Day 6: Saturday 6th May 2017
Cologne – Alfter-Impekoven, Germany
I woke early to bright sunlight, wood pigeons and the low murmur of traffic. My room in the gables of an old monastery-turned-hotel overlooked the rooftops of Cologne’s Belgian Quarter. Jule, a friend’s cousin, had offered to show me the city.
We spent the morning meandering down towards the cathedral and the Rhine, stopping at cafes and bookshops along the way. 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 her parents’ house in 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. I felt envious at the ease with which young Europeans interchanged one country for another, in a way I never really dreamt of in my early twenties.
Later that day, I caught a train to a hillside village just outside Bonn. Paddy travelled downriver by barge but, having looked into this, I realised I was more likely to get a party cruise than meet an authentic bargeman. Besides, 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 from the station, 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.
Day 7: Sunday 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 as my train travelled south from Bonn. 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: a warm, kind-hearted couple who treated me as a family friend. 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.
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 stare from...
Day 8: Monday 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 (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, which came with a shell-opening device which involved dropping a weight on top of the egg. Apparently, a Canadian officer had once done it with so much force that the egg was splattered across the table; thankfully, I was spared this humiliation.
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, stopping briefly to enjoy the spectacle of Japanese tourists with selfie sticks posing in front of the colossal statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I which towered over the headland.
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...
Day 9: Tuesday 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.
Day 10: Wednesday 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.
*See previous entry*
On the subject of German signage, this was a personal favourite.
Day 11: Thursday 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 due to these landscapes and the endless plates of schnitzel and strudel that constituted my diet.
Sarah joined us on the walk from Bacharach to Bingen. The scenery continued much as before, though we were able to walk along a river path and bridleway rather than the road. 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 spargel 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. Vienna was calling.
*See previous entry*
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.
Day 12: Friday 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 (various locations from The Third Man and Before Sunrise, such as the café pictured below). I failed miserably.
Day 13: Saturday 13th May 2017
During his stay in Vienna, Paddy slummed it in a Salvation Army hostel, living hand-to-mouth and sketching people to make a living. I, on the other hand, ate and drank like a queen from dawn till dusk.
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. A foodie herself, 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 coughed and spluttered and 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.
*See previous entry*
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.
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.
NB: After posting this picture on Instagram, an American woman called Shelley – who had been following my trip – said that she remembered being presented with Manner wafers on her eighth birthday by her Austrian aunt, Ilse, along with a pair of exquisite Austrian underpants and a large handkerchief embroidered with a grey church. She said enjoyed the wafers, admired the superior underpants, but was left cold by the hanky.
Day 14: Sunday 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.
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.”
Day 15: Monday 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, eating 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.
*See previous entry*
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.