Three Patrick Leigh Fermor books

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But the redeeming and beautiful line of the mountains sailed across the northern horizon. I pounded towards it, heading for the notch that marked the pass between the Sredna Gora on the west and the Karadja Dagh on the east. Finally, to hoist myself faster out of the plain, I followed a track that led up the side of the Sredna Gora, and, after finishing most of Nadejda's supplies, slept in an abandoned shepherd's lean-to of branches. It was higher and colder than I thought. I woke up to watch the dawn, as I lay luxuriously smoking one of the precious cigarettes. To the north spread a deep green valley about a dozen miles wide, and on the other side of it soared the tall golden brown range of the Great Balkan. A new world! After a drink and a wash at an icy spring trickling into a broken trough hollowed from a tree trunk, bright with green weed and surrounded by an almost fossilized humus of droppings, I struck downhill munching the last of Nadejda's apples. The cloud shadows sliding along the flanks of the Stara Planina were buckled by the scarps and the ravines. I reached the other side by late morning and crossed a river, reduced by the drought to a winding thread of pebbles which carried me to the town of Karlovo.

Ten years ago, I read Patrick Leigh Fermor's two classic books about his teenage walking journey from the Hook of Holland to "Constantinople", and regretted that the final third was unlikely to ever appear. Well, I had missed that in fact the major part of the account has been strung together posthumously, and while it's still a bit raw in places, it's still brilliantly engaging on Bulgaria, Romania and Mount Athos in the early 1930s. Bulgaria in particular gets very good treatment, the young Patrick Leigh Fermor mixing with men and women of his own age and interests, and therefore subject to more emotional involvement than he allowed to show in the two books published in his lifetime. (Nadejda sounds particularly interesting; I wonder what happened to her in the end? And there is a brilliant account of a Romanian brothel.) The one big gap is that he left only short diary notes of his time in Istanbul; it would have been great to have got his insights into the city in transition as it then was. I am particularly recommending this to my Bulgarian friends.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He reached Rotterdam just before dawn, and after an early break-fast strode off through the snow. It fell so thickly that his bare head was soon white with it, but he was in such a state of exalted energy that he did not care. He spent his first night in Dordrecht, some twenty kilometres south of Rotterdam. Having fallen asleep at the table after his supper in a waterfront bar, he was guided upstairs to a little room where he fell asleep under a huge quilt. Payment was accepted for his meal, but none for the lodging: 'This was the first marvellous instance of a kindness and hospitality that was to occur again and again on these travels.'

I really knew Patrick Leigh Fermor only for his teenage odyssey; I had forgotten, if I had ever known, that he was a very well-known travel writer already before A Time of Gifts was published, winning awards for his accounts of the Caribbean and Greece. This all came after an extraordinary incident in the war, immortalised in the film Ill Met By Moonlight, where he mastermninded and carried out, at huge personal risk, the kidnapping of the German general in charge of the occupation of Crete. He swam the Hellespont at the age of 69; a friend of mine of my own age is planning to do this next month to fight slavery – I would not be capable of it.

Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich and grand-daughter of Lady Diana Cooper, who were close friends of Leigh Fermor's, but she maintains a critical distance from her subject – notably, his inability to take orders which meant that he never successfully worked for anyone else (apart from his military career, though even that was constant chafing with authority) and his complex love life, which eventually settled down into a long-term open relationship with Joan Monsell, who he finally married after more than twenty years together. He seems to have been very happy, and generally charming (though there is a horrendous account of a disastrous set of exchanges with Somerset Maugham, in which Leigh Fermor was clearly at fault), and lived doing the things that he loved doing, leaving the world generally a better place for his existence.

Walking the Woods and the Water, by Nick Hunt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

This palace was my first encounter with the German High Baroque, an intimation of the Catholic South. Paddy had slept in this rococo pile as the guest of the resident Bürgermeister, but since then the building had been destroyed by Allied bombs – these scrolling red and yellow walls were a perfect replica, built from plans discovered in the ruins. There was no bed for me here; the place was now a museum. Instead I stayed in a modern apartment with an engineer called Thomas, and my first act was to slip in his bathroom and snap his toilet seat into two perfect halves.

If a thing is worth doing, it's probably worth doing again, and Nick Hunt replicated Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1933-34 walk, as far as possible, in 2011. The world has changed, and the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have all changed too since 1934. The journey changes the writer as well; the pace of walking is of course far different to the more usual speed of travel today, and enables him to engage with the locals in a way that we casual tourists who drop in and out of hotels, pubs and restaurants will never get. Some of it is depressing – the relationship between Hungarians and Romanians is never going to be smooth; war, Communism, industrialisation and ethnic homogenisations have reshaped and destroyed large parts of the landscape that Leigh Fermor knew, particularly the homes of the Hungarian nobles who he visited and made love to. At the same time, crucially, Hunt is travelling across a continent at peace, and unlikely to return to war; where Leigh Fermor caught a moment in time as the old order entered its terminal disintegration, Hunt captures societies picking themselves up – some more slowly than others – after the disasters of the twentieth century. It is a rather hopeful account.

Many thanks to Bob Hall who gave me the first and third of these for my birthday – I had bought the Diana Cooper biography a couple of years ago and this spurred me to read it too.