Walking the Woods and the Water

In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor walked across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Forty years later he would record the trip -- an insightful glance into pre-WWII Europe -- in his famous trilogy, beginning with A Time of Gifts. Now readers can return to his route through the travels of Nick Hunt, who began his own "great trudge" in 2011, walking in the footsteps of Fermor through eight countries and capturing, in his new book Walking the Woods and the Water, a modern-day version of the unexpected hospitality and exhilarating freedom of the open road. When Hunt read Fermor’s account at age 18, he dreamed of traveling the world. At the age of thirty he embarked, trekking some 2,500 miles through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Like Fermor, Hunt relies on the hospitality of locals -- unlike Fermor, he has the benefit of internet tools such as couch surfing to help him find those friendly havens. Otherwise Hunt opts out of internet research, relying only on Fermor’s words to guide him on his route.

Fortunately, Hunt does not depend on those words too much. With such a rich store of observations to draw from, it would be tempting for any writer to count on Fermor to describe the scenes. Instead Hunt quotes sparingly and poignantly, mainly to make comparisons between his own observations of present-day Europe and the past, which, in Fermor’s time, was on the brink of immense transformation -- mainly through the destruction of war. There is an impending sense of doom in Fermor’s memoirs, written in hindsight with the knowledge of the devastation that was to follow, as if each village and hostel he leaves will be consumed by darkness as soon as he is gone, friends and hosts disappearing into the chaos and violence of the following days.

While Hunt does not observe the immediate aftermath of war, the landscape of Europe has been drastically altered in other ways, and, in some cases, destroyed. Highways and industry greet Hunt at the outskirts of cities, concrete walkways give him shin splints and even the great river itself, the mighty Danube, has been tamed by dams. “ ‘Everything is going to vanish!’ ” raves a prophetic character in Time of A Gifts who Fermor calls “the polymath.” “ ‘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!’ ” Hunt sees this haunting prophesy fulfilled.

But not all is grim nostalgia -- much of Hunt’s journey is an affirmation of the spirit of the open road and of the simple generosity and camaraderie that comes when the traveler puts himself at the mercy of others' hospitality. While many of Fermor’s aristocratic friends’ homes are now in ruin or have been transformed into state-run hospitals for orphans or mental patients (which doesn’t stop Hunt from staying in them), much of the landscape -- deep valleys, mountain ranges and stretches of open steppe -- remains unaltered. When crossing these grand vistas, Hunt is not above waxing poetic -- not unlike his predecessor -- to the great reward of the reader who is happy for an excuse to return with him to the well-trodden route.