(My review on goodreads)
One of the characteristics of good travel books is a sense of discovery, of novelty. And for books about slow travel, on foot or horseback or bicycle, a really good travel book can give a feeling of connectedness with the landscape and with (a subset of) the local people.
In A Time of Gifts, written long after the actual journey, the sense of discovery is confined to purely academic explorations of medieval history - explorations that provide the author an opportunity to display his erudition and patrician roots. And the connections made by the author’s younger self were primarily (though not exclusively) those made possible by his network of connections with the rentier class in central Europe - low level nobility and the like.
Towards the end of the book the author includes longish passages from a travel diary that he had lost during the journey but miraculously recovered as he was writing the book. Those excerpts were, in my opinion, the best part of this book. They are freed from the layers of erudition and intellectual hubris that mars the rest of the book. I would have been glad to have read an edited version of that travel journal rather than the flowery and discursive book that resulted.
Nonetheless, a description of a walking trip up the Rhine and down the Danube is bound to hold some interest. And for that trip to have happened in the early 30s - even better. Through all the highbrow discussion of historical and architectural minutiae we do get a glimpse of the lives of ordinary people in the central Europe of the time. But only a glimpse: courtesies and kindnesses extended, clothing and headwear, local dialects and customs - all mentioned in passing, and overwhelmed by the author’s strange interest in the Almanach de Gotha and in the comings and goings of the ruling elements of the Holy Roman Empire. I suppose that historical context is important in that region of the world, but a little Charles V and Richard Cœur de Lion goes a long way.