tuscany’s ancient walking trails

The sunken vie cave paths were made by the Etruscans

Our friend Nick Hunt (author of Walking the Woods and the Water and Where the Wild Winds Are) has recently written an article for the Guardian about the Vie cave network of sunken paths. Dug by the Etruscans more than 2,000 years ago, they offer a fascinating way to explore a little-visited corner of southern Tuscany. Nick has also recently published a short book – The Parakeeting of London. Apparently the skies of London have been taken over by flocks of bright-green parakeets and nobody knows how they got there. Nick tracks the progress of the parakeets from park to cemetery to riverbank, meeting Londoners from all walks of life who share their thoughts, opinions and theories on these incongruous avian invaders. Did Jimi Hendrix release them in 1968? Did they escape from a set during the filming of The African Queen? Are they anything to do with climate change? And, most importantly, are they here to stay?

First published in The Guardian

“Here there are wild boars with four legs, and wild boars with two,” says Walk Italy tour leader Roberto Carpano. We are drinking volcanic wine in the tiny village of Sovana, and he is referring to the fact that people from this forested, hilly part of southern Tuscany (50 miles south of Siena and as close to Rome as Florence) are sometimes nicknamed cinghiali (wild boars) for their stubborn, bristly nature.

Not that there are many locals about – Sovana has fewer than 100 residents, and the piazza is deserted apart from a small, self-important dog. My partner and I are here, with four others, to join a two-day walking tour of the area’s mysterious vie cave (sunken roads).

We are not exactly off the beaten track, for these tracks have been beaten since the bronze age. The vie cave are a network of paths dug by the Etruscans, the civilisation that ruled this area until 100 BC, when the last of their cities were absorbed into the Roman Republic. The ancient thoroughfares were cut into the tufo – the volcanic rock common in south and central Italy – connecting settlements, religious sites and necropolises. Some are just sunken footpaths, but others are six-metre deep ravines broad enough to drive a chariot down. In places the walls are carved with sacred symbols to protect against the pagan spirits later populations believed might haunt the trails.

Our journey begins above Sorano, at Fortezza Orsini, the 15th-century castle of the Orsini family, perched atop a tufo bluff riddled with tunnels and caves. We tour the catacombs with Sean Lawson, a New Zealander who came here on holiday 18 years ago and stayed on. He leads us through the cramped passageways that honeycomb the rock – their walls coated in saltpetre, used for gunpowder that fuelled the Orsinis’ incessant wars – and into the wooded valley, where the vie cave begin.

The sunlight disappears as we burrow into the shaded valley – the marks of 2,000-year-old picks are still visible on the walls. But soon we emerge into an open landscape of vineyards and olive groves, roads more Roman than Etruscan. Our goal, eight miles to the east, is a place of even greater mystery: an ancient necropolis called the Città del Tufo, whose largest, most majestic tomb is the Ildebranda, carved from the living rock, surrounded by hundreds of smaller burial chambers. Sean shows us the Tomb of the Winged Demons and a statue of Vanth, angel of death, pausing to chat to some local women who are picking wild asparagus – it’s perfect in risotto, they say.

The next morning’s vie cave take us south from Sovana to a place that’s very much alive: the Sassotondo vineyard, owned by wine producing couple Carla Benini and Eduardo Ventimiglia. “He is the mind and I am the nose,” says Carla, after showing us round a cellar cut deep into tufo, like everything else, and pouring glasses of red, white and orange wine as an icy wind shakes the mimosa trees outside.

The wine cellars at Sassotondo vineyard are cut deep into tufo

After a lunch of unsalted Tuscan bread and sheep’s cheese sprinkled with oregano, we are back on the sunken roads heading for Pitigliano – an unreal vision of a town with steeples, towers and defensive walls on a rocky outcrop, its terracotta rooftops circled by rooks. We pass beneath the arches of a 16th-century aqueduct into a warren of vicoli, narrow twisting alleyways. Roberto shows us the synagogue of the ancient Jewish quarter, which thrived from the 15th century but didn’t survive the 20th – its members fled or were deported, with others reportedly finding refuge with Christian families during the second world war – and is now another monument to a vanished culture.

A full moon is rising as we settle into La Magica Torre, a guesthouse with views of the old town. Sleep is a long way off, though, for something special is about to happen in the main piazza. The Invernacciu is an effigy of canes and straw, which represents the departing spirit of winter. As darkness falls, a line of flames weaves towards us along the vie cave across the valley. A procession of young men in monks’ robes staggers up the hill, trailing sparks from huge bundles of burning canes on their shoulders. Their chants get louder as they come: “’Eppe, ’eppe, viva San Giuseppe!” This festival, the Torciata di San Giuseppe, is dedicated to the town’s patron saint, but the veneer of Christianity is unconvincing. Tonight is the spring equinox, and this is a pagan celebration of the end of winter.

The monks touch their torches to the pyre and the straw man goes up in flames. A fierce wind turns the piazza into a maelstrom of swarming sparks. Chunks of burning wood rain down on the crowd, and parents brush embers from their children’s hair as watching firemen chat and smoke cigarettes. As music blasts from powerful speakers, inebriated monks dance hand-in-hand around the inferno.

It is a glorious end to our walk. Winter is truly over. By midnight the streets are deserted. We return to the smouldering heap to gather a handful of still-warm ashes to take home on tomorrow’s train – good luck for the coming year.

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Canadian Review of Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

A positive review for Nick’s book in the Canadian online journal Macleans.

By

First Published in Macleans 1 November 2014.

In December 1933, an 18-year-old Englishman by the name of Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor set off to walk the width of Europe, from Rotterdam to Istanbul. He packed little more than some clothes, several letters of introduction and the Oxford Book of English Verse—to live “like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar.” It was a time before the horrors of fascism and Soviet-style Communism had taken hold, and much of Eastern Europe was still semi-feudal. (While he spent many nights in barns and shepherds’ huts, Paddy also enjoyed the hospitality of castle-dwelling counts and barons.) The accounts of his adventures, the lyrical memoir A Time of Gifts, and its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water—both elaborate love letters to a pre-war Europe—won him international acclaim.

Hunt was also 18 when he discovered Paddy’s travelogues and, before he’d finished reading them, “knew with absolute certainty that one day [he] would follow in [Paddy’s] footsteps, retracing his route through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, in search of whatever was left of wildness and adventure.” And so he did. In December 2011, Hunt left his own London home and, for the next 221 days and 4,000 km, undertook his own pilgrimage: “Beyond buying roadmaps and putting out calls for accommodation, I deliberately did no research into where I was going,” Hunt writes of his preparations. “Paddy’s books, eight decades out of date, would be my only travel guide. With his experience underlying my own, I would see what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, . . . the mysterious, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth and story I believed—or longed to believe—still flowed beneath Europe’s surface.”

On an oft-perilous trip riddled with obstacles not seen in Paddy’s time—hydroelectric dams, industrial wastelands and multi-lane highways—and despite injuries that sometimes laid him up for weeks, Hunt prevailed. “In every country of my walk,” he writes, “I encountered kindness and generosity that Paddy would have recognized.”

Is is when recounting that generosity— from the strangers who invite him into their homes, to the colourful characters who, over beer, fruit brandy or tea, reveal their grievances, prejudices and aspirations—that Hunt’s writing shines brightest. And while his descriptions of landscapes can occasionally feel as plodding as his pace of travel, some are downright breathtaking. Atop the Balkan mountain range in Bulgaria, he writes, “Here and there, the green skin that covered the mountain had pulled away, as if tugged back by giant fingers, and jumbled rock burst out like sausage meat.”

Overall, Hunt makes an enormously appealing narrator and guide on the road less travelled: curious, sharp-eyed, insightful and intrepid—not unlike his predecessor, who died at the age of 96, just six months before Hunt began his trip. Sadly for Hunt, it was before he could send the letter he planned to write “to tell him I was on my way.”

Go east – the people get nicer, even if their dogs get nastier

Artemis Cooper’s review of Nick Hunt’s ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’. Hunt retraces the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor across the suburban wastelands of Holland to the woods of Transylvania.

by Artemis Cooper

First published in The Spectator 10 April 2014.

When Nick Hunt first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his youthful trudge across Europe in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, he knew ‘with absolute certainty’ that one day he would make that journey himself. When I embarked on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s biography, I made an equally firm resolve that I wouldn’t walk a step of it. Paddy’s books had left me with a vision of a timeless Europe suspended somewhere between memory and imagination, and I didn’t want that vision distorted by layers of personal impressions.

But to Hunt the books posed a question. Eighty years on, was there anything left of the ‘gifts’ Paddy had enjoyed in prewar Europe? Was there still room enough for wildness, freedom and spontaneous hospitality? In this moving and profoundly honest book, the answer is ‘yes’.

Hunt was in his late twenties when he set out from London, and he got off to a bad start. In Holland and Germany he was obliged to walk for miles on tarmac, under motorways and across industrial and suburban wastelands. He had done no prior training — after all Paddy hadn’t, and what was more natural than walking? The result was tendonitis so severe that he was laid up for a week in Ulm, cursing his stupidity and looked after by a couple called Dierk and Dora.

He found that the kindness of strangers — who included musicians, caretakers, house-painters and Buddhist soap-makers —  was an ever recurring miracle. And like the grandees Paddy met, Hunt’s benefactors contacted their friends and relatives, urging them to help the traveller too. He found these guardian angels online, through the Couch Surfing network. Their website is designed to weed out loonies, but it still requires a high level of trust — a trust that was never misplaced. His hosts gave him food and drink, took him to the pub, lent him their laptops — and not once did he feel uncomfortable or threatened by them. At the same time, Hunt was more willing than Paddy to brave the elements. He often slept in the open, twice in sub-zero temperatures; and he became expert at ‘castle-squatting’ — finding snug holes in ancient walls.

As he walked on, the industrial sprawl gave way to landscapes that Paddy would have recognised. Hunt is often haunted by the ‘unimaginable inhumanity that lay between his walk and mine’, but at the same time many things remained startlingly similar. Swapping cigarettes is still a great ice-breaker; the sheepskin coats and cross-gartered moccasins were gone, but in a bar one morning Hunt could see that all the men there had known each other since childhood, and worked in adjoining
fields. Hungary still mourned the loss of Transylvania like an amputation, and still hated the Romanians. Just like Paddy, Hunt was told that the moment he entered Romania he would be attacked by bears, gypsies, wolves and thieves. But as the author observes, people became nicer as he travelled eastwards, although their dogs got nastier.

Hunt is not Paddy, and never pretends to be. Baroque architecture and princely lineage leave him cold, and he never plunges into historical speculation or conjures fantasies out of thin air. But one of the most moving passages in the book tells of his meeting with Ileana Teleki, the great-granddaughter of Count Jeno Teleki, one of Paddy’s hosts in Transylvania. With her, he visits a number of the country houses described in Between the Woods; but now they are gutted, abandoned or used to shelter those who would never recover from the experience of being a Romanian orphan: ‘Traumatised children,’ writes Hunt, ‘housed in the ruins of a traumatised culture.’

The reader familiar with Paddy’s oeuvre will find that something of him has rubbed off on Hunt, which is hardly surprising: he took no other books on the journey, and he feels intimately connected to his predecessor. So in walking through the wooded Pilis Hills, or in watching for changes in physiognomy as he crosses from one territory to another, he is — consciously or unsconsciously — paying homage to Paddy by absorbing his way of looking at things.

At the same time, I’ve learnt so much from the vivid way Hunt describes the physiological effects of trudging on for month after month. Sometimes it brings a sense of unlimited freedom, sometimes joy, sometimes an extraordinary, dreamlike dislocation, always accompanied by a dazzling sharpness of hearing and vision. I see now how that youthful walk informed so much of Paddy’s style. Before embarking on his journey, Hunt was going to write to Paddy. The letter was never written, and by the time he set off, Paddy was dead. How touched and fascinated he would have been to read this book.

Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

Nicholas Brearley, pp.336, £10.99, ISBN: 9781857886177

Publication day for Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

Walking the Woods and the Water

Walking the Woods and the Water

Today marks a very important day for Nick Hunt as it is the publication day of his wonderful first book, Walking the Woods and the Water which describes his 2011-2012 journey walking in Paddy’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul.

Many of you will be familiar with the background and even supported Nick financially by donating to his crowd funding site which I publicised here under the title of “£1 a Week”. Since then we have been able to keep up with Nick following his return as he sought a new publisher and gave some thoughtful and entertaining public lectures.

I am sure Nick will now be in greater demand as this book is a gem. As I wrote a few weeks ago this is no simple homage to Paddy. It is a unique work of one man’s often very painful journey over eight months. The story is inhabited by interesting characters and is at times a very intimate work. We get very close to Nick and his thoughts during that long walk.

As a walker myself, one of the things missing from ATOG and BTWW was any mention of the pains of walking (we get some hint in The Broken Road when a hobnail from his boot puts Paddy in a lot of pain in Bulgaria). Whilst Paddy may have been lucky, it would be very surprising if he had not experienced some discomfort, and even fear, during his journey. Nick brings all this alive with gritty descriptions.

Nick does draw parallels with Paddy’s writing for his aim was to see what had changed during the last 80 turbulent years in Europe. Whilst his conclusion is that much has changed, there is also much that has not, in particular the attitudes and prejudices of the people he encounters.

I hope that there will be many positive reviews which will help Nick to achieve good sales, and it is not my intention to write a review as such. All I can say is that the book is a very enjoyable read; a wonderful read. It offers a major contribution to travel writing and it will inspire many of those that read the book to set out on journeys of their own, especially to Central and Eastern Europe.

If you enjoy reading my blog, and want to make a link with Paddy and his adventures, I ask you to buy a copy of Walking the Woods and the Water today. Unfortunately the book is only available in paperback, but I guarantee that you will enjoy it. If you don’t please contact me or make a comment, and I will surely post your comments here.

And it you doubt me, read what some others have said:

‘Nick Hunt has written a glorious book, rich with insight and wit, about walking his way both across and into contemporary Europe. He set out as an homage to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s legendary tramp across Europe in the early 1930s, but his journey became – of course – an epic adventure in its own right. A book about gifts, modernity, endurance and landscape, it represents a fine addition to the literature of the leg.’Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

This moving and profoundly honest book sometimes brings a sense of unlimited freedom, sometimes joy, sometimes an extraordinary, dream-like dislocation: always accompanied by a dazzling sharpness of hearing and vision. I see now how that youthful walk informed so much of Paddy s style. Before setting out Hunt was going to write to Paddy. The letter was never written, and by the time he set off, Paddy was dead. How touched and fascinated he would have been to read this book. –Artemis Cooper, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure and co-editor The Broken Road

‘Vivid and hard-won’ Giles Foden inConde Nast Traveller

‘Delightful, balanced and extremely well-written…an impressive and timely effort. A worthy literary tribute to the classic of British travel writing.’ –Vitali Vitaliev, author of Passport to Enclavia

‘A most enjoyable read and a worthy tribute to the originals’ –Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

‘Walking in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor from Rotterdam to Constantinople, Nick Hunt found that, 78 years later, everything and nothing has changed–Daily Telegraph interview with author

Walking the Woods and the Water is published by Nicholas Brealey (336pp), is available in paperback only and is ready to order from Amazon. Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn

The Broken Road: retracing the steps of a wild adventure

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

Walking through the continent, Nick saw the scenic beauty of Transylvania

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.

Paddy’s first passport photo

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.

The Rhine

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.

Rotterdam

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.

Paddy on horseback in Moldova

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.