Along the Amber Route: St Petersburg to Venice by C.J. Schüler – Review
By Barney Bardsley
There is something mesmerising about amber. Its honey-coloured opalescence is enjoyed these days for its charm, its oval smoothness held to the light for the sun to catch its liquid radiance. But once, this pretty jewel was a prize of huge value, source of a trade route long and disputatious, from the time of the Romans and beyond. Author C. J. Schüler fell under its spell as a child, since his father “had a small piece of opaque, tawny amber, about an inch long, crescent-shaped and holed in the middle like a bead”, which sat on his desk – and which now sits on that of his son, in place of pride and remembrance.
Decades later, the author, lover of maps and history, found himself compelled to study amber in greater depth, to follow the Amber Route himself, and to travel from St Petersburg to Venice, in search of its traces. Along the – arduous and fascinating – way, he unearthed fragments of family history and politics, as well as pieces of the amber treasure itself. The result is this book: part memoir, part travelogue, part historical treatise. Above all, he offers a paean of praise to amber itself, in a work of great erudition and grace.
What exactly is amber? As Schüler explains, “It began its existence as resin oozing from the trunks of conifers in the prehistoric forests of northern Scandinavia between 40 and 50 million years ago.” Slowly, the liquid settled and hardened, catching small insects and plant fragments – even the feathered tail of a small dinosaur – in its honey trap. It was the Baltic which yielded much of the world’s supply, triggering a trade route which started in Roman times and before, with its source at the top of the Gulf of Finland, and its ultimate destination the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Quite a journey.
“Dizzying encyclopaedia of fact and anecdote”
One of the most famous displays of amber was to be found in the Catherine Palace, 25 kilometres south of St Petersburg. A display of opulent wealth, this was a whole room made of amber, with even the walls themselves carved in it, backed with gold foil to reflect the light. It must have been a dazzling sight. But then came revolutions and terrible wars. In 1941 it was hidden behind false walls to protect it from the marauding Germans. In vain. It was found, stolen – and then completely disappeared. The Amber Room that now stands in St Petersburg is but a faithful and painstaking replica.
As Schüler makes his slow and careful way from St Petersburg southwards, passing through the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; then Poland and the Czech Republic; and finally Austria and Slovenia; before landing in Venice – his final destination, he weaves an intricate web of political, historical and personal detail around each place he visits. The result is a dizzying encyclopaedia of fact and anecdote, which is almost too intense and intricate at times, for the reader to take in fully. The passages which fully come alive are the places of difficulty or struggle: the local guides who obfuscate, the grim lodgings, the terrible weather. In short, it is the humanity of his journey which captures the imagination, as much as, if not more than, the intellectual rigour of his research.
The sections on Poland, in which Schüler sets out to investigate the history of his own Jewish relatives, are particularly compelling. But the purpose of the journey – the amber itself – is never far from view. Schüler never loses sight of his true goal. And when he finds his treasure – whether it is fragments of amber, scavenged from cold and lonely Baltic beaches, or buildings jammed full of the glittering prize – his prose begins to hum with excitement, and you wish you were there alongside him to witness it.
“Packed full of incident”
In Gdánsk Old Town, he visits the Amber Museum, in which “the star of the show… is a whole lizard encased in a lump of amber… found on a beach near Gdánsk”. One can imagine how he feels in these moments, face to face with his beautiful quarry, after such a long and difficult journey.
It is the bleak or deceitful places that linger in the mind after reading this book. Like grim old Kaliningrad, Russian outpost, stuck between Lithuania and Poland, “raw, unlovely”, and, with its brutalist architecture and severe unfriendliness, an unsettling throwback to Soviet isolationism. Or Venice itself, supposedly so beautiful, but actually, as Schüler confesses, “all artifice, glimpsed fleetingly by night… At the end of my journey, I had come full circle to a phantasmal city of canals, mists and mirrors”.
The only thing lacking in this book, which is packed full of incident and scholarly insight, is illustration. There are clear and helpful maps for each stage of the Amber Route, but I longed for photographs of all the unusual places. Still, all is not lost, for Schüler now has an Instagram feed with some glorious pictures of the cities and towns he passed through, along his pilgrim’s way, and they are well worth looking at, to add depth and flavour to a truly original and accomplished book.
‘Along the Amber Route: St Petersburg to Venice’ by C.J.Schüler is published by Sandstone Press, £16.99 hardback