Dear fellow travellers
The boatman looked at me and said "Well, that's not a place you'll find on any map." Then he added: "True places never are," echoing Herman Melville who conjured up the fictional island of Rokovoko in Moby Dick.
The boatman was a generous soul, declining any payment for his effort in rowing me over to the far bank of the river. And effort it was, for the river was in autumn spate, the swollen current carrying water down from the hills far away to the north. I have never ventured far in that direction, yet there are places in the plains from where it is said there are fine views of distant hills. Or is it merely the outlines of clouds that people see on the horizon?
I have stood on the cliffs in Ireland and looked west to Hy Brazil, that fragment of lost Atlantis which has fuelled a thousand Celtic legends. You'll search in vain for Hy Brazil on any modern map, yet this legendary land has powerfully shaped Irish literature and identity.
"That's no surprise," said the boatman as we sat in sunshine on the river bank, where I told him the story of Hy Brazil. "The places that don't exist are so much more interesting," he observed.
When I was young, I believed greatly in maps. Cartography had all the solemnity of a creed. I knew every ruffle and fold in my ragged copy of Sheet 140 of the Ordnance Survey (OS) one-inch series. By day, the map was forever in the pocket of whichever jacket or cagoule I happened to be wearing. By night, it lay beside my bed. Sheet 140 was and still is a true star in the bright galaxy of maps produced by OS over the years. I learnt the contours of the terrain from Llanbyther to Llanddeusant, and I knew the cut of the B-Road that hugs the bank of the River Aeron as it runs east from Trefilan. These little Welsh intimacies were as familiar to me as the pattern of veins in the palm of my hand.
But Wales and its varied landscapes have grown over the years in my imagination to become much more than anything that could ever be presented on a map. So, even now, many years on, a fine distillation of Wales inflects my walks, my dreams and my wanderings around Europe.
The boatman had never heard of Wales. “But worry not on that score,” he said reassuringly. "The best places are the mythical ones, where foxes chase hunters and rivers flow upstream."
I smiled. The boatman smiled and then slowly he faded into the mist which had a scent as sweet as honey and drifted over the old coffin road where once the spirits of the dead danced on the bank of the river.
It has been a great privilege to serve as co-editor of 50 issues of hidden europe magazine. Over the years we have reported on many real places and a few fictitious ones too. Susanne Kries (whose steady hand and editorial pen have been essential to our venture) and I have learned a lot as we worked on each successive issue of hidden europe. And I for one have discovered how mythical places (and the places which I have in my memory shaped into myth) are often the most interesting spots on earth.
hidden europe 50 was published earlier this week. If you are a fan of good travel writing, then why not invest in a copy of the magazine? You might also consider taking out a subscription. Because, quite apart from some terrific prose about places across Europe, we promise that hidden europe will make you think - about places, real and imaginary, and about the very idea of Europe. And that might be just what Europe needs these days.
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)