Clear Waters Rising, A Mountain Walk Across Europe by...

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Clear Waters Rising, A Mountain Walk Across Europe by Nicholas Crane

Clear Water Rising


"The Bear Went Over The Mountain "

(tune: For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow)

The bear went over the mountain,

The bear went over the mountain,

The bear went over the mountain,

To see what he could see!

I’m always reminded of this ditty when I get the urge to achieve the next rise on a hike or when I’m on a bicycle ride in a place I’ve never pedaled before. There would seem to be something in a geographer’s gene pool that drives him or her to behave as the bear in the children’s song above. Each new place I go is a discovery that contributes to a better understanding of the whole picture. Each hike, bicycle ride or journey into new territory adds to completing the puzzle.

This must be what was going through British geographer Nicholas Crane’s subconscious when he decided, at age forty, to walk from Cape Finisterre on the coast of Galicia in northwest Spain to Istanbul. His intent was to undertake this walk along the ridgeline – the "watershed" – of Alpine Europe. Indeed, that means walking the crest of the Pyrenees, France’s Massif Central (not really Alpine but a good substitute), the Alps through Switzerland, Italy, and Austria, the great arc of the Carpathians through Slovakia, the Ukraine and Romania, and the Balkan Mountains through Bulgaria to Istanbul.

He thought he could do the 10,000 – kilometer walk (6,213 miles) in a year but it took him five hundred six days – one year, four and a half months. He took no mechanical contrivance except for one ferry across the Danube when he couldn’t cross a bridge. He refused all other offers of rides or lifts, including rides on horse drawn wagons and a ski lift on Mont Blanc. He slept out as often as he slept inside and he carried a minimum of gear, resupplying with the assistance of his wife (he had been married a year when he began his trek) during visits every few months.

This enterprise seemed crazy to me when he walked through the French, Swiss, Italian and Austrian Alps in the dead of winter. To his credit, he engaged a guide to climb Mont Blanc, but he put himself in harms way any number of times, walking most of the way alone. He could have slipped, broken a leg and frozen to death many times. But he didn’t. He just kept walking. He walked on paths, forest roads and occasional highways most of the time but he also spent time bushwhacking across pastures, through forests and down watercourses.

The narrative gets more interesting as his journey progresses. Initially he seemed almost to avoid people. During the first part of his walk he writes about what he sees, thinks and feels more than about interaction with people. It is in Poland, Slovakia and, finally, the Ukraine where he writes about interaction with the locals that his story shines. He is even able to introduce a little suspense into the story. Will he be able to exit the Ukraine without his entry documents? Is there a crossing into Romania for pedestrians, or only for vehicles?

Crane was inspired by two legendary hikers: Stevenson, who walked only for a week in the Cevennes, yet wrote a classic travel book that endures well over a century later (Travels with a Donkey). "We are travelers in the ‘wilderness of the world’ – travelers with a donkey," wrote Stevenson to a friend as he began his journey.

The other inspiration for Crane was Patrick Leigh Fermor. At age eighteen Fermor set out to walk across Europe from Holland to Istanbul at the dawn of Hitler’s rise in Germany (1933). Two classic travel books – memoirs, really – resulted from this walk nearly fifty years later: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).

So if you find yourself suffering from cabin fever this winter, pick up Nicholas Crane and imagine yourself a bear going over the mountain. And if Crane gets you excited about walking in Europe pick up Stevenson and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Then, maybe it will be time to head out yourself!

Clear Waters Rising, A Mountain Walk Across Europe by Nicholas Crane was published by Penguin Books in 1997 and was first published by Viking in 1996.