CHARLIE CONNELLY on an astonishing travel book that tracks the continent’s myths and sagas and links its past with its present.
On the day after the 2016 referendum Nicholas Jubber was sitting in a horse-drawn carriage clopping towards the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria with his wife, child and a man from Düsseldorf who was holding out his phone to show his fellow travellers just how fast the pound was falling.
“You guys made a big mistake,” he said.
Shortly after reaching the castle Jubber noticed a painting of Siegfried killing a dragon, a scene from the 12th century legend of the Nibelungen, and over the following weeks made connections between that story and a host of others from across Europe, “a patchwork quilt of storytelling” as he calls it, as Britain played out its remarkable national identity crisis. Pulling together this collection of ancient tales would lead to Jubber commencing an epic journey of his own.
A few months after that Bavarian squint at a German iPhone, Jubber was in Turkey preparing to embark on a journey across Europe on the trail of the continent’s most enduring stories, an odyssey – pun intended – of some 3,000 miles crossing 18 countries that would take him all the way to Iceland.
Noting how the great European epics have all seemed to appear in times of great upheaval – The Odyssey in the traumatic aftermath of the Trojan War and Beowulf during the transition from paganism to Christianity – he surmised that the post-Brexit vote fallout was the perfect time to set off on an epic journey of his own.
Many of us have probably felt like skipping the country at various times over the last three years but Jubber went through with it, embarking on a mammoth journey between the Europe’s farthest reaches. The result is Epic Continent, an original and thoroughly absorbing book by a travel writer of immense ability.
In the great literary tradition of writers like Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jubber has a deep knowledge of the epics whose narratives and journeys he follows and wears it with enough gravitas to enlighten while retaining a light touch that never trivialises his subject matter.
This is an old-fashioned travel book in the best sense, involving no gimmicks nor making the author the focus of some contrived quirky quest, and Jubber is an ideal guide, a companion not a lecturer.
Taking on a book that encompasses the entire continent of Europe with all its nations, peoples, climates and histories is an immense task, but by immersing himself in the epics and sagas that have been passed down through the centuries in every corner of the continent and placing them in a contemporary context Jubber succeeds in bringing to life our culturally, geographically and politically diverse continent.
We live in a Europe forged in stories and the great epics are the most enduring of them all. Some are tales of patriotic heroism in battle, some of quests and derring-do, others of basic human compassion and still more are forged in good old-fashioned romance. The fact that many of them are hung on the same themes despite being composed and disseminated in the farthest-flung corners of Europe lends a continental cohesion to the tales and, by extension, to Jubber’s excellent book.
Many of the centuries-old stories still whisper to us today, their themes and devices forming the backbone of novels, films, television series and operas, and some can still be co-opted for politically nefarious ends. The 14th century Battle of Kosovo Polje, at which the Serbs were defeated by the invading Ottomans, for example – inspiring the Kosovo cycle of poems, which frames some of Jubber’s journey – was cited by Slobodan Milosevic to stir the nationalist sentiments of the Serbian people after the collapse of Yugoslavia at the turn of the 1990s and helped to trigger the subsequent Balkan wars.
One of the key figures in the cycle, Milos Obilic, had his name attached to the football team FK Obilic of Belgrade which was taken over in the 1990s by the paramilitary leader of the notorious Serbian Tigers Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, who funded and intimidated the team’s way from obscurity to the Champions League qualifying rounds.
Another of Jubber’s epics The Song of Roland, based on the eighth century Battle of Roncevaux Pass between the Basques and Charlemagne’s forces, provided a musical opening to the Battle of Hastings: When the Normans lined up at the bottom of Senlac Hill while Harold’s army ranged across the top, it took the Norman minstrel Taillefer to break an awkward hesitation on the part of the invaders by dancing into the no-man’s land between the armies juggling with his sword and singing The Song of Roland before charging single-handed at the Saxon lines, snapping the Normans out of their lethargy to set off in pursuit. (The Song of Roland was only about 20 years old at the time so practically a contemporary banger, albeit one commemorating a 300-year-old battle at the other end of Europe.)
It’s this kind of connection across terrain and centuries that fires Jubber’s journey. What helps to make Epic Continent so good is how the author doesn’t spent his whole time immersed in the epics at the expense of what’s around him.
On only the second page of the journey, for example, on the trail of Odysseus’s journey home from the wars the author finds himself on the island of Chios off the coast of Turkey, a “hub of the ‘refugee crisis’ currently holding nearly four thousand ‘unprocessed’ asylum seekers”. He doesn’t just have a quick look round before searching for traces of Odysseus either: he volunteers for a few weeks at a school for refugees operating out of a disused hairdressing salon.
Refugees and asylum seekers feature throughout the journey. “To be a refugee is to be unwanted,” he writes, “an exile, suspected by the authorities and the locals, and worst of all by those around you; like Odysseus returning to Ithaca in disguise, ‘a brazen, shameless beggar’ in the words of the suitor Antinous.”
This is skilful writing, drawing together an ancient story with contemporary events in a way that some writers would have over-egged and made contrived but which Jubber leaves entirely for the reader to process.
Everywhere he goes Jubber finds the right people and the right places. When he sets off in search of the Nibelunglied, a 12th century German epic, his journey takes him first to the annual festival dedicated to the poem in Worms, where he finds a new setting performed as the headline event of the festivities, Siegfried of Arabia, placing the story in the Middle East during the First World War.
“It’s all about stories,” the play’s author Albert Ostermaier tells him about the source material, “because that’s what politics is – it’s about who has the best storyline.”
Jubber has uncomfortable conversations with far-right Alternative for Germany supporters ahead of the German national elections as well as meeting their nemeses, Syrian refugees who had paid 1,500 euros to people smugglers for a six-week walk from Turkey. The Nibelunglied trail subsequently takes him to Passau, on the Austro-German border at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz, a town where Hitler spent part of his childhood.
“Hitler’s boyhood home at number 23 Theresienstrasse bears no number, and of course there is no plaque,” Jubber writes. “The only reference I found to Hitler on his old street was a sticker on a downpipe: a cartoon Führer slashed by the slogan ‘Nazis Stoppen’ – the work of ‘young socialists’ of the Social Democratic Party.”
When he does tackle political issues head on he’s determined, informed and enlightening. On the trail of Beowulf, a poem in Old English believed to have been composed around the turn of the 11th century, he (somehow) ends up in Stoke-on-Trent and speculates upon how terms like ‘Anglo-Saxon’ have been appropriated by the right to mean something they don’t seem to quite understand.
“None of the politicians manipulating these terms were able to quote from the gems of Anglo-Saxon culture, nor to recognise the continental trading network to thrive,” he writes of the rabble rousers hollering about Anglo-Saxon attitudes. “Nor were they aware of the telling irony that the most iconic work of Anglo-Saxon literature is set in two nations still in the EU with a narrative that dramatises the importance of diplomatic alliances.”
While in Stoke he hears from a policeman about a far-right group called the Stoke-on-Trent Infidels and drops them a line, learning from a brief written exchange they are against the “Muslim takeover of Stoke-on-Trent”, a trope he’s heard echoed across Europe from Greece to Germany and beyond. He places this exchange alongside a meeting he has with the people behind a campaign for an independent Mercia, still railing against the illegal annexation of the Mercian lands by the Normans in the years after 1066, illustrating just how long perceived historical and political grievances can endure.
What’s also impressive about Jubber’s journey is how prepared he is to rough it, a strategy that allows him to see aspects of Europe that would be missed by someone flitting between identikit hotels on air-conditioned trains. He walks great swathes of the journey and spends days and nights in the underbelly of the continent.
In Copenhagen, for example, he saves himself “a few hundred kroner by night-spotting at the Central Station. Come the witching hour many of my fellow nocturnals were chatting in Arabic, or there were African guys listening to their tunes, hunching on the benches, trying the deal on the fried dough balls at McDonald’s”.
Not many travel writers today would be prepared to walk the walk like this as well as talk the talk, but Jubber’s willingness to hang out in places most of us would seek to avoid – I still get the cold sweats thinking about a night spent on the concourse of Prague’s main station 20 years ago – gives his book an extra authenticity, allowing him to observe in a Danish refugee welcome centre how he had been “struck by the range of motivations for flight, stories so much more complicated than the media clichés” all the way across Europe.
It’s this kind of empathy that helps to make Jubber such an excellent writer and he falls into easy company with the displaced people he encounters (his previous books have seen him travel through Iran, Afghanistan and the Sahara so he has plenty to discuss with them).
The encounters with people provide the key to Epic Continent being one of the best travel books you’ll read this year. Like the best travel writers he knows other people have the best stories for which the author is the conduit, from the ancient epics that prompt his journey to those told by the people he meets. All of Europe is here in the local and the displaced, making one vast epic story of its own.
Epic Continent: Adventures In The Great Stories Of Europe by Nicholas Jubber is published by John Murray, price £20.