Category Archives: Paddy's Writing

Floral tourism: on the trail of Transylvania’s elusive crocus

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

In idyllic east European sunshine, I have been focusing on a crocus. It is not a purple or yellow-flowered hybrid, one of those Dutch fatties that city dwellers admire in spring. It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania. Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers. It avoids main roads and towns, so I have had to ride to find it.

By Robin Lane Fox
First published in The Financial Times 17 October 2017

I recommend this sort of floral tourism. Mine was aimed at crocus banaticus, the iris-flowered crocus which has three big outer petals. I first discovered its distinctive beauty in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, that seminal influence on the prose-style of the great travel writer Norman Lewis, as he once told me in his sitting room in Essex. About 40 years later, the same crocus was discovered in the same bulletin by Harriet Rix in Devon, my indomitable companion on our ride last year into the high floral meadows of Kyrgyzstan. While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home. She, not I, realised that it overlaps there with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, the immortal tale of his walk from London to Istanbul. In summer 1934, the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor trod above our crocus, dormant in the Transylvanian grass, while he eloped with high-spirited Angéla, one of those “times when hours are more precious than diamonds”. Between the woods and the meadows we might find gems which flowered in their wake.

The crocus is named “banaticus” from early finds in the Banat, territory that became a bitter triangular contest between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, until the Treaty of Versailles divided it between the latter two in 1919. The most recent reports of the flower are further east, so we began our hunt in the Transylvanian villages founded by German-speaking Saxons. In the 12th century, the offer of land and a tax-free life lured thousands of Saxons to migrate from the area of modern Luxembourg and settle in Transylvania. They strengthened the land’s defences and vitalised its crafts and crops, terracing the hillsides and growing apples and productive vines. Between 1980 and 1990, many migrated in reverse. They were sold by Ceausescu, no friend of village life, to the Kohl government in Germany who saw them as loyal voters. Before Ceausescu’s fall, up to 250,000 Saxons returned to take up German citizenship, leaving only a rump to maintain churches, crafts and houses.

The base-camps for our adventures were Saxon houses restored since 1995 by the celebrated Mihai Eminescu trust. Its rentable properties range from double-fronted village houses to two fine manors at Richis and Malancrav with tempting libraries and rooms for up to nine guests.

We began in the Saxon heartland of Viscri whose fortified church gives a special sense of orderly Saxon life. Social ranks and the sexes were segregated in the congregation. Unmarried young men were sent up to the gallery from where they could look down on the plaited hair and hollow black headdresses of the unmarried Saxon girls. Only outside the church was contact possible, on a grassy circle that served as a dance floor. Inside, painted panels show sunflowers and lilies of the valley, “ladders to heaven” in German tradition, among roses and reflexed lilies. I thought of the red roses and “tiger lilies” that Leigh Fermor’s beloved Angéla pushed into his buttonhole at the train station as they took their sad farewell. Of crocus banaticus, there was no sign.

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Evidence soon emerged. The main churches of the Saxon villages are Lutheran and in Brasov’s Black Cathedral, their choirs were to assemble and mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As a noted soprano, Harriet was invited to join them and help with the higher notes. As a spectator with no religion, I was tagged with a wristband and allowed to watch from a front seat. While the choirs rehearsed, I researched the flower stalls of Brasov market and found two bunches of crocus banaticus on a flower-lady’s stall. She had no idea where they had been growing.

After Luther’s setting of Psalm 118, it was time to find out. Tagged by evangelicals, I set off for Copsa Mare where I met my Nemesis and fell in love. Nemesis is a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood mare, 17 hands 3, with a Czech passport. She is stabled nightly beside the tall dark Romulus who was once a gallop-on star in the film Prince Caspian. James and Rachel de Candole offer trips for up to four riders on their beautifully schooled horses, with picnics and overnight stays. Nemesis carried me smoothly past gardens of zinnias, cosmos and calendulas, flowers that I often recommend to readers here. White-flowered wild asters, another favourite, marked our ascent into beechwoods of exceptional beauty but as they also contain wild bears, we had to travel noisily. In Britain it is 12 years since I last halloaed legally for fox hounds. In Transylvania I have been halloaing to keep bears away.

In the crocus’s absence, nearby back gardens offered a big surprise instead — crops of exotic tuberose. An expert grower, Elisabeth, showed us the last tall stems of her crop before she sheltered their roots under winter covers. Tuberose is native to Mexico but it won favour with Maria Theresa, the Habsburg sovereign, and travelled east to the scent-loving Romanians. In rich acid soil, village growers water the plants that departing Saxons left in their care. They will either be gold or earth, they told Elisabeth, but she learnt the golden touch. Of the Banat crocus, however, she knew nothing.

In eastern Transylvania sightings of it are reported near villages of Hungarians, so we headed for a final hunt in Korospatak. There, horses are offered by Count Kalnoky, descendant of a great medieval line, but a sign saying “Shagya Club” marks his driveway, and at first we took it in an English sense. We reversed in haste, not realising it refers to crosses between Arab and thoroughbred horses. After an hour’s climb on brisk brown Rudi, I finally sighted our prey, lilac-blue crocus banaticus flowering leaflessly beneath beech trees.

The further we rode, the more it multiplied, always in damp semi-shade, never in open meadows. In the valley of Zalanpatak we found even thicker masses, including a rare white form, seldom in stock in any bulb-grower’s list. Spreading on the hillsides, were these crocuses natural escapees from gardens? Surely not: they have lived here for millennia, untroubled by Romans, Tatars and Turks who sacked the villages beyond.

In her superb book Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan describes how the Banat, a “bucolic backwater”, was split between Romania and Yugoslavia in 1919. She warns that it may yet prove contentious territory. In antiquity, Philip, father of Alexander, won a great victory on what was called the Crocus Field in northern Greece. If fighting breaks out in the Banat, I now know my role. Mounted on Nemesis, I will guard the priceless crocuses in its hills.

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The Violins of Saint-Jacques Is a Lush Portrait of a Lost World

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It’s not often that we get to see anything about Paddy’s one and only novel so I thought that you might like to see this recent review by Joe Blessing. Why not take some time to take a look at some of the interesting stuff on the blog about The Violins of Saint-Jacques?

“A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself… the ball goes on and on and the incidents stand out in retrospect like a life’s milestones against a flux of time whose miniature years are measured out in dance tunes.”—Berthe de Rennes

Most parties sadly cannot live up to those words, but the tragic Mardi Gras ball in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, spoken by protagonist Berthe de Rennes, truly contains multitudes. The extravagant soiree acts as a glittering prism, reflecting all facets of the culture and curiosities of the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques (modeled on Martinique) before the island’s daunting volcano erupts and erases the island forever.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a slim novel of beguiling contradictions. Though taking place largely over the course of one night, it still feels broad in scope, as the reverberations of that night ring out across the length of a well-traveled life. Another contradiction is that the accomplished novel, first published in 1953 and now reissued by New York Review Books, is the only work of fiction produced in a long life of writing by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor, who died in 2011, lived larger than life in a manner rarely practiced anymore. Compared by some to his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond, his wartime kidnapping of a German general on Crete was so adventuresome that the great British directors Powell and Pressburger made a film of it, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor.

But Fermor is best remembered for an even more youthful endeavor, his 1933 journey by foot across an entire continent, from Belgium to Constantinople, which he began when he was just 18 and documented decades later in a trilogy of modern classics of travel writing, beginning with A Time of Gifts in 1977. His literary reputation rests largely on those books, which both channel his youthful exuberance and also overlay it with a lifetime of erudition, allowing him to expertly pick apart the varying threads of culture he found interwoven as he traversed Europe. Readers of those books will find that the same excellent eye for detail and deep curiosity about local customs in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which gives a truly staggering amount of cultural detail in just 140 pages.

A brief frame story set on an Aegean island (the area where Fermor lived most of his life) finds a Fermor-like Englishman meeting the mysterious but well-loved Berthe de Rennes in her twilight years. When her painting of Saint-Jacques catches his eye, he entices her to tell its story, the story of her wondrously happy childhood on the colonial outpost, and the fateful Mardi Gras night in 1902 when it all was lost.

Berthe moved from France to Saint-Jacques after losing her parents as a teen, taken in by her distant cousin, the Count de Serindan, and his family. Berthe is soon a cherished member of the family and a confidant of the witty Count. The Count is the kind of splendid character little seen outside of books, a patriarch who uses his wealth and power solely for the pleasure and amusement of those around him. On occasions like Mardi Gras, this largesse extends to the entire island and he spares no expense in hosting lavish parties the entire population looks forward to.

Berthe begins her narration on the day preceding such a ball, leading the reader through the elaborate preparations and the fierce anticipation felt by the young Serindans, especially Berthe’s closest companion, Josephine. A ball might seem a flimsy subject to some, but Fermor’s accomplishment is to see in the ball an embodiment of the island’s society and to organically provide details that cohere into a surprisingly complex portrait. Fermor gives readers the provenance of the songs played, the steps of dances, the length of the swizzle sticks, the scents of the floral decorations, the ingredients of certain drinks, and perhaps most fun, the colors and creatures on the elaborate costumes the black islanders wear as they dance through the streets.

Nor does Fermor withhold human detail, expertly sketching the prejudices and tensions between the proudly Royalist and conservative Creole aristocracy and the new governor just arrived from France with modern ideas. Berthe must leave the party when she learns her beloved Josephine is eloping with the governor’s rakish (and already married) son, leading her to a ship off the island’s coast that saves her from, but allows her to witness, the biblical destruction that wipes the site of her happy childhood off the map.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is so engrossing and brief that its flaws are easily overlooked. Fermor’s portrayal of any colonial life as idyllic might prove offensive to some, although he takes pains to distinguish the relatively peaceful race relations on Saint-Jacques from the brutal regimes on other nearby islands. The novel has a rather 19th century, predetermined approach to character and never takes the time to delve into any complex interiority or psychology. However, this approach is perhaps fitting in a story that’s not about human agency, but rather about the futility of it in the face of inhuman, impossibly powerful forces.

Fermor was an excellent student of culture, but his own wartime experiences gave him no illusions about their fragility. Despite all readers knowing the eruption is coming (it’s on the back of the book and heavily foreshadowed), it’s still a shock at how brutally and completely it destroys everything that Fermor has just taken such care in describing. The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a charming portrait of a lost world and a potent reminder of just how quickly a culture can disappear.

Postcard from . . . Bulgaria

Illustration by Matthew Cook

Illustration by Matthew Cook

In a cramped office at Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery, a black-robed monk is swiping my passport. Set in a wooded valley 70 miles south of the capital Sofia, Rila is the country’s largest and oldest Orthodox Christian monastery, and a source of intense pride for Bulgarians. Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed here in 1934 and found a place of “clattering hooves and constant arrivals and departures . . . like that of a castle in the Middle Ages.”

by Tom Allan

First published in the Financial Times

Today the clatter of hooves has been replaced by the rumbling tyres of tour buses and the monastery’s humbug-striped pillars and copper domes are one of Bulgaria’s major tourist attractions. One thing hasn’t changed: the monks still offer accommodation — there are 38 rooms available to pilgrims and non-believers alike. Stay the night and you can explore once the day trippers have departed.

The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the followers of St Ivan of Rila, a hermit who lived in a nearby mountain cave. Its library holds an important collection of medieval manuscripts and there are exceptional wood carvings, including the Cross of Rafail, which took 12 years of surgical chiselling to make, by which time its creator had lost his sight.

The surroundings are special too. The forested slopes that encircle the quadrangle are now a nature reserve with a network of hiking trails. After checking in to my room (basic but comfortable and en suite), I clump out over the cobbles and head for the summit of Dodov Vrah, a 2,597-metre peak that towers over the valley. The path ascends through a beech forest alive with cuckoos and drumming woodpeckers, eventually reaching an open landscape of tussocks, wild violets and creeping juniper bushes. This is halfway; I continue up past the tumbledown remains of shepherds’ huts to reach the snow drifts on the ridge.

From the summit I look north to the crags around the Seven Rila Lakes, then peer down to spot the red-tiled roof of the monastery, 1,500 metres below. The knee-jarring descent leaves me avoiding stairs for a week, but the river in the valley bottom provides a welcome ice bath for my feet.

No food is provided for guests, so I head to a nearby restaurant for a delicious meal of grilled local trout. A sign informs overnight visitors to return before the gates are locked at 8pm, so I gulp down my wine and rush back before curfew. With characteristic Bulgarian punctuality, the doors eventually swing shut at 9pm. Electric lights clunk on around the cloisters and the looming mountains turn a shade darker. Without the clamour of visitors’ voices, other sounds are amplified: the tinkle of the fountains, the screaming of the swifts wheeling around the courtyard, the gargled miaow of one of the monastery cats.

Church bells wake me early the next morning. I step out on to the creaking wooden veranda; overnight rain has drenched the cobbles and mist clings to the forested mountainsides. Apart from a group of doves purring and sipping from a puddle, the quadrangle is still. Inside the church, the monks have begun the morning service. They stand facing the ornate gold-plated iconostasis, a screen inlaid with icons that separates the main nave from the sanctuary, the holiest part of the church. Every so often, a robed figure appears through a door in the screen, vigorously distributing incense from a hanging censer.

After the service I speak to a monk in the reservations office, Hierodeacon Nektarii. In a soft, musical voice he tells me how he came to the monastery as a novice 10 years ago. There are just eight monks at Rila now, he says — in the 19th century there were 200. When the monastery became a national museum in 1961, the remaining monks were all moved out. “People asked: what kind of monastery has no monks? And a few years later a few of us were allowed to return.”

The gargantuan cooking utensils and 1,000-loaf bread oven displayed in the museum date from Rila’s 19th-century heyday. “On feast days the monastery attracted thousands of pilgrims,” Nektarii explains, “and we would feed them all”. Today’s operations are comparatively modest and Nektarii bakes the communion bread himself — still in a traditional ornamental mould “but we use a modern oven now”.

I pack my bags as the quadrangle begins to bustle with tourists again. As I head out past the tour groups and souvenir stands, I think about Nektarii’s description of the 19th-century monastery — a place of feasts, thronging with pilgrims — and of Leigh Fermor’s description of the carnival buzz of Rila. I feel a pang for the loss of that world but I won’t quickly forget the peace of Rila at dawn.

Details: Twin rooms at Rila Monastery cost from 50 levs (£22) and can be booked in person at the reservations office in the monastery or by phone (+359 07054 2208). For more general tourism information, see bulgariatravel.org

Painting Paddy’s Greece

Gerolimenas by Katyuli Lloyd (Source: Oldie magazine Aug 2017)

Some readers have advised me that there is an article in this month’s Oldie magazine by Katyuli Lloyd about her meeting with Paddy, and her work on the illustrations for Folio editions of Mani and Roumeli.

An example of her work is above and I’m pretty sure that’s Gerolimenas on the Mani, a place where I stayed on holiday last year.

You can access the article here online by subscription or if in the UK you ocan probably buy the magazine from your local newsagent.

Bicycle polo: did Paddy know he was playing an Olympic sport?

Thanks to Richard Augood who sent me this interesting little article from BBC News. Cycle polo was a demonstration sport at the 1908 London Olympics with Ireland winning the gold, beating Germany.

Many haven’t heard of bike polo but a surge in numbers could soon change that.
Bike polo players in Birmingham gather for their weekly game and have attracted the attention of many newcomers.
Major bike polo competitions are held across Europe and attracts large crowds.
An Olympic sport at the beginning of the last century, bike polo players back then competed on grass, rather than on today’s clay courts.
What do today’s players think of the sport?

Follow this link to watch a short video!

Read more on Wikipedia.

The Chiddingstone Castle literary festival

The festival season is rapidly approaching, and as a Kentish Man, I was interested in this one. Held in a very beautiful setting, the second Chiddingstone Castle literary festival runs over the first May bank holiday weekend, from Sunday, April 30 to Tuesday, May 2, with 22 authors appearing over three days.

The line-up is headed by Terry Waite. Joining him will be Artemis Cooper and Adam Sisman, discussing the life and writings of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Radio 4 presenter of Saturday Live, Rev Richard Coles will give a reflective account of life as a parish priest and broadcaster.

Further details can be found here.

A funeral at Melk

The abbey at Melk

The abbey at Melk

Paddy described it as a “quinquireme amongst abbeys”. It is a benevolent sleeping giant above the little town of Melk and the Danube. To the east lies the Wachau, one of the most magnificent stretches of river scenery in Europe, and the eastern foothills of the Alps, to the west, Mauthausen and Bavaria. The huge and imposing Abbey at Melk continues to fascinate.

By Roslyn Jolly

First published in The Saturday Paper

This sure is a quiet town.” I’m almost whispering, unwilling to have my voice ring out in the silent streets. “Where is everybody?” It’s about seven in the evening, and as we climb the zigzag pathways to the great church on the hill, there is scarcely another soul around.

We’re going to a funeral. My friend saw the notice pinned unobtrusively to a post in the hotel bar: There will be a service at the abbey tonight for one of the monks, who has died suddenly, before his time. A popular man, a local favourite, highly regarded, sadly missed, the notice says. The community is invited to pay its respects.

We are not of the community, but we are curious, so through the dark streets and up the stone staircases we go. I haven’t yet connected the desertion of the town with the funeral at the abbey. As we approach the elegant arched entrance to the monastery precinct, we see fire engines crowding the forecourt. My friend interprets the scene better, and more quickly, than I do. I’m thinking, “A fire at the abbey? During a monk’s funeral? How very Umberto Eco.” But my friend has lived long enough in Austria to understand that not a Gothic but a civic explanation is required.

The people of Melk and all the parishes of the surrounding Wachau district have turned out in force, in uniform, through whatever structure of collective identity they can call upon, to mark the passing of their brother. Every club, team, order, guild, society, brotherhood, sisterhood, Bund, Verein and Gesellschaft is here. Not just represented here, but actually here, in body, en masse. Every fireman, policeman and Boy Scout wears his uniform; every teacher, nurse and union official is badged. The farmers are here, and so are the municipal councillors from nearby villages. Their gleaming trucks, cars and engines, freshly washed and highly polished, identify the various communities, trades and professions to which these people are clearly proud to belong.


This is the guard of honour outside the church. We walk through it. At the church door, uniformed officials keep watch. I would have turned away, but my friend is unabashed. His six years’ residence in Vienna probably helps. “We’re here for Brother A—’s funeral,” he says confidently, I forget whether in English or in German. The young man in his uniform scrutinises us for a second or two, then opens the door and gestures for us to proceed.

Inside there is colour, gold, incense, music, faces, voices, more gold. The Stiftskirche is a baroque jewellery box, glorious in candlelight, vibrant with song and incantation. There is only standing room. The service is already under way and, of course, being neither Austrian nor Catholic, I understand very little of what is being said or done, but experience the funeral as a dance of feeling between priests and townspeople. A modestly draped coffin is the focus for the energies of community expressed in music and liturgy, which, soaring, match the visual splendour of the scene.

Tomorrow we will come back, and we will see the abbey as the guidebooks and the travel writers promise it. We will see the palatial exterior, painted in sunny Schönbrunn yellow. We will see the beautiful rococo courtyard, with its palms and fountains, and think of it as a prettier Versailles. We will see the famous library with its ancient books, and peer into the pastel-coloured whorl of the shell-like spiral staircase. We will stand on the terrace and gaze at the lovely view of the Danube Valley. We will do all that a visitor to Melk is supposed to do, and it will be wonderful, but it will not be like this.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, called Melk Abbey the “high noon” of Europe, the highest point of the “high baroque style”. The prose he used to describe it is sunshiny and light-saturated. He even makes noon at Melk his hour of epiphany as well as his key metaphor: “Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve.” But I’ve fallen for Melk Abbey at night – not at midnight, the Gothic hour when romance writers find dark mysteries in conventual spaces, but at a civil hour, between seven and eight in the evening, when the river cruisers have gone back to their ships and the people of the town may come out, after work and an early dinner, to interact with the real working life of the monastic order that has existed here for more than a thousand years.

The funeral ends and we file out with the hundreds of mourners to watch the coffin carried to a vehicle that will take it to a burial ground beyond the monastery walls. My friend is troubled by the seeming severity of this custom. “But he would have served here his whole life,” he says. “Why can’t he be buried here too? It’s as if, at his death, he’s being expelled from the religious community.”

We puzzle over this and can’t really do anything with it. It feels harsh. The coffin looks very solitary as it waits to be conveyed through the gates into the darkness beyond. After the uplifted atmosphere in the church, the mood in the forecourt has become sombre, almost austere. All stand in silence, many with heads bowed. We – my friend and I – watch our unknown brother set out for the undiscovered country.

After the coffin has left, the firemen return to their trucks, the policemen to their cars. The Boy Scouts form lines and leave under the supervision of their troop leaders. We depart through the same archway by which we entered. At first we’re part of a throng, but the crowds quickly melt away. No one walks the same path as we do, the path that leads down stone stairs and through narrow alleys to the main street, where the hotels and restaurants are.

Melk will glow tomorrow in autumnal sunshine and we will see all that should be seen by a visitor to this beautiful mediaeval town. But tonight we’ve seen something different. We have interloped. We have slipped through the net that keeps tourists within the spaces designed for them. We’ve found our way to the secret life of a town. Just for an hour, we have gone to the other side.