Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dawdling by the Danube, by Edward Enfield

This is a charming little travel book which I found in audio, read by the author. As Mr. Enfield is a retired radio and television presenter, he did a fine job of recording his book, sounding like precisely the sort of older, game, amiable Englishman who would elect to tour southern Germany by bicycle, which he did in 1997 at the age of 68.  As I agree wholeheartedly with the author's assertion that there is no better place from which to see a country than the saddle of a bicycle, I knew he and I would get on well.

No, no -- it's dawdling BY the Danube, not IN it!
This book was also a nostalgic trip for me.  I've never visited Germany or Poland (Mr. Enfield tacks his travelogue of Poland onto the end of his Danube account), so it's not nostalgia for the places, but for the time. In the late 1990s, he claims, Germany was an uncommon tourist destination, at least for English travelers, and this appealed to him:  "There are quite enough Englishmen at home without trying to run into them abroad."  He concedes that not everyone likes to depart the well-beaten path.  His neighbour, for example, had ventured to Turkey and reported,  "Turkey is quite unspoilt, and I won't go back again until they've spoiled it, because as it is now, it's horrible!"

This book made me nostalgic for the days when we read guide books, consulted the helpful people in various tourism boards, and visited the travel agency to buy our tickets.  What's more, we could still hope to go places that few other foreign travellers visited. Mr. Enfield asked the advice of the German Tourist Board staff, and they mapped out an itinerary for him, travelling along the 'Romantische Strasse' between Würzburg and Füssen, recommending routes, restaurants and sights and making hotel reservations for him. Already this very human mode of travel planning seems like a quaint relic now, when most people have taken to booking their own travel  using internet resources like TripAdvisor. And off the beaten track? Forget about it! You can find reviews of Antarctica lodging on TripAdvisor today.

In 1997, however, it's unlikely that Mr. Enfield carried a mobile phone with him as he cycled through Bavaria, leaving him totally free to absorb the beauties and quirks of the German countryside. Serendipity was with him when he arrived at Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle late in the day, and the guard let him amble around inside after nearly all other tourists had left. (Ludwig wasn't entirely mad, he insists, just very eccentric and with a poor sense of budgets. His castle-building spree decimated the Bavarian Treasury.)

The section on Mr. Enfield's Polish cycling trip was  no less enjoyable. As I would expect him to do, he always bought the Berlitz tapes to learn at least some rudimentary phrases of the appropriate foreign language before he left home. Polish, however, completely thwarted him:  "It was the most difficult language with which I had ever meddled!" He grumbled that the written words often bore little resemblance to the spoken ones, and many phonemes simply eluded his pronunciation. (By contrast, he did quite well with the German umlauts.) The Poles seemed nonetheless delighted to see him, sometimes cycling alongside him and talking up a storm, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he understood none of it. He described horse-drawn carts full of potatoes, women wearing white head-scarves, and the dolour of Communist-era apartment blocks.

This is not an account of high adventure, or wildly exotic locations, but it's a tremendously pleasant bit of armchair travel.

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