Mathijs Deen – Down Old Roads






The imagination    

Boekelo – Leersum (1968)

The ideal

Geneva, U.N. head offices (2015)

The pioneer

The first European

Dmanisi – Atapuerca – Happisburgh (800,000 B.C.)

The drifter 

Obelix’s Kettle

Elba – Danube (101 B.C,)

The bandit  

Bulla the Lucky

Byzantium – Rome (207 A.D.)

The pilgrim   

The inner peace of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir

Laugarbrekka – Rome (1025 A.D.)

The fortune-hunter

The disguises of Esther

Portugal – Amsterdam – Stockholm (1653 A.D.)

The conqueror 

Conscript Coenraad Nell

Wassenaar – Smolensk (1812 A.D.)

The racer 

Charles Jarrot’s final finish

Paris – Vienna (1902 A.D.)

The prodigal son 

Mohamed Sayem returns to Africa

Leiden – Aounout (2016 A.D.)


Boekelo – Leersum (2017 A.D.)




The ideal

Geneva, U.N. head offices (2015 A.D.)

E8 London — Colchester — Harwich (ferry to Hook of Holland and to Antwerp, boat to Esbjerg) Hook of Holland — The Hague — Gouda — Utrecht — Amersfoort — Oldenzaal — Osnabruck — Bad Oeynhausen — Hanover — Magdeburg — Berlin — Poznan — Krosniewice — Lowicz — Warsaw — (ussr).


From: Declaration on the Construction of Main International Traffic Arteries, UN Geneva 1950




That there is a centrally regulated, cohesive network of European roads, roads thousands of miles long that span the entire European continent and continue deep into Asia, connecting the territories of neighboring clans, trading partners, provisional friends, sworn enemies and linguistic families, is not a part of any shared European awareness. Only the rare few are even aware of who is responsible for that network’s existence. Those undergoing a midlife urge to cross vast distances on their own are much more likely to turn to America, and follow Route 66 or the Pan-American Highway. A resolution to discover the length and breadth of the E30 – for purposes of catharsis or personal improvement – can count on very little understanding. The roads of Europe play no role in a national narrative, not the way the roads in America do. Here no Grapes of Wrath, here no nation-building beside the routes that unlocked the continent, here no conquest of the landscape along the backbone of thoroughfares.

Explanations abound. Europe’s routes have been there for thousands of years, their roadbeds worn by migrations, trade and conquest. They belong to no one in particular. They traverse a patchwork continent, inhabited traditionally by clans united only in their mutual hostility. Thoroughfares cross the neighbor’s yard, and whether he will receive you with open arms is very much the question. The visionaries who, more or less justifiably, wished to build monuments to themselves in the form of cross-border roads (the Romans, Napoleon, Hitler) did so in order to hold entire regions in their sway, to move troops and to provision them. Where roads were built, armies soon followed. Highways rarely brought with them much good.

Europe had barely been peopled when its inhabitants began bashing each other’s brains in. Archaeological sites regularly confront peace-loving scientists with evidence, such as crushed skulls and gnawed femurs, that show how hard it is for humans and their closest relatives to keep their hands to themselves. war is a human by-product the newspaper headlines read then, or: hunter-gatherer was a warrior too. The finds make short work of the idea that war was invented only when humans settled permanently on claimed land; people who, in other words, had something to lose. the degree of violence is astounding is how the paper will cite an archeologist on occasion, referring to the bones broken or crushed with obvious forethought.

From the moment of its first human settlement, Europe has been a continent of conflict where even nomadic hunters had a hard time avoiding each other at all times. The continent itself is a peninsula, crisscrossed by paths that run into a dead end at seas, rivers and mountain ranges. Clans isolated by climate change or other factors moved around their hunting grounds like slow cyclones. Upon the northern plains the world seemed to open endlessly onto the east, were it not for the northern-bound rivers that cut off unlimited access there too.

Whenever the Europeans encountered those of their own kind, telling blows were never long in coming. Mass graves filled with grimly murdered Stone Age victims, with Germanic tribes wiped out by Caesar’s own hand or farm boys plucked from village life by Napoleon and driven pell-mell down snow-covered roads; no one is surprised is by this. That makes it an almost charming idea, the thought that one could reduce or even rule out conflicts in Europe by using passable roads to open up the various territories, one unto the other.




The initiative to refurbish the whole shooting match did not, of course, appear out of thin air. In his Driving Europe, Frank Schippers shows us that, even at the height of WWII, farsighted officials had begun drawing up the balance. The war had destroyed so much, and of course that would all have to be dealt with after peace broke out. On the home front, the Allied governments were hard at work figuring out what would be needed after the war to tidy up all the things their armies were blasting to smithereens at that same moment.

After the German capitulation, that work was taken over by the European Central Inland Transport Organization (ECITO), and when the U.N. itself promptly set up the regional commission for Europe, the trans-European ideal received its stately housing in Geneva.

The idea that the former foes had to move forward together, not only by reconstructing everything that had been destroyed but also by giving a clear field for each other’s trans-border traffic, took some getting used to.  Yet the first planned routes through postwar Europe saw the former archenemies working side-by-side. From London and Paris, the E1 and E2 were to cross Italian territory. The E3 (Lisbon – Paris – Stockholm) was planned through the heart of flattened Germany. If one had been able to follow the E3 back in 1947, the sections through the Ruhr, Hannover and Hamburg in particular would have been a good deal less than cheery, although portions of the route close to Oberhausen and Hamburg were fairly doable because of the construction work Hitler had done there already.

In 1950, the plan was complete. It was documented in the Declaration on the Construction of Main International Traffic Arteries, a proposal for twenty-six cross-border highways and a number of other connecting roads across the European continent.

From northernmost Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from Brest to Lviv. Its mien businesslike, the text of the declaration says that “it is essential, in order to establish closer relations between European countries, to lay down a co-ordinated plan for the construction or reconstruction of roads suitable for international traffic.”

Not everyone signed the agreement right away, not everyone got involved. But that was only a matter of time. It was September 16, 1950. Europe was starting all over again.




The pioneer

The First European

Dmanisi – Atapuerca – Happisburgh (800,000 B.C.)


As far as the eye could reach a spread of

Wind-weary grass, roofed by a wind-blown

Sky, an eagle poised far off, a dot in the upper air

Nothing more.

  1. Hesketh Prichard, 1902


Everything you can imagine has already happened.

Long before the first voyagers entered Europe, castaways had been washed ashore; hunters who lived along the northern coast of Africa at a time when no human had set foot in Europe. Without a doubt, at some point a homo erectus must have slipped off a rock and fallen into the sea, or waded into the water on the far shore of Gibraltar, after a meager winter, eyes fixed on the far shore, pushing a tree trunk out in front of him. The current took the hapless fisherman or tree-straddling hunter gently but irreversibly along with it, away from land, out to open sea. The cold water surrounded him, drew the life from his arms and legs, then the lungs, the brains, the heart. And there where first there was shock and mortal fear grew the submission of the collapsed prey that no longer struggles against the end. The cold overwhelmed him like a vision, a clear memory of warmth, of light that gradually faded in a painless death.

The current carried their bodies to the ocean like floating kelp, along the dreary west coast of Europe to the north, dropped them days later on the gravel along a bay or the sand beside an estuary. Gulls and crows landed on them and took off again. Day-long drizzles rinsed the rotting flesh from their bones.

No one found them. Europe belonged to the animals alone.

Even if such accidents took place only a few times each millennium, all the unfortunates who washed ashore on the beaches of a vacant Europe would fill a charnel house with thousands of drowned remains; skulls which, if placed in the right order, would start looking more and more like our own, but never completely.


The first voyagers to reach the coast alive did not come by sea, but over land. They arrived from the east, walking along the coast. They were in no hurry. They had no destination.

Where dead castaways had once washed ashore, they passed, warm and breathing. On clear spring days, for example, when the sun shone at their backs and the world to the north lay open. Their gaze was fixed at times on the forest’s edge, inland, at time on the tidepools at their feet or the horizon in front of them; the empty coastline going on and on. When the wind came from sea, their skin crimped and the hairs on their back stood up. When it came from land, clouds of pollen blew out from the conifer forests. They tasted it on their lips, they smelled the odor of resin, dung and drying fur. A flock of sandpipers flew up at their approach and settled down again behind them, the surf erased their footprints from the empty beach.

They were the first, but because they didn’t know that, they were on their guard. That is how they moved northward.




Just outside the village of Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast is a narrow road closed to traffic. A sign has been placed to that effect, and a mobile red-and-white cordon. And to show that those who have closed off the road are serious, a waist-high block of concrete has been placed behind the cordon.

A little less than a hundred yards further, the reason for the closure becomes clear. The road has broken off like a tab of chocolate, and the missing piece has fallen into the depths. Ten yards below roars the surf of the North Sea, which on stormy days has knocked away the land beneath the road.

Lying on the narrow beach is a telephone pole, a chunk of masonry, a broken sewage pipe. Houses once stood here too. Now there is the sea.

A row of concrete blocks has been placed along the high-water line. A wooden framework meant to keep back the sea is bashed to splinters in places. When the storm rages the water effortlessly passes these obstacles and rushes against the sandy cliffs; when the waves are even a little insistent, those cliffs are undermined and collapse. All the way to the horizon, the water is colored a dirty yellow.

Along the strip where the cliffs once stood, a stubborn terrace of clay remains. This is the deep substrate on which Happisburgh rests. Due to the many layers of sand which once lay upon it, the clay is hard and compact. Now that the cliffs have been knocked away, it looks the Wadden Shallows at low tide. And that is precisely what it once was, back in the early Stone Age, when this was the Thames delta. Where the mouth of the Thames is today, about eighty miles south, there once stood a limestone bridge extending all the way to France.


You could let this story begin in May of 2013, when a hungry tide had once against nibbled tons of sand from the coast and dragged it out to sea. The next day the wind died down and the sun came through. Two archaeologists, Martin Bates and Nick Ashton, are walking across the freshly-bared, early-Paleolithic clay, in search of samples for their research. The sea in front of them is a colleague hard to restrain, one day assisting in the search for the earliest human population of England by rinsing clean the old deposits, but obstructing that same search on the next, stormy day by flooding the existing digs.

For years, the coast of Norfolk and neighboring Suffolk have been producing so much data that our knowledge of the earliest population of England has risen like a spring tide. That morning, Nick Ashton was not in a carefree mood. In fact, he wanted to get back as quickly as possible to his office at the Natural History Museum in London, to prepare for yet another conference with even more news for his fellow archaeologists.

“Those are footsteps, aren’t they?” Bates said, reaching out to stop Ashton from walking on.

Before their own feet, an irregular pattern of depressions fanned out across the clay. And indeed, if you squinted a little they really did look like the tracks of a group who had walked together, willy-nilly, through deep mud: small feet, big feet, all bare feet, a family probably, moving casually, almost playfully, looking for something in the mud.

An unsolicited discovery rarely comes at a convenient moment. “Those are fresh tracks,” Ashton tried, “nothing special.” But he knew better.

To suppose that these tracks were  fresh was absurd. Even if all the families with children in Happisburgh had spent an hour at low tide jumping up and down on this clay, it would barely have produced a dent. The clay may not have been petrified, but the sediment that had been pushed and blown on top of it, layer by layer, for almost a million years, had compressed it so that only a knife or sharp stone could scratch its surface. And these tracks were deep, clearly left behind when the clay was still soft, fresh mud. There was no way they could be recent. These were footsteps made on a riverbank in the early Stone Age. Probably left behind just before a high tide rolled in and filled and covered them with coarse-grained sand.

That sand had then been covered, layer by layer, with new sand until, eight hundred thousand years later, it was all washed away.


Eight hundred thousand years. As they stood looking at what lay before them, the enormity of that number dawned on Bates and Ashton. What looked so familiar and quotidian, a hopscotch trail they themselves could have imitated in a frolicsome mood, was in fact a window the sea had pushed open, onto a period when archaeology assumed that no human had yet set foot in England.

So now what? These footsteps had lay under the sand unharmed for so long, but now that they were on the surface something had to be done fast. With every high tide they would wear away further, or be covered again. The preparations for the conference would have to wait. Both men pulled out their cells.

From the collapsed road along the cliff’s edge, one could see them pacing the narrow beach below, gesturing wildly and talking into their phones.




Anyone traveling through Europe is always following someone else’s path. Beneath every footstep lies an earlier one.

But a band of humans had once been the first to enter the continent, the animals grazing there saw them loom up at the edge of their pasture. The most attentive creatures in those herds would have stared at the newcomers for a time, sniffed their scent, recognized nothing, lost interest, grazed on. They did not run away. That came later.

When that was, who those people were, where they came from; the answers to those questions have gone on changing and being revised ever since the final decade of the last century.

In a disciplinary article published in 1994, Kolfschoten and Roebroeks of the University at Leiden tried to counteract the wildest of the scenarios. Bolder colleagues were claiming, after all, that our evolutionary distant cousins had been walking in and out of Europe for almost two million years. More modest claims of one million years had also been made, while some were willing to go no further than half a million. The advocates of the various hypotheses argued vehemently among themselves.

The article from Leiden was meant to put an end to all the hubbub. It stated that there was absolutely no conclusive evidence for a human presence in Europe older than 500,000 years. The continent had been the barren back-of-beyond in the early Stone Age, the cul-de-sac of prehistory where time had deposited nothing but flotsam, as the discoverer of Lascaux, Abbé Breuil, had said already in 1912.

A look at the map shows us that this was hardly a silly idea. Europe had always been a remote and hard-to-reach peninsula, blocked off by coastlines in three directions. Homo erectus, that stubborn opportunist who had found his way from Africa to the Middle East almost two million years ago, had turned right there and headed into Asia. Or had settled on the shores of a lake at the foot of the Caucuses, as in Dmanisi, in Georgia. Who knows how often he had walked to and from Africa in the meantime. In 1994, the question of whether erectus had at that time already explored the coasts and riverbanks of Anatolia was still up in the air. In any case, nothing had yet been found to indicate that.

And Europe was even more distant. The way there hit a dead end at the deep, cold straits of the Bosporus. Anyone trying a detour around the northern coast of the Black Sea would not only have to climb the wall of the Caucuses, but also brave the discouragingly cold winters in those parts.

So what about Gibraltar? Finds in Algeria showed that erectus had populated the northern coast of Africa early on. And from the beach along the Strait of Gibraltar he could not have helped but see Spain. Anyone who attempted the crossing, though, would have drowned.

That was Europe: the land on the far side, close enough to pick out details in the landscape, yet still beyond reach. In lean years, when game was skittish or scarce and the North-African hunters had to subsist on pine nuts, cactus fruit and wild oats, they definitely must have been curious about the far side, about the unreachable mountains.

And it is tempting to wonder how they felt in spring and autumn, when they saw the migratory birds flying back and forth from the far side, to the mountain whose summit was so often shrouded in cloud. Vultures too circled their way to the far side – and returned well-fed. There they would have seen, just as one does today, stretches of half-open grassland, they could tell from the shadows and vegetation where the rivers ran, where one might expect a cave, who knows, perhaps the most observant among them had, at the height of summer, seen clouds of dust rising up from a galloping herd; in any case, they looked with the hunter’s eye, and they must have understand that this was a place like their own, where one could hunt and live. And they must have asked themselves what it would be like over there, on the far side, beneath that sky where the sun never came. Whether someone lived there.

Gods. People. Ancestors.


Sample translation by Sam Garrett