Walking Paddy’s Route in Mitelleuropa: Frugal Europe, on Foot

It’s time to be honest now: who amongst the regular readers of this blog, or even those that stumble across us because they have read ‘A Time of Gifts’ or ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, has not thought about following Paddy’s 1930’s route? For myself it is a definite goal. It is an ambition; probably a passion. I had come across the following article but have been inspired to re-produce it by Blog reader Matt who says he first got into Paddy’s work when stationed in Baghdad:

Tom, The New York Times travel writer, Matt Gross, just did an article on PLF. He walked the Vienna to Budapest stretch recently … I first read PLF while stationed in Baghdad four years ago and revisit him often. Living in Heidelberg, I’ve been able to visit some of the places he mentioned specifically and have recommended A Time For Gifts to many of my fellow Americans living here or travelling to Europe. As I’m in the process of moving back to the States, it will be a few years before I’m able to pick up the thread of his travels. I’m not sure if you’re in contact with PLF, but pass him the respects of this Yankee officer. Matt

Frugal Europe, on Foot

First published in the New York Times,  May 23, 2010

The article is written by New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist Matt Gross who attempted to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like all good stories it begins ….

ONCE upon a time, a young man went for a walk. It was December 1933, and an 18-year-old Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor put on a pair of hobnail boots and a secondhand greatcoat, gathered up his rucksack and left London on a ship bound for Rotterdam, where he planned to travel 1,400 miles to Istanbul [Ed: Constantinople!] — on foot. He had virtually no money; at best, he’d arrive in, say, Munich to find his mother had sent him £5. But what he did have was an outgoing nature, a sense of adventure, an affinity for languages and a broad network of friends of friends.

 “If I lived on bread and cheese and apples,” he later wrote, “jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, there would even be some cash left over for papers and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”

 Something to write about indeed! The books he produced from the yearlong journey — “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” — are gorgeously rendered classics that have led many to call Mr. Leigh Fermor, now 95, Britain’s greatest living travel writer. But to my mind, he’s always had another title: the original Frugal Traveler — the embodiment of that idea that, though a wanderer may be penniless, he doesn’t have to suffer.

 And Mr. Leigh Fermor never suffered, thanks to the miracle of human generosity. Peasants gave him baskets of eggs and swigs of raspberry schnapps. Small-town mayors found him beds. The lingering nobility of Europe put him up in their castles, invited him to balls and lent him their horses. When Mr. Leigh Fermor did sleep rough — in hayricks and barns or on the banks of his beloved Danube — he did it by choice, not because (or not merely because) poverty required it. He knew, even at 18, that the world is an experience to be savored in all its multifarious incarnations.

Matt Gross' route

Could a young person (is 35 still young?) with strong legs and little money find the same spirit of hospitality that Mr. Leigh Fermor encountered some 76 years ago? At the end of March, I set out to find the answer. With only two weeks free, my plan was to walk from Vienna to Budapest, a 180-mile route that would connect the old poles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and track Mr. Leigh Fermor’s trail as closely as possible, taking me along the Danube to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, and across the plains of Slovakia south to Hungary — through three countries whose languages, cultures and histories could not be more different, or more intertwined.

It was tempting, the day I arrived in Vienna, to just walk east from the airport, but I couldn’t completely skip the Austrian capital, where Mr. Leigh Fermor had spent three weeks among the “crooked lanes” and “facades of broken pediment and tiered shutter.” And so I followed his lead, going into the imperial crypt, where the grandest members of the Hapsburg family lay entombed in elaborate sarcophagi, and into the museums, although I shied away from the most famous in favor of oddities like the International Esperanto Museum. And I luxuriated in storied places like Cafe Alt Wien and Cafe Bendl.

But after two nights in Vienna, I was restless. So I crossed the Danube, put on my 45-pound pack and took off down the Donauradweg, a well-kept biking trail that runs from the river’s source to its mouth at the Black Sea. To my right, the Danube, more green than blue, sparkled in the cool sunlight, and I encountered fishermen tending their rods, elderly sunbathers, nordic hikers poling along and cyclists speeding in both directions.

This first day, I figured, I’d take it easy and do only 15 miles. Ideally, I’d need to hit 18 miles a day — about six hours of walking — to reach my goal. It seemed reasonable, especially with the terrain so uniformly flat. The path, sometimes dirt, sometimes paved, would often stretch so far and straight that I couldn’t imagine I’d ever reach the end, and then I’d finally hit a slight turn and face the same thing: an art-school lesson in perspective, complete with the first low foothills of the Carpathians at the vanishing point — and a scampering rabbit to remind me this was no still life.

Even with such straightforward terrain, there were snags. An attempted shortcut through a fuel depot left me with minor scratches and an extra three miles. But such mistakes have a way of turning out for the best. Had I stayed on the trail, I would have never crossed paths, two hours later, at the edge of Donau-Auen National Park, with Jean-Marc and Marie, newlywed French cyclists who stopped to say hello when they saw a lone hiker in the middle of nowhere. They were taking an extended honeymoon: a two-year bicycle journey from their home in Paris — to Japan!

“Do you know where you’re staying tonight?” I asked. They didn’t. I told them to meet me at Orth an der Donau, a small Austrian town a couple of miles farther down the Danube, where I had arranged for a place to stay via CouchSurfing.org. Maybe, I said, my host could find them somewhere to pitch their tent.

THE host, Roland Hauser, whom we met in front of Orth’s impressive castle, did better than that. He invited them home to his dreamland of soft beds and hot showers. Roland, 26, had traveled from California to Southeast Asia to New Zealand, and his German-accented English was peppered with words like “sí” and “bueno.” That evening, we cooked spaghetti Bolognese, nibbled Südtirolean ham and drank big bottles of beer. I went to sleep marveling at our extraordinary, Fermorian luck.

In the morning, after coffee, I threw out my underwear. This was a strategy to lighten my load — bring old undies and get rid of them day by day. Frankly, I should have done that with everything, as the pack was needlessly heavy. Along with two weeks’ worth of shirts, I had an ultralight down jacket, a waterproof shell and rain pants. A tent and sleeping bag. One pair of jeans and lightweight canvas shoes to change into at day’s end; nothing worse than walking 20 miles and spending the evening in the same clothes. And I packed Mr. Leigh Fermor’s books and Claudio Magris’s “Danube,” which I never had time to read. And my computer and camera gear — work necessities, alas.

When I set off, I was wearing my typical walking outfit: khaki pants by a company in Portland, Ore., called Nau; waterproof running sneakers by Lafuma; good socks (as important as good shoes); and a long-sleeved cotton shirt.

The walk began well. My feet were tender, but the flatness of the Marchfelddamm, a high berm that doubled as biking path and flood deterrent, ensured that I wasn’t struggling. This was the heart of the Donau-Auen National Park: forests of thin trees broken by occasional streams flowing to the Danube. At first, I appreciated the play of light on the water and between the trunks, but hour after plodding hour of unchanging scenery soon became mind-numbing, and I simply marched, putting one foot in front of the other and watching for kilometer markers. It would be 13 miles before I could stop for lunch, and another 10 before I reached my day’s goal: Bratislava.

But there’s a funny thing about long walks. With patience, all those steps add up, and by 2 p.m., I’d crossed a bridge over the Danube and settled into a cafe in the stately town of Hainburg, where an open-faced baguette pizza and glass of beer gave me the courage to face the miles ahead. And soon I found myself trudging along the shoulder of the small highway with cars flying past — and missing the monotonous near-silence of the forest.

Not far off, I could see Bratislava’s hilltop castle — in Mr. Leigh Fermor’s era, a burned-out wreck worked by prostitutes but in the 1950s rebuilt as a stately white-and-red palace — and it teased me with its apparent nearness. Still, I had far to go, past a derelict border post, and through three miles of snaking bike paths, before I crossed the Danube again and was in the heart of Bratislava’s old town, all cobblestones and tile roofs and sidewalk cafes.

After checking into the Hotel Kyjev — a 1970s tower turned budget boutique — I checked myself out: I wasn’t sore, out of breath or even tired. I did have blisters on my feet, but they were easily treated: puncture, drain, clean, bandage. My ankles, however, were terribly swollen, the peroneal tendons in particular, a result (I think) of how my body mechanics had altered with the weight on my back. I popped some ibuprofren, took a shower, then hobbled outside for dinner.

It was the Friday during Passover, and like any wandering Jew, I wanted a Sabbath meal. And thanks to Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach organization, I got one, at the home of the transplanted American rabbi Baruch Myers. He was only too willing to share his food (cucumber salad, gefilte fish), his friendship and his family, including a battalion of adorable children who cheerily walked me through the Passover story.

It wasn’t just this heartfelt welcome that got to me; it was the very existence of a Jewish community in Bratislava. Back in his day, Mr. Leigh Fermor wrote, the Jews “were numerous enough to give a pronounced character to the town.” No longer. The Holocaust had reduced the Jewish population to, in Rabbi Myers’s estimate, 1,000 people. There was a synagogue, a few kosher restaurants, a Jewish museum and even a pension, but few visitors today would see in Bratislava a Jewish-inflected city.

On Saturday, partly inspired by the rabbi and partly because of my feet, I rested and contemplated the future. I had walked 40 miles so far, and if my ankles were any indication, there was no way I’d make the remaining 140. Unless … If I took a train a short way — say, 15 miles northeast — I could certainly walk another 10 miles. I’d be breaking my rules, but those rules were arbitrary.

And so I caught an 8-euro taxi to the central station, paid 1.18 euros for a ticket and boarded a train that took its time trundling through Bratislava’s outskirts. Frankly, I was glad I hadn’t had to walk through the urban sprawl, and when I arrived in Senec, a summer resort town on a lake, I ate a magnificent lunch of pork terrine, leg of lamb, roasted potatoes and white wine for 9 euros at the Hotel Koliba’s rustic restaurant. Then it was time to get walking.

The windswept shores of Slnecne Lake turned into a lonely road next to a graffitied fence bounding farmland, and then that turned into Reca, a village so small I have no memory of it. All I remember is being buffeted by gusts from across the plains, and then crossing a tiny stream into Velky Grob, a village of neat postwar homes with tiled facades and backyard grapevines.

It was late afternoon, and my ankles were screaming. The map I had saved on my iPhone put the next town 15 miles farther east. I needed to rest — but where? As I marched down the sidewalk, I spotted a man and woman about my age, walking their little dog. In my best Slovak, I asked, “Where is a campground?” They stared at me, confounded, then the woman — Katarina Synakova, I would later learn — said in English, “Where are you from?”

Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting across a kitchen table from Katarina’s grandfather, drinking his homemade white wine and eating confections that Katarina’s sister-in-law had just baked. Katarina’s cousins joined us. Both spoke English; one was studying in Trieste and had brought her Lebanese boyfriend home for Easter. Soon the kitchen was a riot of English, Italian, Slovak and Hungarian, with French, German and Arabic thrown in. I went to sleep early — partly to give the family some privacy. In the morning, Katarina’s father gave me a flask of 1978-vintage brandy, and I walked into the chilly rain.

From Velky Grob, I marched 15 miles down trash-strewn roads and across desolate farmland, my shoes caked with mud, arriving in Sered, a gray town I instantly hated. It was Easter Monday, and everything in Sered and the entire country, it seemed, was closed except for one cafe, where a customer drove me two miles to an open pension. Why? An American had helped him find a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, and now he could return the kindness.

The next day, the pension’s owner gave me a lift a few miles to Strkovec, an estate where Mr. Leigh Fermor had stayed with Baron Philip Schey, one of his books’ most colorful characters. Now it was a home for developmentally disabled adults, and the director welcomed me into her office, phoned her university-student daughter to come translate, showed me the grounds and fed me lunch. She even offered me a bed for the night, but I declined: I needed to walk — it was becoming a compulsion.

Though walking hurt, it was also easy. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. The weight of the pack disappeared, and the next two hours took me down the highway, past a weather-worn shrine, along a wooded river, then to a train that rolled 23 miles south to Nove Zamky, where a firefighter strolling the willow-shaded riverbanks with his children escorted me to the Hotel Korzo and apologized for not putting me up.

Why, I often thought as I walked, would anyone do this? I got a partial answer the next day when, after I’d taken a train 20 miles south from Nove Zamky to Gbelce, the landscape changed. Gone was the flat tedium. Instead, unbusy roads swerved gently up and around low hills studded with fruit trees yet to blossom. After two hours of walking, I rested near mud flats where waterfowl lurked, then walked two more hours, through the town of Kamenny Most, to Nana, a suburban town where I bought homemade red wine and three speckled apples that gave me enough energy to walk one more hour down to the Danube and over a bridge into Esztergom.

At last, I had reached Hungary, and Budapest lay just 40 miles away. Two days’ walk, if my ankles didn’t rebel.

First, however, I had to tear myself away from Esztergom, the most beautiful town since Vienna. The town’s monumental basilica, its copper-green dome encircled by pillars, was everywhere visible from its hilltop perch — “dramatic, mysterious, as improbable as a mirage,” Mr. Leigh Fermor wrote — and its beauty trickled down into the ocher walls, red roofs and pink flowering trees of the city. I needed a full day to soak in the atmosphere (and to rest) before I felt ready to leave.

When I set off down the riverside biking path that morning, I had an aching suspicion that the day’s walk — 15 miles to Visegrad — might be my last. My ankles were swollen but not too painful, and throughout the morning I enjoyed the scenery: the small mountains through which the Danube snaked before turning due south. But after three hours, I noticed, my ankles had become lightning rods of agony. I arrived in Visegrad in midafternoon and pitched my tent (for the first time) at a roadside campground, knowing that tomorrow, after visiting Visegrad’s mountaintop castle, where Hungary’s royal crown had once been sheltered, I’d board a bus for Budapest.

And so my stroll came to a premature end. For 90 minutes the next afternoon, I rode along with a few dozen other commuters to Budapest, grateful that I hadn’t had to walk through the suburban doldrums and looking forward to enjoying the fruits of urban civilization (coffee, art, mass transit). Was I disappointed I hadn’t walked the whole way? Not really. I’d covered 110 miles on foot, and seen things no bus or train traveler could have.

One memory stood out: Across the water from a Hungarian town called Szob, I had stopped for lunch. A thick tree near the bank had a crook just my size, and nestled within it I picnicked on radishes, spicy sausage, challah and the homemade wine from Nana. I watched the river. A barge ferried a truck over, then returned bearing cars and cyclists. The warm sun filtered through the leaves. I swigged more wine and, exactly as Mr. Leigh Fermor once had, “I lay deep in one of those protracted moments of rapture which scatter this journey like asterisks.”

But then the compulsion took hold. I eased out of the tree and hurried off across fallow farmland. It was almost 3 o’clock, I had miles ahead of me, and I didn’t want to be late.



Because of a tight schedule, I flew into Vienna and out of Budapest, which might cost more than simple round-trip fares from Kennedy Airport to Vienna (which, according to a recent Web search, started at about $1,000 with one stop and about $1,500 nonstop in mid-June). A one-way train trip back to Vienna from Budapest starts at 19 euros, or about $24 at $1.25 to the euro, via OBB, the Austrian railways (oebb.at).


Figuring out Patrick Leigh Fermor’s route was a challenge: the maps of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary have changed a lot since the 1930s, and the names of some places have changed completely. But to my surprise Google Maps knew history. For example, when I searched for Kobolkut, where Mr. Leigh Fermor spent a night in 1934, it turned up the Slovakian town of Gbelce.

Still, when I arrived in Vienna, I bought a detailed map (9.95 euros) at Freytag & Berndt (Kohlmarkt 9; 43-1-5338-6850; freytagberndt.at), then left it on a rock the second day of my journey. Honestly, I didn’t miss it. To access Google Maps, I used my iPhone, and to avoid roaming charges, I loaded a day’s route when I had Wi-Fi and zoomed in to every step. The phone would cache the data for use when I no longer had Wi-Fi.


In cities, I stayed in hotels: in Vienna, the sunny, cozy Hotel and Pension Arpi (Kochgasse 15/9; 43-1-405-0033; hotelarpi.com); in Bratislava, Slovakia, the Hotel Kyjev (Rajska 2; 421-259-64-22-13; hotelkyjev.com); in Nove Zamky, Slovakia, the Hotel Korzo (Rakocziho 12; 421-35-6408-932; http://www.hotelkorzonz.sk); and in Budapest, the jazzy Cotton House Hotel (Jokai utca 26; 36-1-354-2600; cottonhouse.hu).

Most good-size towns have at least one affordable pension. Near Sered, I stayed at the clean and modern Mlyn (Dolna Streda 211; 421-31-7893-095; penzionmlyn.sk), and in Esztergom, Hungary, I had a huge room at Alabardos Panzio (49 Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street; 36-33-312-640; alabardospanzio.hu).

Often, I wished I’d left my tent and sleeping bag at home, but they helped in two ways: If I really needed (or wanted), I could camp, and carrying the tent made me appear self-sufficient. Many of my hosts might not have been so spontaneously generous had I not looked prepared to go it alone. When I did finally pitch my tent, it was at a campground connected to the Hotel Honti in Visegrad, Hungary (36-26-398-120; ohm.hotelhonti.hu).


Whenever possible, I bought bread, sausage, cheese, fruit and wine from local markets, but I did sit down on occasion at the following places:

Cafe Alt Wien (Bäckerstrasse 9; 43-1 5125222) in Vienna.

Cafe Bendl (Landesgerichtsstrasse 6; 43- 6-766263682 ; bendl.wordpress.com) in Vienna.

Verne Cafe (Hviezdoslavovo nam; 18, 421-2-54430514) in Bratislava.

Hotel Koliba (421-2-2020-0101; hotelkoliba.sk) in Senec, Slovakia.

Koleves, (Dob utca 26; 36-6-20-213-5999; koleves.com) in Budapest.

Alexandra Bookhouse (39 Andrassy utca; 36-1 48-48-000) in Budapest.


When I wasn’t walking, I actually managed to see a few things along the way:

Kaisergruft (Tegetthoffstrasse 2; kaisergruft.at), Habsburg burial sites in Vienna. Admission 5 euros.

International Esperanto Museum (Palais Mollard, Herrengasse 9; 43-1-534-10-730; onb.ac.at/esperantomuseum) in Vienna. Admission 3 euros.

Galeria Umenia (Bjornsonova 3226/1; 421-35-640-8440-1-2; galerianz.sk), an art gallery in Nove Zamky. Admission 1.32 euros.

Hungarian National Gallery (Buda Palace; 36-20-4397-325, http://www.mng.hu) in Budapest. Admission: 900 Hungarian forints, or $4.25 at 211 forints to the dollar.

MATT GROSS writes the Frugal Traveler blog, which appears every Wednesday at nytimes.com/frugaltraveler.

and a version in Portuguese.


4 thoughts on “Walking Paddy’s Route in Mitelleuropa: Frugal Europe, on Foot

  1. Pingback: The mystery of The Black Sea Cave « Patrick Leigh Fermor

  2. Pingback: A Long Walk Starts (and Ends) With a Step « Patrick Leigh Fermor

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