It takes four hours to fly the 3,500 miles from England to Istanbul. It took me 247 days to walk.
It is hard to say where the idea began. Maybe it was walking the cliffs of Cornwall as a child, or a month’s hike in Spain when I finished university. Or maybe it was being increasingly unable to ignore how inextricably climate change and aviation are linked, and still wanting to find ways to have adventures comparable to when I flew guilt-free. Whatever it was, the idea would not be shaken. I wanted to see what it would be like to travel through an increasingly frantic twenty-first century at a speed unchanged since humans had taken their first faltering steps out of the forests. Istanbul, as the city that stands between Europe from Asia, seemed as good a place as any to aim for.
Once the idea of the walk had taken hold, it took years to make it happen. I finished a university course, and then as I was on the verge of leaving I was offered a job in London that I couldn’t turn down. Then I was arrested as part of a climate change protest, a conspiracy to shut down a coal-fired power station, and as the months dragged on I still had no idea when it would come to trial. In the end, with no date forthcoming, I decided to take my chances. I had some savings, enough for maps and boots. I took no tent: I wanted to save on weight. What I did take was a coat that weighed about twenty pounds when wet, three camera lenses, a plant identification guide (hardback) and a flute. I wonder, now, how I got beyond the end of the road. It was a steep learning curve. I plotted my first few days, as far as Dover, following the old pilgrim paths of South England, and from then on I had no plan.
I left my parents’ house in Salisbury on a chill March day in 2010, the fields still brown and the trees still bare. I walked until dark, and slept in a forest outside the town where I went to school. I was too weary to find a proper camp and I had already lost my flashlight. I ate the last of the sandwiches that my Mum packed for me and got into my sleeping bag, trying to get comfy on the wet, uneven ground. A few days of walking and I was in London, saying goodbye to friends. At Canterbury I stood before Beckett’s tomb, where so many pilgrims had stood before me, the flagstones polished smooth, and I thought about the continent that lay ahead of me and the trip I had undertaken. A couple days later I was boarding a ferry at Dover, leaving behind England for the following eight months.
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The north of France was flat and open and spring was long in coming. The rain blew horizontal and every driver who stopped to offer a lift looked at me like I was insane when I yelled above the wind that I had to continue on foot. I walked from one drenched town to another and there was little in between, the trees grubbed up to make the fields vast, now that they were worked by machines, not people, and the wind marauding, unchecked. Villages that had once been farming communities were now nothing but abandoned barns and vacation homes for the English, the school and the shop and the café closed. I was told that towns were built twenty miles apart, the distance of a good day’s walk. I slept within the city walls, in graveyards, in shop doorways, in wet clothes and wet sleeping bag. Waking up, a croissant and a cappuccino, moving on.
During that long, wet winter, I was shown kindnesses that I assumed no longer existed. Walking into a bar with nothing but a rucksack and a story, I learned, was a way to connect with strangers in a way I hadn’t thought possible. One evening, while still in England, I found myself with a swelling ankle and the night coming on, while the bed I’d lined up was still miles away. Aches were common near the beginning of the journey as my body got used to something it was designed for and yet profoundly unaccustomed to. London was perhaps a twenty-minute train ride away. I had friends there, a warm bed, and the rules I had imposed on myself, that I would cover every mile of this journey on foot, were seeming far less romantic than before I had started.
I went into a pub, bought a drink and sat down by the fire feeling sorry for myself. By closing time it was just me and the landlord, and the rain coming down outside. We got to talking, I told him what I was doing, and he told me that the world was a dangerous place and you couldn’t trust strangers anymore. It seemed a funny attitude for a barman, but then maybe he’d seen things that I hadn’t. But I was able to tell him about my experiences so far: a bunch of guys in Alton who carried me around town like a mascot and gave me the walking stick that I would carry with me all the way to Istanbul. A family who invited me in for a bath and Sunday lunch. I could say to him that not only had I been able to trust people, those moments had been some of the best of the trip so far. In the end he offered me a bed in the shed and the use of the tumble dryer to warm my clothes up in the morning.
And so it went on. An old woman outside Amiens who insisted on buying me a room in a hotel. A chocolatier who gave me an egg for Easter. A grocer who gave me an orange. A man who let me stay the night, and who confided to me after dinner that his son had died the previous week, that he was about my age. Often people wanted to share a conversation, a secret, to have some company or to kill some time. I had some time, they had a spare orange: they were rarely great sacrifices. But taken together they gave me a sense that there was a network that stretched across Europe still, a network of people unknown to each other, but one that could be depended upon in times of loneliness or need.
Unlike London, which blurs into the surrounding countryside so it seems to have no beginning or end, ancient forests merging with suburbs and motorways, Paris came all at once. I crested a hill and there was a field, and at the end of the field was Paris. I slept a night in the airport. It had taken a month to walk between Heathrow Airport and this one, a flight-time of an hour and fifteen minutes that commuters make twice daily. I was not the only one sleeping in the airport; there were the homeless, those without papers, pushing their lives around on luggage trolleys and washing in the toilets. Butting up against the chic suburbs on the walk into the city, beneath the motorway flyovers, were shantytowns of cardboard and corrugate, the inhabitants of Paris so rarely seen or talked about. Being on foot was a way of being forced into seeing everything, I came to realize, and that included those parts of our world that we are normally able to ignore.
I found myself acutely aware of every sign of the coming season: the first hawthorn blossom, the first call of the blackbird. I followed the Seine out of Paris towards Dijon, tracing it up towards its source as the hills began to rise after months on the flat, and for the first time in my life I understood what the mountains must mean to the people of the plains. I had never walked in the mountains before, and I was completely out of my depth. For weeks I climbed through the Alps, from one massif to the next, searching for a way through. The snow was melting with the turning of the year and I would sink up to my knees, up to my waist. I had a vague conception of things like avalanches but no idea how to judge them. The rivers were raging with the spring melt. An old man I met in some improbable pass told me that the way ahead was impassable. I ignored him, and was forced to turn round two days later. From then on I decided to heed advice, but it was still between the two tourist seasons, the ski resorts desolate, the hikers’ refuges empty, and most days I saw no one. I would descend some evenings into the valleys for the opening rounds of the World Cup, which I watched in tiny bars full of farmers and awash with Pastis. No one knows where I am, I kept thinking to myself, standing on summits looking out across the endless mountains, the chamois and the marmots, a vast and violent silence. It was a thought I found intoxicating.
There’s more to Paris than meets the eye. For more unexpected images from the City of Lights, visit this photo gallery from our partners at Expedia.
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The border with Italy was the highest point yet. The Col de Clapier, 2,491 meters. On the border were coils of rusting barbed wire, left over from a time when these two countries were at war, before you could cross this line without even the need for a passport. Walking made borders seem politically abstract, the lines on the map invisible on foot, but also geographically meaningful, delineated by a river or a particularly high ridge, a natural barrier that made it particularly difficult to get from one place to the next. That an hour’s walk away in the next village everyone would be speaking a different language seemed a peculiar sort of pretend.
But speaking a different language they were. In Italy I made for the Ligurian coast, the first time I had seen the sea in months. The temperature rose, and I went swimming every day. Tiny villages with the paths between them worn centuries ago by donkeys, the slopes to the sea terraced, growing olives and almonds and citrus. At a village fête they made me guest of honor. I crossed the country following the ridge of the Apennines, mountains smaller and closer-knit than the Alps, receding one upon another into a haze of distance. I descended through vineyards and came to the banks of the Po, a river I had first seen many weeks ago in Turin, followed it to its delta, and Venice, and the beginnings of Eastern Europe.
I was in Slovenia for less than twenty-four hours before I came to the Croatian border down a little road in the mountains. Outside a portacabin were two surly guards, all pistols and cigarettes. It was the first time I’d needed a passport since I’d crossed the Channel several months ago, but in the coming months I would get used to the same questions on every border. When I finally managed to explain what I was up to, one of them invited me into the portacabin, pulled me up a chair, and offered me a drink of his homemade brandy to toast my arrival to their country. “Welcome to the East,” he said. “You will find good people here.” It felt very far from home.
There is a chain of mountains that runs the length of Croatia, tracing the line of the coast. Limestone cliffs fall thousands of metres to a turquoise sea and a scatter of islands. Improbable paths are carved into the mountains’ sides; beyond the paths are landmines, still not cleared from the war. One night in a mountain hut, over spirits made from alpine herbs, a former fighter drew maps on the back of a carton of cigarettes to illustrate the intricacies of the Yugoslav wars. Everyone had stories, knew people affected by the fighting or had been caught up in it themselves. There were families still living in burnt-out houses, there were bullet holes in the roadsigns. I had never been in a place where war was so close to the surface. In Croatian parts they begged me not to walk into Serbian parts. “They will kill you,” said a bartender as he gave me a drink on the house, “they will chop up your body, and they will sell it on the market.” In Serbian areas they were astonished that I had made it through Croatia unscathed, but now, they assured me, I would see true hospitality. Every border was the same, every country as welcoming as the last.
Croatia’s coastline increasingly draws travelers from Europe and beyond. For more Balkan beauty, view this photo gallery from our partners at Expedia.
As Turkey neared, the Islamic influences began to entwine with the Catholic and the Orthodox. The call to prayer drifted across the landscapes from the silhouettes of minarets. I ate barbecued meat, drank strong tea and hard spirits. In Rozaje on the border of Montenegro, a policeman drove alongside me as I was walking out of town towards Kosovo, wound down the window and asked me what I was doing. There are not many tourists in Rozaje. I explained to him. He shook his head, like rounding up itinerant pilgrims was one of the daily annoyances of his job.
“Too dangerous,” he said. “Last week two cyclists got kidnapped on this road.”
“I have to walk,” I said.
“Then I’ll have to arrest you,” he said.
I didn’t see much of a choice. I got into his car, and he took me into town to meet his parents, who ran me a bath, packed me some dinner and presented me with a handmade knife to remember them by when I arrived in Istanbul. In the evening the policeman drove me up through the forests into the mountains until we came to the border. We covered in half an hour what would have taken me two or three days. I could not decide if it was a relaxing novelty or a failure.
As we passed through the checkpoints, at each of which he got out and dealt with the border guards personally, I began to understand that I had in some sense been conned. Every time he got back in he told me I owed him hundreds of euros for spurious tourist visas and bits of bureaucracy that I realized, with a growing panic, I was in little position to deny him. His paranoia in the wilds of the border road seemed real enough, especially after we passed into Kosovo.
He eyed every shepherd boy we passed with dark suspicion and confided to me that they all kept shotguns in their cloaks; the shrines by the roadside, that I assumed to mark traffic accidents, were a legacy of bandit shoot-outs, he said. I still couldn’t work out if I was being mugged, or abducted by someone else’s distrust and incompetence, but he finally left me beside the roadside outside Pej with a telephone number that turned out to be fake. It was the only time in eight months that I felt threatened. And it was also the only time I traveled in a car, giving up the control of my journey to someone else. There must, I thought, be a lesson in there somewhere.
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Autumn was approaching. Through summer I had gorged on figs and cherries from the trees. Now it was walnuts and apples and the parasol mushrooms that were everywhere in these vast and ancient beech forests. I followed a strict diet for the length of the walk, which was to eat as much as I could, whenever I got the chance. In the high places the shepherds were gathering up their flocks, ready to descend to the valleys for the winter, journeys that have trodden the same paths for many hundreds of years. They gave me rounds of fresh white cheese, and I found another use for the walking stick I had been given as I fought off their packs of dogs.
The mists drew in across the pines and I began to wake with frost on the inside of the tent. One night their were footprints of wolves in the first of the snows outside. Old men in small villages in Bulgaria played dominoes in the last warmth of the sun and muttered that things had been better under communism. I spent a night with a farmer in the Rodopi Mountains who was so disgusted by the state of my trousers that he insisted on giving me his own. He was completely untroubled by my lack of Bulgarian and poured me glass after glass of his homemade wine as he talked at me for hours, slapping me on the shoulder and laughing at his own jokes. We ate his vegetables, the yogurt from his goats, the honey from his hives. In the shops it had become almost impossible to find fresh produce because everyone, it seemed, grew their own. In the morning it was all I could do to stop him paying for a taxi for me to Istanbul.
The land fell away as I came to Turkey, and as I lost altitude it was almost summer again. But the walk was near its end. Every night I was invited to stay in a mosque or with some local family. I lingered in villages, another glass of tea, as the locals tried to teach me backgammon and Turkish. I did not want it to be over. There had been a simplicity in the last eight months that I knew would rapidly evaporate once I was back in London. A date for my trial had been set, and in a couple of weeks I would be spending a month in a courtroom in Nottingham being told when to stand up, when to sit down, when to speak. For months I’d had nothing more complicated to do than to wake up, walk, eat, sleep. I would miss it. And I would miss this view into the lives of others.
During the first week of my walk I passed through a village just outside of London on a Sunday morning, and the bells were ringing for church. It had been years since I’d been to church, but it seemed to be appropriate. It turns out that walking into a tiny congregation with a huge rucksack leads to plenty of offers for Sunday lunch. Over the meal I got talking to the daughter of the family, a lawyer who was about to be ordained, about my reasons for setting out. I told her that I wanted to put myself out into the world in the simplest way that I knew. She said that was what she called faith. And I realized then that for all the mountains, for all the beauty, that it was faith in strangers that had given this trip its substance. I’d expected many things, but I had not expected this. Traveling in a car, independent and in a rush, it is all too easy to assume that such hospitality no longer exists.
It took a whole day to walk into Istanbul; the wandering traders, orange and cigarette sellers, and the horse-drawn carts waiting stoically in traffic jams, wedged between the cars; smells of heat and grilled meat and diesel. I reached the Bosphorus long after night had fallen, my feet raw, and sat down. I felt a little underwhelmed, after months of imagining this moment. Further along the bank a small group of fisherman were coming to the end of their dinner. They called me over and offered me grapes and rakija, the local brandy made from anis, and I explained in my smattering of Turkish what I was up to. They told me, proudly, that the only way to see their city was from the water, and invited me out in their boat.
The skipper clamped a cigarette in his teeth and warned me that once we were out in the bay there would be a lot of waves, so we’d have to keep moving fast and hold on. We passed beneath the bridges of the Golden Horn and into the mouth of the Bosphorus, and there —there was Asia, the mile-long bridge threading the continents together; the mosques and the palaces; all the millions of lights on the water; and us bouncing in a tiny boat across the waves, darting amongst the ferries and the cargo ships. I had walked from England to the beginnings of Asia, and here I was going to stop. From across the bay blew warm winds that spoke of deserts, and I felt as though, finally, I had arrived.
Ancient Istanbul never fails to wow. For more images from travelers in Turkey, view this photo gallery from our partners at Expedia.