On Sunday 30th April 2017, I said a tearful goodbye to family and friends at Liverpool Street station and took a bus to the port at Harwich. I was about to embark on a literary hike in the footsteps of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, walking in memory of my dear friend Harriet, who had died of bowel cancer the year before at the age of 32. At the time I wanted to stay off social media and let Slightly Foxed do the work for me.
When I got back people wanted to hear about my trip, and it seemed to me that the things I had found most joyful sounded like small fry compared to other adventures I had read about. No grand romances, attacks by bears/men/gypsies (as I had been warned, if you can believe it) or general derring-do. Instead, tiny wonderful incidents. I now feel ready to share some of it. I hope it might inspire you to have a little adventure of your own. Joy is not meant to be a crumb.
In memory of Harriet, as ever. But also with my cousin Charlie in mind, as he continues to tell this awful disease to f*** off in his own brilliant way.
1st May 2017: The Hook of Holland – Dordrecht, the Netherlands
The sloping houses of Dordrecht greeted me at the end of my first day of walking in the Netherlands. I had been weaving back and forth towards the Neue Maas river since my arrival in Rotterdam Centraal early that morning, trudging along cycle paths past low-slung houses and flat fields dotted with irritable sheep and freight containers, my pack seeming to gather weight with every half mile. During the afternoon I thought I saw a barge floating across a field, only to discover a hidden waterway running through the crops. Some things had changed since Paddy walked this way in 1933, but many things hadn’t.
Like Paddy’s, my route was to be navigated by rivers, and I arrived in Dordrecht at the meeting point of the Merwede, Oude Maas and Noorde. I felt kindly towards the town, once a thriving port but now a stately old dame, particularly as it meant I’d made it through day one. Allegedly, a lovesick Proust called it “a place so beautiful, tomb of my cherished illusions.” After the sprawling outskirts of Rotterdam it certainly felt like stepping into a scene from The Miniaturist. On this street (Wijnstraat, near a turning to Schrijversstraat), I could hear someone practising the piano and, soon afterwards, found a noisy café serving warm apple cake and bowls of coffee: the ideal spot for diary-writing. Later that evening, my host Wouter – a baby-faced single dad who loaned me his daughter’s bedroom – served a supper of potato cakes and beer, while acting interpreter for his father, who told me the history of the area, and the story a local nobleman who, imprisoned in a tower during medieval times, managed to escape in a basket of books lowered down on a string. I’m not sure whether it was fact or fiction, but I’d like to believe it was the former.
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The story about the man escaping prison in a box of books is true! Ariana Batata, another Instagram user, put me straight. It was a chest of books (not a basket), the man was Hugo de Groot and it was Loevestein Castle, on the banks of the Waal. I had forgotten this detail, and the fact that - had I not diverted my route on Day 3 due to an unanticipated tributary - I would have seen the castle for myself.
De Groot is celebrated as one of the greatest Dutch thinkers (a Milton of the Netherlands?) and, even though he was imprisoned for his radical thinking, he was still allowed book post. Most civilised. In 1621, after three years in captivity, de Groot managed to escape from Loevestein in a book chest.
If you’d like to read more, there’s a handy digest on the Dutch Review. Pictured: De Groot and wife Maria van Reigersbergen and said escape chest.
2nd May 2017: Dordrecht – Gorinchem, the Netherlands
The rain started as I headed out of Dordrecht; by the time I reached the ferry crossing at Kop van Het Land a fine mizzle had descended, blotting out everything but my immediate surroundings: watery meadows, polders, creeks and hundreds of wildfowl, who provided company with their chorus of quacks and honks and chattering – but alas no sighting of the beavers Wouter had promised. It was a twitcher’s delight.
Arriving in the tiny town of Werkendem after several wind-and-water-swept miles, I was desperate for warmth and shelter. However, everything was shut on Tuesdays. A kind woman named Didi took pity and gave me a lift to the next village, Sleeuwijk, where a café was still open and where I was due to catch another waterbus over to Gorinchem. As I got into the car I made a bad joke about being too tired to be any danger as a hitchhiker. The sun was beating down on the Merwede by the time I reached Sleeuwijk’s jetty. The houses nearby, like the one pictured, were straight out of a picture book, goats and chickens grazing in the gardens. The waterbus dispensed school children, cyclists and a motorbike before we puttered over to Gorinchem.
That night I was hosted by Jeroen and Daphne, a cosmopolitan couple in their thirties, who sent me off for a bath before dinner. Over steak and red wine, I had my first encounter with Sissi - the Princess Diana of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - who I was to come across time and time again en route to Budapest (in this case, played by Romy Schneider in the eponymous film).
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Romy Schneider as Sissi, in the 1955 Austrian film directed by Ernst Marischka.
My style icon
I can’t write about my trip without an ode to this woman: my grandmother and general style icon, Pamela Ann de Lisle Godsal, whose walking headscarf (pictured) I wore throughout my hike. She mostly dressed head-to-toe in Jaeger, but on occasion she donned walk-wear (she also hated being photographed, so this is a rarity). Picture from the 1970s, somewhere in America, I think.
3rd May 2017: Woudrichem – Neerijnen, the Netherlands
Map – a derivative of Margaret – approached me, carrying a pot of jam, as I sat on bench in the drizzle in the village of Zuilichem about to eat my sandwiches. She offered me a cup of coffee by the fire. Her home, a few minutes away, was a beautiful converted barn with green-silled windows filled with orchids and, underneath, shelves holding acres of books. After hanging my dripping mac and waterproof trousers in the bathroom, Map pulled a chair close to the fire and served me coffee and cream with shards of crystallised sugar. Her husband, Henkel, returned from his errands and they proceeded to tell me, in halting English, about their travels. They were now in their late 80s, but had spent their retirement travelling all over the Middle East. Then Henkel told me an amazing thing: as a child he spent time in England. Grantham, to be precise, in 1946. After the war, malnourished Dutch children were taken to England to be fed back to health. As Map heated a bowl of asparagus soup for me eat, Henkel told me he had never forgotten this kindness from the Brits, and was happy to return the favour by giving me lunch.
Back on the road, I had a call from a local journalist. He asked if I’d be happy to be photographed by their photographer, Cor de Kock. Harriet would have dined out for days on that name. Cor kept me waiting on the Waaldijk for an hour and a half, so - already camera shy - I was not particularly disposed to doing a photo shoot by the time he arrived. However, we soon made friends and he drove me to a picturesque windmill to do the shoot before giving me a lift to Neerijnen, my stopping point for the night. That evening was to be one of my favourite stays of the trip.
4th May 2017: Neerijnen – Ophemert, the Netherlands
Jet (a diminutive of Harriet) was introduced to me by Jon Day, a judge on my last Man Booker. She’d taught his mother piano as a girl. I’d been apprehensive about spending my evening with this mystery piano teacher, not least because of the milk-and-cookies Dutch grandmother Jeroen had conjured up. Instead, I was greeted by a beautifully animated woman with a cloud of white hair, intelligent eyes and a wicked bark of a laugh. She confessed that she’d put away her cigarettes and wine before I arrived, because she thought that someone doing a trip like mine would have ‘high morals’. I quickly put her straight and we enjoyed these vices for the rest of the evening.
Jet lived in an old schoolhouse filled with art and books. Her brother is a well-known artist, and everywhere you looked there were little jewel-like canvases. Before dinner, she took me to visit a neighbour’s garden, filled with riotous beds of tulips, apologising for her own untamed wilderness which I rather loved. We dined on fresh radishes and asparagus risotto in her smoky kitchen whilst swapping travel stories, book recommendations and sharing our love of dogs (her downstairs loo was papered with art depicting women with dogs, something to do with Chekhov’s The Lady and the Dog, as I recall). Aside from her teaching, Jet narrated audiobooks for the blind; her latest project, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, sat on the kitchen table. The next morning, she recommended Harry Mulisch as her Dutch writer of choice. We ate a hearty breakfast of avocado, cheese and eggs before I reluctantly set off for Ophemert; I could have stayed for a month.
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Obligatory tulip shot, taken during the golden hour in Jet’s neighbour’s garden.
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Breakfast table at Jet’s.
5th May 2017: Ophemert – Tiel
My final day in the Netherlands. I’d spent the night in an eco-farm. The owner, Ellen-Rose, brought me a breakfast tray of home-made yoghurt and muesli with dried pears and apples from the orchard. Chickens shuffled by outside the window. It was an entirely ‘moralistic' experience of which Jet would have approved.
Despite my now blistered feet and the threat of rain, I made it to Tiel in good time, rejoining the Waal, a river I now held in great affection. Bells were ringing out when I reached the town. It was Freedom Day, a national celebration of the end of German occupation; all the villages I’d passed through were decked with orange bunting. Ellen-Rose had told me that, to celebrate, planes still do fly-overs and drop bread, as the Allies had during the war.
I didn't linger in Tiel. A train bore me to Arnhem, where I got a connection to Cologne, my first stop in Germany. It felt strange to be travelling at speed again. I exchanged walking boots for plimsolls, my t-shirt for a merino sweater. At Elst, the conductor announced the exchange to Nijmegen. I felt a small pang that I wouldn't be stopping at that point on Paddy's route, but also relief that I was missing out on what is now a very industrial approach to Cologne.
At Arnhem I saw a train headed for Winterswijk and thought of my great-grandfather Philip. A prisoner of war during World War One, Philip escaped from Germany by jumping out of a train and walking to the Dutch border. It was deep winter and he had to travel under cover of night, hiding in barns by day. Winterswijk, not far from Arnhem, was where he crossed over to safety and was given a hero's welcome by the townspeople.
6th May 2017: Cologne – Alfter-Impekoven, Germany
Jule, a friend’s cousin, had offered to show me Cologne. As we meandered down towards the cathedral and the Rhine, Jule pointed out the tiny brass stolperstein, or stumbling stones, on pavements that denote the homes of those who died at the hands of the Nazis. Once you’ve noticed them, you can’t believe the extraordinary number. Whole streets of families lost. Jule was proud of her city’s unflinching acceptance of its past and its open-minded, expansive present. Serene and blue-eyed with a look of Scarlett Johansson, she was the youngest person I’d met on my hike. She was studying at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and split her time between there and Cologne. After climbing the cathedral (I almost had a panic attack at the top of its 533 steps), we ate ice creams next to the river and talked about her plans to live abroad after graduating.
Later that day, I caught a train to a hillside village just outside Bonn. I was spending the night inland with Julia, an old school friend, at the home of her sister, Netti (short for Marie-Antoinette). Julia and I hadn’t seen each other since we were 18. Back then, she was a mischievous, urbane girl with a constant stash of Marlboro Reds. I hoped she hadn’t changed too much. Walking up to Netti’s, I noticed this cheery dog and ball. I would see a lot of end-of-terrace houses with weird and wonderful wall art as I made my way down the Rhine.
7th May 2017: Alfter-Impekoven – Coblenz, Germany
Sunday breakfast was a raucous affair. Netti and Julia had a bevy of white-blonde children between them, and there were about 12 of us around the table munching on rolls with cheese and cherry jam, a family favourite.
I’d arrived in time for dinner the night before. There was another pilgrim at the table: a solemn sixty-something-year-old woman in hiking gear, she seemed a much more likely candidate for alms than me in my culottes and scuffed plimsolls. She was walking the Jakobsweg, the German stretch of the Camino, and had been on the road for weeks. Once all the children and animals had been dispatched to bed, Netti (pictured), Julia and I settled in a cosy library with claret walls and white bookshelves filled with lovely editions of Rilke. We talked schooldays, Brexit and books, and discovered a mutual teenage love for Georgette Heyer. Surprisingly, the sisters had inherited a passion for Heyer from their father; they painted a wonderful picture of the Graf holed up in his library reading Regency romances. We headed off to bed without having resolved a disagreement about who should have inherited their father's Heyer collection.
My next stop was Coblenz, where I was staying with a military family. The rain had closed in again and the Rhine Gorge was veiled in mist. My heart leapt at a glimpse of schloss on a hill before the train moved on and it was hidden from sight. I imagine Paddy felt equally enthusiastic about seeing hills after the lowlands.
Michael and Martina were the antithesis of what I expected from a German colonel and his wife. Martina had laid out kaffe und kuchen for my arrival: a plum crumble cake with cream and a pot of coffee. We sat around the table all afternoon and they told me about their various UN postings, and how international couples learnt each other’s languages by playing Trivial Pursuit. Michael patiently explained German politics and the Bundesland. That evening we anxiously awaited the results of the French election; thanks to Macron’s victory, we went to bed happy.
The inspiration for my walk
Paddy Leigh Fermor has cult status in many circles. Aside from the books and fansites dedicated to him, there is a Hollywood film - Ill Met by Moonlight - based on his exploits during World War Two, and there’s currently an exhibition centred on him and fellow artists in Greece at The British Museum. However, whilst I love Paddy’s prose, it wasn’t really the man who inspired me to walk so much as the idea of crossing Europe post-Brexit. The idea of an epic walk had already been seeded in my mind by someone much closer to home, years before Paddy entered my life.
My aunt Alice, pictured with my paternal grandmother (more on her another time), was the real inspiration. Growing up in Army camps and strict boarding schools, my role models were limited. However, my bohemian, feminist aunt had a thrilling, subversive glamour that inspired me then and continues to do so now. She was the one who walked barefoot to India in the 1970s; the one who, I found out recently, lived with Imrat Khan for a year; the one who pretty much single-handedly brought up three funny, brilliant boys; the one who - it was said - did belly dancing classes (the thought of my mother doing this filled me with horror); the one who always asked to read the overblown little stories I’d written, encouraging me to keep on writing and to articulate my thoughts. She made me, a shy little girl, feel important, like I had fire worth stoking.
Alice died much earlier than she should have. I wish I’d had more time to get to know her, now that I’m an adult. But what an extraordinary woman to learn from. I hope everyone has an Alice in their life, to show them it’s possible to challenge the status quo, and to thrive doing so.
Anyone who knows me will also see who I inherited my baleful glare from…
8th May 2017 Coblenz – Boppard, Germany
I slept through my alarm and awoke to the Colonel knocking on my door. Looking at my bleary-eyed appearance, he suggested breakfast en famille (i.e. in pyjamas). Michael and Martina were clearly keen to feed me up; the table was groaning with crusty rolls, hams, cheeses and a boiled egg with its own pink cosy.
Michael dropped me off at Deutsche Eck, or German Corner, the point in Coblenz where two great rivers - the Rhine and the Moselle - meet. I was to follow the Rhine. I set off, pockets loaded with more rolls and Michael watching after me with fatherly concern.
I was entering the UNESCO-protected Upper Middle Rhine Valley, which ran for 40 miles from Coblenz to Bingen. In A Time of Gifts, Paddy does the journey in a day, which I find hard to believe, painting an enchanting tableau of Christmas Eve spent in a little Gasthof in Bingen. I was planning to take it slow – at most 10 miles a day – allowing plenty of time to enjoy the landscape and the vineyards. I would be joined in Boppard that evening by Rich, Harriet’s husband, and my friends Sarah and Rob. We would be together to mark Harriet’s birthday on the 10th of May.
Castles appeared at every bend in the river. At Stolzenfels (pictured), I warmed up in an inn, devouring a plate of apple strudel. I was going to get fat if I carried on eating this volume of food, but it seemed the only way to keep warm. Approaching Boppard I met Hans, a spritely pensioner on his evening constitutional. Over the next three miles, he told me about his classic car collection in great detail. It was a great relief when Sarah called to say they’d arrived...
9th May 2017: Boppard – St Goar, Germany
The warm weather arrived with my friends and remained for the rest of the trip. As we breakfasted in a sunny Boppard square ahead of the day’s walking, it seemed impossible that my hands had been turning blue in Stolzenfels just the day before. Being surrounded by familiar faces – with the welcome addition of Sarah and Rob’s gloriously cheerful 6-month-old, Sebastian (Baz was honouring me by sharing his first holiday abroad) – was disconcerting and comforting in equal measure after eight days of walking alone and staying with strangers.
Their visit had an auspicious start. The night before I had been delighted to discover, in a smoky little inn in Bacharach, that they still served Rhenish and Mosel wine in glasses with different coloured stems, just as Paddy had described: dark green for Rhenish, dark amber for Mosel. These, along with the taciturn smokers, yapping dogs and matronly landlady who served up vast golden schnitzels to accompany our beers, created a certain timelessness. It wasn’t hard to imagine Paddy scribbling in the same spot some 80 years earlier.
Rich and I left Sarah and Rob in Boppard and walked downriver at a slow pace, unencumbered by heavy backpacks and with plenty of time to amble, talk and stop for cold beers whenever the mood took us. The road that winds along the river between Boppard and Sankt Goar is fairly unremarkable once you acclimatise to the castles. The river was wide and fast-flowing, flanked by steep hillsides covered in lush vegetation or the serried terraces of the numerous vineyards on that part of the Rhine. The busy flow of cargo barges and tour-boats was in stark contrast with the languor of the sleepy towns we stopped in, where we were often the only ones sitting in the sunshine with a beer.
It was asparagus season, and every pub menu and grocer’s board announced fresh spargel in loud capitals. That evening, we ate the long, pale stalks dipped in melted butter and salt. In summary, it was a very fine day. This picture, taken as Rich and I set off that morning, is one of my favourites from the trip.
10th May 2017: St Goar – Bacharach, Germany
Harriet’s birthday. If a person can be May-like, Harriet was. Bright, warm and full of promise. May was a month defined by her life, not her death. It was for this very reason I set off on my hike on the 1st of May.
It could have been a depressing day, but somehow it wasn’t. We woke up to a powder-blue sky. The bright sunlight picked out every detail, from the sharp green shrubs growing up slate cliffs to the ornate golden lions decorating pub signs (these deserved an Instagram feed of their own). We bought salted pretzels in Sankt Goar and wandered slowly downriver, the valley narrowing as we went, cliffs rising steeply up each side. It wasn’t long before we reached the famous Lorelei Rock, named after a spurned woman, or a siren who lured bargees to their death, depending on which legend you read. It marks the most dangerous point in the river for boats. Sadly, we were on the wrong side of the water to see the bronze statue of the forlorn Lorelei, shrouded in her long hair. The river broadened again after that point, the banks studded with castles silhouetted against the bright blue. At Oberwesel, we found the perfect spot in a pub garden shaded with vines and raised our beers to Harriet.
We’d saved our wine-tasting for that evening, to toast Harriet and celebrate the half-way point of my walk. We met Sarah and Rob in a picturesque inn in Bacharach (pictured). Sarah and I ate tarte flambée, dripping with tangy white cheese and ham. Rob and Rich made the mistake of ordering wild boar in aspic despite our warnings; it looked like someone had upended a tin of cat food on the plate. Harriet would have laughed at that. Rich certainly didn’t. Thankfully there was good wine.
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The serried vines outside the apartment in Bacharach.
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On the subject of German signage, this was a personal favourite.
11th May 2017: Bacharach – Bingen – Frankfurt, Germany
Our last day on the Rhine. After breakfast Rob drove us up into the hills above Bacharach (pictured) to see the valley from above. It’ll come as no surprise that I had the soundtrack from The Sound of Music on a loop in my head.
Sarah joined us on the walk from Bacharach to Bingen. This stretch of the Rhine – with its quiet towns, picture-perfect window boxes stuffed with geraniums and steady stream of tourist boats – was like a grand old lady, well-preserved but a little lacking in spirit. We made it into Bingen in time for a swift drink in the park opposite the Mouse Tower (Mäuseturm) - a solitary tower on its own little island, where a corrupt Archbishop of Mainz was eaten alive by mice in 974 according to popular lore - before Rich and I said a hurried goodbye to Sarah, Rob and Baz and jumped on a train to Frankfurt.
We spent the evening with Giovanna and Gerti, two delightful, animated friends of 30 years or so who finished each other's sentences and talked nineteen to the dozen in heavily-accented English (Italian in Giovanna’s case, Austrian in Gerti’s). As we ate asparagus risotto in Giovanna’s Frankfurt apartment, they told us how the Germans honour asparagus season: the long pale stalks, grown underground, are on every menu in May and June, but shops are forbidden to sell them when the season ends. After dinner we strolled into the city centre and Giovanna told us how Frankfurt had once been a thriving part of the European jewel trade; I’d only known it for book fairs and banking. The medieval buildings in the centre were artful reconstructions, the originals nearly all destroyed following heavy Allied bombardment during World War Two. There was much to see, but I had a train to catch early the next morning.
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The lovely Sarah, Rob and Sebastian. We bought Baz - Sebastian is such a mouthful for such a small chap – a fold-out map of the river for his bedroom wall. Perhaps he’ll walk it too one day.
12th May 2017: Frankfurt, Germany – Vienna, Austria
I snuck out of Giovanna’s flat at 5am and caught the s-Bahn to Frankfurt Hbf. My uncle, a train buff, had generously bought me a first-class ticket on the Frankfurt-Vienna train, so I sat in luxury drinking café crèmes as the train sped away across Germany to Austria. We travelled through dense woodland wreathed in low-lying mists yet to be burnt off by the sun. As we neared Passau, I glimpsed a glassy, silver-green river snaking by: the Danube. My schoolfriend Julia had talked longingly of Passau, her university town, with its white houses mirrored in the water. There were white churches with russet and teal spires topped with gold crosses and, in one case, a cockerel, glinting in the sunlight. The beauty of the morning filled me with a great sadness that Harriet couldn't share this with me.
Mackerel clouds gathered as we approached Vienna. Lotti was waiting for me on the platform at Vienna Hbf, umbrella in hand. We headed to her flat in Grinzing to drop my bag before exploring the city. On the tram she pointed out endless monuments which I attempted to remember. We stopped at the flat for an espresso - my eyelids were beginning to droop - and took in the panoramic view of the city through the pots of miniature orchids on her windowsills and admired the immediate view over a vineyard. Grinzing, she told me, was and still is a favoured weekend watering hole for the Viennese and this vineyard was the first of many on the outskirts of the city. Paddy refers to the popular ditty ‘I’d like to be in Grinzing again / With the wine, the wine, the wine’ in A Time of Gifts.
Lotti is Hungarian but has lived in Vienna since her teens. Her family – a long line of doctors – fled to Vienna in the 1980s. She referenced a chilling tradition of Hungarian schools asking child monitors to report on their peers. I’d just read Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, and the League of St Alexander sprang to mind. She is very proud of her adopted city and took me past all the best spots (including this wonderful apothecary) and tested me on my film knowledge (The Third Man and Before Sunrise). I failed miserably.
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The café from After Sunset, which I failed to recognise…
13th May 2017: Vienna, Austria
We kicked off the day with a trip to Lotti’s local coffeehouse. The Viennese are notoriously particular about their coffee and, after consulting a dizzyingly long list, Lotti diagnosed me as a Melange drinker. Lotti took my Austrian gastronomical experience very seriously, even down to giving me a stack of Manner’s Neapolitan Wafers to put in my backpack for the next few days’ walking. The Viennese eat these on mountain hikes in the same way the Brits snack on Kendal Mint Cake. The retro peach packaging and highly crushable wafers seemed far from practical, but I was very happy to give them a go.
We collected my friend Janine (who was joining me for the two-day Vienna-Bratislava stretch) from the station and had a very enjoyable afternoon tramping around the city. Lotti insisted on paying for everything as our host; I would try and settle bills behind her back, but she kept on second-guessing me. She swore this was the way it was done.
After lunch we took in the Klimts at the Belvedere, drank spritzers at the glorious Palm House in the Burggarten, ate the obligatory sachertorte at Hotel Sacher (Lotti left us for the theatre at this point, disappointed in us for such unoriginality), snacked on a low-calorie amuse-bouche of spätzle served by a waiter in eye-wateringly short leather lederhosen and finally ate dinner at Brezlgwolb (pictured), a lamp-lit cave of a restaurant Lotti had recommended, decorated with old iron pretzel signs in homage to its former life as a bakery. After a dinner of (you guessed it) paper-thin schnitzel and a deliciously vinegary potato salad, we downed schnapps to wake up. Janine said it was like drinking ethanol, but it revived us for long enough to roll back to our hotel near the station, ready for an early start the next morning.
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The gloriously kitsch packaging of Manner Neapolitan Wafers, the hazelnut cream-filled snack beloved by the Viennese. Manner call them ‘the taste of Vienna... a symbol of Viennese culture and lifestyle’. Once you recognise the branding, it’s hard to disagree. It’s everywhere.
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Another favourite Austrian brand was Almdudler’s Alpine herb lemonade (second picture) with its jaunty couple in traditional dress. Apparently, it started life in the 1950s as a wedding gift from Erwin Klein to his bride, Ingrid, and you find it on bottles and glasses all over Austria.
I was delighted to discover you can find these and excellent sachertorte at Kipferl on Camden Passage. Between Kipferl and Fischer’s on Marylebone High Street, I can live out my Eva Ibbotson fantasies. If you’ve ever read Ibbotson’s descriptions of Viennese cooking, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
14th May 2017: Fischamend – Bad Deutsch-Altenburg, Austria
Mother's Day in Austria. It had rained in fits and starts during my two days in Vienna, but we awoke to cornflower skies. We caught the train to Fischamend, the little town just outside Vienna where Paddy began his walk eastwards along the Danube.
I almost jumped for joy on seeing my first white stork, nestled neatly on a chimney. A little illustration of the bird appears on each chapter head in A Time of Gifts, and I’d been longing to catch sight of one. I’d only ever seen them depicted on greeting cards but had read wonderful stories about towns and villages welcoming back their storks each year. The birds winter in Africa and then return to Europe each April to breed.
Janine and I were in high spirits as we set off along the river path. It was an extraordinarily beautiful morning. A light wind rustled leaves and the wide river was flanked by weeping willows and dotted with little wooden fishing cabins. We were having a fine time discussing our Desert Island Discs choices when the path stopped abruptly. Peering at the map, we realised that a small tributary separated us from the other side of the bank for some miles. It took us another hour and a half to get back to Fischamend.
Reluctantly we jumped back on the train so that we would arrive in Petronell on schedule. On the way we passed the Roman gateway Paddy mentions, marooned in lush fields. We were tempted to walk out to it from Petronell, but that meant another hour’s walk in the wrong direction under a hot sun. Instead we sheltered in a pub with a lemon beer and planned the rest of our walk to Bad Deutsch-Altenburg, a spa town known for its iodine and sulphur springs.
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Title page of Between the Woods and the Water, the book that follows A Time of Gifts, which also features illustrations of storks.
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Fishing cabin on the Danube, just outside Fischamend.
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We were walking through the site of Carnuntum, a thriving Roman city where Marcus Aurelius wrote part of his Meditations. Little plaques featuring snippets of his philosophy appeared on the roadside. My favourite was food-related: “When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite.”
15th May 2017: Bad Deutsch-Altenburg, Austria – Bratislava, Slovakia
At a distance of 18 miles, this was to be the longest day of walking since I’d started my hike. I don’t know how Paddy made such good time each day. The weight of my backpack slowed me down significantly and made me breathless.
In the walled town of Hainburg we stocked up on supplies. We were on the edge of the Donau-Auen National Park, which runs along the Danube, and decided to hike through the woods to give ourselves a break from the tarmac. We were in high spirits. I had discovered that I’d reached my £5,000 fundraising target for Bowel Cancer UK, and Janine – London born and bred – saw wild garlic for the first time. The woods were carpeted with the white flowers, and the heady smell filled the air.
Janine was the ideal walking companion: patient, upbeat and full of wonder at the little things. The long trudge to the outskirts of Bratislava was mostly done on roads, and I was crochety and limping by the time we reached the border. Nevertheless, it was thrilling to cross between two countries on foot. My fourth country! I recall Paddy had felt the same jubilation.
No gypsies or dancing bears greeted us as we snaked up through the cobbled streets to our hotel. The castle had been rebuilt and the brothels on the Schlossberg - the lanes around it - were long gone (at least to an unknowing eye), filled instead by tourists.
As soon as we reached our hotel we grabbed a beer from the fridge and lay on our beds, legs in the air, tucking into salted crisps with relish. Afterwards, we had baths (a bath never felt so glorious!) and then went out for supper at a local restaurant under the castle. We sat in a candlelit cellar and ate duck with red cabbage, almost as ubiquitous as schnitzel in this part of the world, and toasted our arrival with plum brandy. The next morning, we would explore the town and meet Irena, a retired MEP, who was to be my host in Slovakia.
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The delighted face of a Londoner encountering wild garlic for the first time.
Janine was the first person I told about my trip. I was on the bus, on my way to meet her, when I had my epiphany after reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading. I arrived at our meeting place and blurted out that I was going to walk across Europe in Harriet’s memory, and she didn’t bat an eyelid. She has been so supportive throughout the last two years, and generous to a fault. Friends like these make the tough bits surmountable.
16th May 2017: Bratislava – Nové Zámky, Slovakia
Irena was an immaculately dressed woman in her sixties, introduced to me by my uncle Edward (they’d worked together as MEPs). She took us on a whistle-stop tour of Bratislava’s Old Town, pointing out the site of the old synagogue and the door of Academia Istropolitana, Slovakia’s oldest university. Over lunch, she gave us a brief history of the city and its once thriving Jewish Quarter, now completely destroyed. It struck me that whilst Paddy had spent his travels reimagining the Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, I’d spent mine reconstructing pre-World War Two Europe.
Irena came from a family of cancer specialists. A former Health Minister, she’d had a career of cancer campaigning; she’d had breast cancer herself and her daughters worked in the oncology department of Bratislava’s main hospital.
After lunch, we dropped Janine at the station and Irena drove me to Nové Zámky. I was due to have dinner with the mayor and his secretary. I was so tired I felt queasy and had to pinch my hands to focus on what Irena was saying. Mercifully, the mayor was otherwise engaged (he sings at La Scala in his spare time) so I ended up having dinner with Irena and the mayor's secretary, a lovely thirty-something-year-old woman called Georgina. Irena offered to drive me to Esztergom, worrying I was going to encounter bandits on the road. Georgina laughed and scolded her for perpetuating old wives’ tales. Before she left, Irena gave me a map from her car as I’d struggled to source one for the final stretch of my route. I was constantly amazed by the warmth and generosity of these people who, for a night, would treat me like a daughter or sister. Here I am looking like a Girl Guide in Nové Zámky’s main square.
17th May 2017: Nové Zámky, Slovakia – Esztergom, Hungary
Another day, another media appearance. Meghan Markle I ain’t, but it felt good to do small things for the bowel cancer cause nonetheless.
After interviews in the hotel garden, Georgina dropped me outside the village of Gbelce for the final few miles of my walk. We exchanged fond farewells and she promised to send me a bottle of slivovitz.
It was a hot day and the road, running directly south to Štúrovo, was dusty and narrow. I’d expected the last few miles to be easy but this stretch – mostly unshaded – provided no rest stops or respite from the sun. Cars and lorries thundered past at an alarming speed and there was no real verge to speak of, just a ditch filled with nettles into which I jumped a number of times. It was the first time I’d felt anxious for my safety. At one point a man stopped ahead of me and waited for me to pass. He asked if I’d like a lift, but my gut told me something was off. I hurried over a bridge and hid in some bushes behind the railway track until I was sure he had disappeared.
I limped into Štúrovo, ankles smarting, back slick with sweat. For some miles I’d been walking towards the magisterial basilica at Esztergom, its verdigris dome towering over the horizon. I was to cross over to Hungary via the Mária Valéria bridge, the point at which A Time of Gifts ends. The elegant green bridge was named after the favourite daughter of Empress Elisabeth (the famous Sissi). The original had been blown up during World War Two, so this was a replica of the one Paddy crossed in 1934. There was something immensely satisfying about lingering there in the late afternoon sun, in No Man’s Land between the heraldic cockerel of Štúrovo at one end and the Holy Crown of Hungary at the other.
After showering at my hostel and eating a restorative plate of goulash, I walked up to the basilica. Horse chestnut lanterns and creamy hawthorn bushes shone dimly in the gloaming; the air was heady with their perfume. Black-robed seminaries were leaving evening prayers. I nodded to a pair in greeting, but they swiftly disappeared down a side street into the night.
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A snippet from my interview with the local newspaper in Nové Zámky, arranged by Irena to raise awareness of bowel cancer.
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The long, straight road to Štúrovo.
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Poppies on the road from Gbelce to Štúrovo.
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The beautiful Mária Valéria bridge, which spans the Danube and joins Slovakia and Hungary, with the emblem of Štúrovo at one end and the stunning Basilica in Esztergom at the other.
In the closing pages of A Time or Gifts, Paddy writes of this crossing point: ‘I found it impossible to tear myself from my station and plunge into Hungary.... because this future seemed, and still seems, so full of promised marvels. The river below, meanwhile, was carrying the immediate past downstream and I was hung poised mid-air between the two.’
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The emblem of Štúrovo.
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Esztergom Basilica, Hungary.
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Esztergom Basilica at night.
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View from the cupola at Esztergom Basilica.
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The Great Gate at Esztergom Basilica.
18th May 2017: Esztergom – Budapest, Hungary
I caught up with my diary over breakfast in the local bakery. Munching on a kakaós csiga (chocolate snail) – a buttery, chocolate-studded roll loved by the Hungarians – I watched locals trailing in and out, exchanging loaves and pleasantries with the women behind the counter in Magyar, an impenetrable language that Lotti had told me was similar to Finnish.
Esztergom is known as the Rome of Hungary and the Basilica - its beating heart - is a great Italianate beauty perched above the small city. I decided to climb it and, 400 very crumbly steps and a few heart palpitations later, I made it to the top of the cupola.
That afternoon, I caught the hydrofoil to Budapest. Sandy coves and wooded hills dotted with fortresses edged the river (pictured). Cool air rushed through the cabin and there was no sound other than the hum of the engine and the hiss of the spray. At Vác, an old jetty listed alarmingly into the water, its ticket cabin almost completely submerged. The closer we got to Budapest, the more Soviet-style blocks rose out of the trees. Ochre and russet buildings clashed with peach, the hard lines and brutal architecture jarring against Romanticism of the earlier part of the journey. The boat slowed as we passed the gothic Hungarian Parliament Building and very soon we reached the drop-off at Vigadó Square.
Lou and Matt – introduced to me by an old colleague – were waiting for me at the jetty with a hand-drawn sign. At dinner they introduced me to palinka (to be sipped rather than thrown back like schnapps or slivovitz). A glass of Tokay before bed and I was out like a light.
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The gothic Hungarian Parliament, modelled on the British Houses of Parliament.
19th May 2017: Budapest, Hungary
Matt and Lou lived on ‘Antique Street’, where all the buildings seemed to have art deco mouldings. Their balcony overlooked a canopy of trees (pictured). Matt showed me around town, with an obligatory visit to the Baths. Then it was off to my new lodgings at Brody Apartments. Tara – who was to become a friend – picked me up from there and we wandered over to Muzeum Kurok, where a party was being held in my honour by some PLF aficionados. We were greeted by Irish writer Michael O’Sullivan, dapper in raspberry trousers and a blue blazer with a pocket handkerchief, who kissed my hand in welcome.
The apartment was an Aladdin's Cave, crammed with exquisite art, including a portrait of Paddy himself. I was introduced to a flurry of people including Gloria, daughter of Tibor and Berta, the sophisticated Budapest couple who took Paddy under their wing in spring 1934. Paddy had borrowed Tibor’s horse to cross the Great Hungarian Plain. But he got one thing wrong when he wrote it all up, Gloria told me: the dog. “We never owned an Alsatian,” she said, putting her fingers up like pricked ears, trying to remember the breed. “Doberman!” she exclaimed. She confided that, on his death bed, her father's last words had been along the lines of “Oh, what would life have been without the love of dogs?”. “Gloria is a great favourite of Prince Charles,” Michael later told me. I could see why. She exuded great warmth and charm, her dark eyes merry and cheeks dimpled. Whilst we were talking, a man joined our little party on the sofa, introducing himself as Andras. “Ah! So you must be the one we are honouring tonight,” he said wryly, pointing at my scuffed plimsolls. Gloria rushed to my rescue; Paddy had worn gym shoes with his suits.
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Bathers at Gellert Baths.
Sissi again - spotted on the walk from Brody Apartments to the party on Muzeum Kurok.
Saturday 20th May 2017: Budapest, Hungary – London, England
I woke up in my lovely bedroom in Brody Apartments with the mother of all hangovers. No amount of starched cotton sheets, coffee or eggs could undo the excesses of the night before.
It had been around 2am when we’d decided we should probably call it a night after a wonderful but very boozy evening chatting politics, religion, love, death, life, Harriet and Paddy. It was only me, Andras (the plimsoll commentator), Tara and Michael left in the room. Along with Gloria, cigar-puffing 68-year-old Andras was another favourite from the evening and was to become something of a pen pal (I currently have a book from him sitting on my bedside table). He kept on exhorting me to stay and come to a dinner the following evening - “I'll pay for a first-class ticket!” - but London and work called.
I had a couple of hours to spare before my airport car arrived, so I headed down to the river and across the Chain Bridge. Despite my sore head, I felt a soaring sense of liberation as I looked out over the Danube at the Hungarian Parliament building (pictured below). The city shimmered pearl-like in the midday heat, and the words of the framed Edgar Allan Poe poem (A Dream Within a Dream) hanging on my bedroom wall at Brody Apartments seemed a fitting caption for the dream-like state I found myself in after three weeks of wandering.
And then it was over. That night, back in my own bed in London, I dreamt of a mustering of storks flying from a rooftop with their huge wing spans close enough to touch.
During my trip, Slightly Foxed shared news about my adventures. Head over to @FoxedQuarterly to see some of their posts during my journey from 30 April - 20 May (not to mention some wonderful readings from Dame Siân Phillips and Robert Macfarlane on their website). Alternatively, you can see images using #adventuresforharriet or by visiting my gallery page.