Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book review: Nicholas Crane's "Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Journey Across Europe"

This lovely book narrates one of the most extraordinary adventures imaginable; a walk from Cape Finisterre in north-west Spain all the way to Constantinople – a 6,000-plus mile trek through the mountainous spine of the continent, undertaken continuously over eighteen months, mostly alone, with a strict prohibition on using any means of transport other than Shanks’ pony. Crane has to fend off attempts to get him in cars by, inter alia, Ukrainian border policemen and a Turkish general, and declines to use a cable car in his attempted climb of Mont Blanc.

Crane started on the camino frances, walking east rather than west, before turning north at O Cebreiro to go through the Sierra de Ancares and the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain. He descended to the Basque country, then climbed into the Pyrenees, passing through Andorra. At the old French spa town of Vernet-les-Bains he turned north through the Cevennes towards the Alps, which he reached just as winter was setting in, having started at Finisterre in midsummer. For the next few months he slogged through the snow and ice in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany, often sleeping outdoors in his tent in very cold conditions (until Grenoble, he had no tent and often slept outdoors or in ruined huts and barns). By the spring he had reached Vienna; thence he headed for the Carpathians, which form a long sickle around the Hungarian plain. Weaving in and out of Slovakia and Poland for a couple of months, he had a tricky couple of weeks in Ukraine, then just emerging from Communism, where the authorities insisted on his being accompanied on his travels, then a long spell in the Romanian Carpathians. Declining to cross into Serbia – this was 1993, with the Yugoslavian war at its height – he followed the Danube into Bulgaria. Forced to cut short his adventures in the Balkan mountains after close calls with various armed and / or sinister folk, he dropped down in to the Maritsa valley and sped onward towards the Bosphorus via Edirne – old Adrianople, where the Romans under Valens were badly (and, for the Western Empire, perhaps fatally) beaten by the Goths in 378. He finally reached the Byzantine capital shortly before Christmas.

Crane wisely doesn’t attempt a relentlessly detailed day-by-day travelogue, which I suspect would have become repetitive. Instead he focuses on local colour, helped by his travel writer’s knack for serendipitous encounters with “characters”, as well as interesting but not overlong explanations of the history of the places through which he is passing. Occasionally he throws in a little family history too; there seems to be a long history of Cranes going on long walks in remote parts of Mitteleuropa, with both his parents and grandparents having done so. He has a great love for dramatic and beautiful landscapes, seldom in short supply on his long amble, which he communicates very well.  He often mentions, without making a big thing of it, going to church; I wondered if this was perhaps indicative of some kind of faith. His is certainly a humane and thoughtful perspective on the mountain peoples of Europe, and the tensions they face in modernity; he admires without romanticising.
One is forced to admire his grit and pluck, the more so since in the best British adventurer’s tradition, he does not harp on the physical or mental adversity (though he does not ignore it; he writes frankly about the difficulties of barely seeing his new wife for eighteen months, and is honest about the exhaustion and demoralisation that occasionally overtook him). He faced some truly awful weather, tramping through the Alps at the height of winter, and was caught in a ferocious storm in Transylvania that nearly destroyed his tent. He had several nasty falls, and close calls with a bear and numerous fierce sheepdogs. It did occur to me that he seemed to be rather under-prepared for bad weather, but then again he was having to carry everything he needed and was already an experienced adventurer.

It seems petty to have any quibbles with such a book, and such an achievement, but I would have liked perhaps to have a little more detail at the end. It seems to stop rather abruptly when he meets his wife Annabel at Hagia Sophia, but I had questions – what did he make of Constantinople? How did he find going back into normal life after more than a year of nomadic, elemental existence? Did he recover properly from all his injuries? Did he keep in touch with any of the people he met? His editor might also have been a little more insistent that he translate the many foreign words dropped into the text, and some more detailed maps would have been good - I would recommend that you read this with a map to hand.

Overall, a triumph which I will hopefully revisit and will undoubtedly recommend to others. I’m now keen to read more of Crane’s books, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s On Foot To Constantinople trilogy, mentioned several times by Crane and a key part of the grand tradition of tramping literature to which this work also belongs. On that note, it would be fascinating for someone to repeat the journey in the modern day - there have probably been a few changes since 1993, especially in the eastern half.

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