A few weeks ago, Matt found a book buried in a forgotten corner of our library called “Clear Waters Rising” by Nicholas Crane. Crane is now a well-known author, BBC presenter, and former head of the Royal Geographic Society.
In 1992 he completed a 506 day, 6000 mile walk across the mountains of Europe - from Finisterre in Spain, to Istanbul, Turkey. He chronicled that journey in the book “Clear Waters Rising,” published in 1996. Below is a Google Maps approximation of his route.
His route took him along a curving route through Europe’s main mountain ranges - starting with the Cantabrian mountains along Spain’s north coast, then the Pyrenees separating France from Spain, the Cevennes cutting through from southwest to southeast in France, then the Alps from the Rhone River to the summit of Mont Blanc and onward to Vienna. Crossing the recently opened Iron Curtain, he hiked the Carpathians from Slovakia to Poland, Ukraine, and Romania. His only ride on mechanized transport was a ferry crossing at the Iron Gates of the Danube, from Romania into Serbia, and then a last hike through the Balkan Mountains from Serbia, into what’s now North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and finally Turkey.
He undertook the journey well within my lifetime, but it was still a shock to realize how much the world has changed in the last 30 years. No internet, no cell phones. His only communications with his wife via answering machines or expensive long distance calls. Package delivery that would take weeks rather than via next day delivery. Austro-Hungarian military maps instead of GPS and Google Maps.
Geopolitically, the European Union existed only in embryonic form, the Eastern bloc was prostrate with unemployment after the shock of the fall of Communism; civil war was brewing in the Balkans. Terrorism, mass migration, and the common currency of the Eurozone were all in the distant future.
While Crane is a wonderful travel writer and the entire book was a pleasure to savor, I particularly enjoyed reading the book through the lens of “Save Our Shrines”’ mission of promoting beauty and culture that needs saving.
A remarkable through-line of his story was his discovery of the the historical traces or imperiled existence of mountain cultures that had resisted and in some cases survived the imperial or national homogenization that had befallen lowland peoples.
This summer I read the book Empire of the Summer Moon, a history of the Comanches in the American West. The dismal tale of their final demise at the hands of relentless US Army cavalry troops was shockingly similar to the stories of the last stands of Asturian tribal leader Viriatus or the Dacian chieftain Decebalus fighting the Roman legions, or of Albigensians fleeing from Simon de Montfort’s crusaders.
Likewise, the Carpathians featured tales of Hungarian and Romanian folk heroes opposing the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, as well as survivors of Stalin’s mass removal of the Lemkos in Poland. The mountains have always been the last refuge of the hunted, and it was amazing to find out how many traces of these ancient hold-outs remained in the uplands of Europe.
Another theme of interest was the varied forms of religious buildings Crane encountered in his travels. Spain’s northern coast was dominated by the pilgrim churches and hostels of the Camino de Santiago, while the Cevennes range in France featured thousand year old Benedictine monasteries interspersed with alternating Calvinist and Catholic chapels - traces of the Wars of Religion.
The German and Austrian Alps were marked by the deep religiosity of Lutheran and Catholic villages but menaced by the neopagan occultism of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.
The Carpathians were covered with onion-domed churches, many of which were padlocked against thieves in the desperate years following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc regimes.
Romania featured medieval painted monasteries like Sucevita, shown below.
The Balkans again returned to alternating structures - this time Christian and Muslim, before giving way to the old lands of the Ottoman empire and the hundreds of mosques built by Mimar Sinan, considered one of the greatest architects in history. Sinan was the chief builder for Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors, and his designs influenced Ottoman architecture for centuries. He built the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne and the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and his apprentices built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and Stari Most in Mostar.
In sum, the book was a remarkably well-written travelogue - funny at times, evocative throughout, and beautifully paced so that the reader aches with both melancholy and relief as Crane describes taking his last steps up to Hagia Sophia and into the arms of his waiting wife.
As time permits, we’ll be retracing the names of the religious and cultural landmarks he mentions in his book. We suspect many that were crumbling in the early 1990s may now be in better shape thanks to EU restoration funds or better-organized private initiatives. We’ll report out what we find.
In the meantime, buen camino on your own journeys, metaphorical or otherwise!