Category Archives: Between the Woods and the Water

The last of the Noble Encounters

Anna Sándor de Kénos in 1960

Michael O’Sullivan, the author of the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania writes to inform us:

It is with great sadness I write to inform the PLF blog readers that the last woman who knew Paddy in Transylvania in 1934 has died at the aged of 97. Anna Sándor de Kenós was thirteen when she met Paddy at the Csernovits mansion in Zam. She was from an ancient Transylvanian noble family and the doyen of the Hungarian ex patriot community in the United States where she moved after the 1956 Uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary.

An obituary was published in the Telegraph but it has some access restrictions.

My apologies to you all for the radio silence over the last few weeks. It was due to some personal reasons, and I now hope that all will get back on track with the blog!

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Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

In March 1934 a young man stood midway on a bridge over the Danube which connected Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He was taking stock of a world which, ten years hence, like the very bridge he stood on, would no longer exist. Patrick Leigh Fermor had left London the year before, at the age of eighteen, to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople to complete a journey which would later become the source for some of the best travel writing in the English language. As he stood on the Mária Valéria bridge, facing the ancient Hungarian city of Esztergom, he had no idea that he would one day become the chronicler of a form of social life which was soon to be extinguished by the vicissitudes of war and by the repression which so often went hand in glove with Communism…

Noble Encounters takes a different perspective on Paddy’s 1934 journey, meticulously recreating Paddy’s time spent among the Hungarian nobility. It is the culmination of many years of work and research by author Michael O’Sullivan. He has had access to the private papers and correspondence of many of Leigh Fermor’s hosts, has used extensive interviews with surviving members of these old noble families, delved into the Communist Secret Police archives, and even met the last woman alive who knew Patrick Leigh Fermor in Transylvania in 1934.

O’Sullivan reveals the identity of the interesting characters from BTWW, interviewing several of their descendants and meticulously recreating Leigh Fermor’s time spent among the Hungarian nobility. Paddy’s recollections of his 1934 contacts are at once a proof of a lifelong attraction for the aristocracy, and a confirmation of his passionate love of history and understanding of the region. Rich with photos and other rare documents on places and persons both from the 1930s and today, Noble Encounters offers a compelling social and political history of the period and the area. Described by Professor Norman Stone as “a major work of Hungarian social archaeology,” this book provides a portrait of Hungary and Transylvania on the brink of momentous change.

The book will be officially launched at an invitation only party on 25 May in the house in Budapest where Paddy stayed in 1934, hosted by Gloria von Berg the daughter Paddy’s Budapest host, Baron Tibor von berg. Attending will be a representative of every Hungarian and Transylvanian noble family PLF stayed with as he went castle hopping across the old Magyar lands. They all want to gather to honour the man who was witness to a way of life, and of an entire class, soon to be part of a vanished world a mere ten years after he stayed with them. O’Sullivan has even managed to find Paddy’s signature in the von Berg’s guest book from 1934 when he was signing himself ‘Michael Leigh-Fermor’ – an amazing survival from the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Budapest. Petroc Trelawny will be MC for the evening and the book will be launched by Prince Mark Odescalchi whose ancestor, Princess Eugenie Odescalchi, Paddy met in 1934.

Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan is an English Literature graduate of Trinity College Dublin where his postgraduate work was on the poet W.H. Auden. He curated the first major international symposium and exhibition on Auden in the Künstlerhaus Vienna in 1984. He was Vienna correspondent of the London Independent and later worked on both the Foreign and Parliamentary desks of Ireland’s national broadcasting service RTE. He is the author of bestselling biographies of Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and later UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has also written biographies of the founding father of the modern Irish state, Sean Lemass and of the playwright Brendan Behan. His association with Hungary began in 1982 when he became a frequent visitor to Budapest and when he met many of the old Hungarian noble families who met Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1934 and were then banished from their native land under Communism. O’Sullivan will be talking about his book at its public launch at the Danube Institute (Budapest) on 7 June (details here), and at the 2018 Transylvanian Book Festival

The book is published by CEU Press. It will be available soon on Amazon etc; I will endeavour to keep you updated. Here is a link to the pdf of the full book cover. PLF BOOK COVER FINAL EDITION

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.

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 gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

Jaap Scholten talks about Comrade Baron

Dutch writer Jaap Scholten knows a good story when he hears one. In the early 1990s, when his Hungarian wife’s grandmother began telling him about life before communism, he was entranced. This was the beginning of the road to writing “Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy,” Scholten’s first work of non-fiction and the first to be published in English, launched May 5th.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on bookings@hungary.org.uk.

Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy by Jaap Scholten

baronI am very excited about this and I know that some you will be too as you have asked about it on many occasions.

Comrade Baron A journey through the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy, is written by Jaap Scholten and will be published for the first time in English on 5 May 2016. The book was winner of the Libris History Prize 2011 and shortlisted for the Bob den Uyl Prize for best travel book 2011.

Comrade Baron will be launched at an event, hosted by BBC presenter, Petroc Trelawny, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, on 4 th May. A best-seller in The Netherlands with more than 30,000 copies sold, Comrade Baron has been translated into French, Hungarian and Romanian. An extraordinary, passionate and important work, Comrade Baron is “in part, an oral history of a group we know little about, in part the account of a journey through one of the most beautiful and mysterious regions of Europe and in part a record of a Dutchman’s impressions on finding himself in an extraordinary milieu in the company of some exceptional families.”

In the darkness of the early morning of 3 March 1949, practically all of the Transylvanian aristocracy were arrested in their beds and loaded onto trucks. That same day the Romanian Workers’ Party was pleased to announce the successful deportation and dispossession of all large landowners. Communism demanded the destruction of these ultimate class enemies. Taken away with just the clothes they stood up in, what happened to these once mighty families? Their stories, as told first-hand in this fascinating and enlightening book, are ones of hardship and fear but also of determination, solidarity, family tradition, resilience and indomitable spirit…

Jaap Scholten lives in Budapest, which is where, in 2006, he first heard about the nocturnal mass deportation of the Transylvanian nobility. Fascinated by their plight, he determined to track down as many of the older members of the former aristocracy as he could, recording their stories before they were lost forever. His journey took him the length and breadth of Transylvania (a magical land that comes to vivid life through descriptions in the book), to apartment blocks, slums and ruined castles, and brought him face-to-face with a group of rare and fascinating families with an extraordinary tale to tell.

Supported by a selection of black and white photographs and told through poignant and illuminating first-hand conversations, Comrade Baron is their story – from the days that preceded communism to after the communists came to power and through to the modern day.

Grand houses were exchanged for homes in cellars, attics, laundry rooms and sculleries and pleasure-seeking lifestyles for work in quarries, steelworks or domestic service. Interrogation was a daily occurrence and many were sent to hard labour in the Romanian gulags. Yet despite living under terrifying conditions, inflicted upon them firstly by Gheorghiu-Dej and later Ceauşescu, the aristocrats were leading a double life. Secretly gathering at night, they maintained the rituals of an older world – “they carried on kissing hands and using other formal gestures, their conversations were governed by long established rules… They met in cellars to play bridge, rummy and canasta. They read poetry aloud and made music. The older aristocrats taught the children foreign languages and gave them music lessons.” In contrast, as Jaap travels through Romania and observes the behaviour of the new Romanian elite –extravagant behaviour at parties and restaurants, driving their Mercedes and SUV’s – he recognizes what has been lost and consider how best to rebuild a country in a moral vacuum.

Jaap Scholten studied Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft, Graphic Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy of Arts in Rotterdam (BA), and Social Anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest (MA). He is the award winning author of seven books, novels and short story collections. Comrade Baron is his first non-fiction book. Jaap has lived in Budapest since 2003. His Hungarian wife is of noble descent and distantly related to some of the families in the book.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on bookings@hungary.org.uk.