Start by standing at the Hook of Holland with your back to the North Sea, facing uncertainly inland. Allow yourself several minutes of intense reluctance to begin. Realise you can’t do that all morning, and you may as well stretch your legs. Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat. Repeat again. Keep going vaguely southeast for the next eight months.
Don’t think about your destination. It’s 2,500 miles away, the other side of seven borders and three mountain ranges. You have walked 20 miles so far. So don’t think about it.
Don’t rush. This sounds obvious, but the obsession with travelling fast is ingrained in our culture. Travelling slowly is not just something you do with you body, but with your mind. Understand that this might take you several weeks to learn.
Don’t resent the bicycles that pass you on the smooth Dutch roads. Don’t even think of resenting the cars. Don’t resent anything that moves faster than you.
Ignore the pain on the second day, when it begins to explore your feet. Ignore the pain on the third day, when it gains confidence in your shins. Ignore the pain on the fourth day, until you realise you can hardly walk. Find shelter. Rest and recover, curse yourself for being a fool, wait until the pain has gone. Continue.
Cross your first national border, which is more of a psychological border. Find the graceful River Rhine and keep it on your left. Practice the German for ‘on foot’ — zu Fuß. Walk upstream, against the current, into the heart of Europe.
Learn strategic routes through the landscape. Avoid hard-impact surfaces. Grass, leaf mulch, flowerbeds, and lawns are preferable to tarmac.
Be flexible with trespass laws. The land is not designed for your passage. A walker today is a rebel in an autocracy of cars.
Be flexible with vagrancy laws. This is not homelessness — you have homes everywhere. Learn to sleep in secluded woodlands, ruined castles on the Rhine, abandoned hunting hides.
Accept what strangers offer you: beds, sofas, cigarettes, hot meals, directions, stories. Entertain the hypothesis that your presence is not a burden. People take delight in being kind — aim not to disappoint them.
Acclimatise to gradual change. The world is different with every step. Shifts in landscape, dialect, beer are the true milestones of your journey.
In Bavaria, learn to walk in snow. It’s like learning to walk all over again, one step forward and a half-step back, sometimes plunging up to your knees. Accept that your snot will form icicles, and your beard will freeze.
Cross your second national border. Buy a warmer pair of gloves. Do not attempt to cross the Alps. Keep the Danube to your left, and follow the ice downriver.
Rest a week in Vienna. Fatten up on strudel.
Cross your third national border. Be prepared for culture shock. The language is different, the colours are different, the faces are different, the smells are different. Practice the Slovak for ‘on foot’ — pešo. Say goodbye to the winter.
Beware the dogs of Slovakia. Understand that the further east you go, the people get nicer and the dogs get nastier. Carry a stick in your hand, stones in your pocket.
Upon arrival in a village, locate the nearest bar. Endure initial baffled stares. Order beer. Wait. Within ten minutes a drunken farmer will be buying you pálinka, clasping your hand, roaring in your ear. You will have crossed a symbolic threshold. Do not underestimate the ritual power of this.
Cross your fourth national border. Forget all you learned of Slovak. Practice the Magyar for ‘on foot’ — gyalog. Walk east from Budapest.
Teach yourself to be aware of a different order of fascinations. Scraps of rubbish, centipedes, the patterns dust makes under your boots. Become adept at identifying roadkill: foxes, deer, polecats, cats, exactly half a dog.
On the Great Hungarian Plain, accept that your clothes will never look clean. Accept that you will sweat constantly. Accept that your beard will grow unruly. Accept that, by conventional standards, you will smell pretty bad.
See nothing but flatness for one day. See nothing but flatness for two days. See nothing but flatness for three days. See nothing but flatness for four days. See nothing but flatness for five days. See nothing but flatness for six days. See nothing but flatness for seven days. See nothing but flatness for eight days. On the ninth day, see hills.
Cross your fifth national border. Watch the land turn from yellow to green. Practice the Romanian for ‘on foot’ — pe jos. Eat a lot of sheep’s cheese.
Sense a shift in attitude — you feel more welcome in this land. Be prepared for everyday acts of courtesy, humour and hospitality. Wonder whether the change has happened in the culture, or in yourself.
Acclimatise yourself to new differences. Learn to read the subtle signs that indicate that you have entered a Romanian, Hungarian, Szekler, or Roma community. Absorb the prejudices of each as you do the seasons or the cooking.
Develop a series of minor eccentric and unsavoury habits. Talk to the landscape as if it’s a person. Talk to yourself, and then tell yourself (out loud) that you shouldn’t talk to yourself. Feel okay with that.
Learn to walk in hills again. Learn to walk in rain again. Learn to treat Transylvanian sheepdogs with the respect you might otherwise reserve for demigods or demons.
Cross your first mountain range. See no other person for three days. Discover wolf tracks in the snow. Realise, on top of the highest peak, that you could easily die.
Walk for one day in the fog. Walk for three days in the snow. Walk for five days in the rain. Find yourself on the point of forgetting what it’s like to be dry.
Cross your sixth national border. Follow the Danube once again. Practice the Bulgarian for ‘on foot’ — пешa. Practice a whole new alphabet.
Acclimatise yourself to new differences. Learn to read the subtle signs that indicate that you have entered an eastern, southern, Balkan, Slavic, ex-Ottoman, ex-Soviet sphere. Know that history happened yesterday here. Or it never stopped happening.
Cross your second mountain range. Cross your third mountain range. They are the same mountain range (your road is hardly straight).
On the Black Sea coast, learn to walk on sand. It’s like learning to walk all over again, one step forward and a half-step back. Discover that it’s easier to walk barefoot, on the hard sand of the tideline, your broken boots swinging from their laces round your neck.
Discover the pleasure of being clean. Stop to swim more frequently than you stop to eat.
Keep the Black Sea on your left. Walk south. You can’t get lost now.
Cross your seventh national border. There are no more borders left. Practice the Turkish for ‘on foot’ — yürüyerek. After weeks of sausage and bread, discover the joys of Turkish cooking.
Don’t think about your destination. You have walked 2,500 miles, over seven borders and three mountain ranges. Your destination is 20 miles away. So don’t think about it.
Upon arrival in a village, locate the nearest tea-shop. Endure initial baffled stares. Order tea. Wait. Within ten minutes a man will be buying you çay, clasping your hand, telling you these words: “For us it is a great honour you are here. The way we see it, you have walked all this way just to meet us.” Understand only then, after eight months of walking, that your journey was never a means to an end but an end in itself. Every person that you met — every stone and tree, every stream and hill — was your true point of destination.
Arrive in Istanbul with your eyes: first sight of skyscrapers.
Arrive in Istanbul with your feet: the outermost edgelands of the city.
Arrive in Istanbul with your mind: the glittering water of the Bosphorus, the end of Europe and the start of Asia, the point at which you can literally walk no further.
Be prepared for the paradoxical disappointment of arrival. Happiness will come to you later, but all you will feel now is sorrow.
Buy a mackerel sandwich on Galata Bridge. Sit quietly by the water. Close your eyes and listen to the seagulls, the song of the mosques. Don’t think about going home, not yet. For now, just hold that moment.
Nick Hunt is the author of Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, to be published by Nicholas Brealey in Fall 2014, on sale October 28th.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
75,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points