Blue River, Black Sea, Andrew Eames (2009)

The Danube from source to sea, largely by bike, recounted in a rewarding travelogue that is rich in historical contextualisation and cultural insight

Bantam Press 9780593058787 Octo 432pp £17.99

The Danube is Europe’s longest river, and among its most important arteries. Invasions, migrations and merchandise have plied its course for millennia. This ride along its route, therefore, promises to cast a light on a region that is critical to our continent’s development, but is still little known even 20 years after the fall of Communism.

The author set out to recreate – in large part – the walk undertaken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in the 1930s, and chronicled more than 40 years later in his books, A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods and The Water. Eames travelled by bicycle as far as Budapest and then progressed on horseback, cargo barge, foot and finally a plastic rowing boat.

It is clear from the off that he is a writer not a cyclist and is far more interested in the journey than his means of travel. The book is much the better for this. His tapestry of daily happenstance with background and contrived encounters is skilfully woven and a joy to read.

Fermor benefitted from much hospitality proffered by aristocratic families along the route, some of whom recommended him to clans of similar standing further down the river. His pictures of the daily lives of east European nobles in the years before the onslaught of world war two is among the most fascinating elements of his books.

Eames too seeks out Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Saxe-Coburg-Gothas. His encounters form an illuminating set of case studies, particularly in respect of those who have re-established themselves behind the former iron curtain.

He is also very good on the long-forgotten treaties that shaped life east of Vienna – Trianon, Bucharest and Paris. Rarely mentioned ethnic cleansings that have shaped this part of Europe also inform his narrative. Indeed, if there is a broad theme here, it is a plea that having expanded the EC to the shores of the Black Sea, it is about time that we in the west developed at least an outline understanding of these Slavs, Magyars and Slovens and Croats to whom we have yoked ourselves.

He is illuminating too on German history, after the Third Reich – general knowledge of which is at a pretty low ebb in English-speaking countries.
Eames obviously invites comparison with his role model, whose books often acclaimed as being among the greatest travel writing. The contrast is an intriguing one. Fermor serves up a poetically-infused, first-person evocation of that which he witnesses – but was largely oblivious to the political backdrop of his work. His modern imitator has a rather more flip style, and regularly notes his role as chronicler. Here he is for example, in southern Germany.

“From Donauwörth the road started to lollop away with consummate ease, but it is not easy to lollop on a bicycle and ‘consummate ease’ is far easier to write than to achieve when there are hills in the equation. The landscape looked lazy, rising and falling like the chest of a sleeping giant, while the road samba’ed sideways, doing and off-the-shoulder number, too louche to go over the top. I rumba’ed over it as best I could, but all the saddle fitness I’d gained over the last ten days seemed to evaporate after the first hour. Some days were like that.”

He does rise to some stirring imagery at times, but his post-modern journalistic devices do convey a sense that he does not want us to take him too seriously. That said, in nearly every respect, this is a model of good travel writing.

PS Mar 10

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *