‘Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East — they would never come back. Never, never, never!’
This prediction was made by a man Paddy met in Persenbeug, Austria, in an inn overlooking the Danube (A Time of Gifts). Their conversation ranged from heraldry and history to lamenting the passing of an older Europe, full of wildness and mystery.
Much of the reason for me making this journey, almost 80 years later, was to see if these words became true. Has Europe been tamed? Has everything vanished?
Paddy walked through a time of gathering changes. Communism was established in Russia and Nazism loomed in Germany, but neither had yet broken their borders to sweep through the heartland of Europe, destroying entire communities, cultures and ancient patterns of life. His journey was made when Eastern Europe was still a semi-feudal society, with aristocrats playing bicycle polo on the lawns of country estates, and people still referred to as ‘peasants’ working in the fields. It was made before the Iron Curtain split the continent in two, and before the culture of mass consumption dragged it back together. It was made before motorways, supermarkets, suburbs, cheap flights and the internet — before the structure of modern life, the Europe I recognise today, had come into existence.
With Paddy’s words as a background murmur, I made this journey to explore the simple question:
How different is the experience of walking this route today?