Category Archives: Romania

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….

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Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

Whenever I mention Transylvania to friends and acquaintances most express a strong desire to visit this land of mystery. Few however, can place Transylvania on a map and even less ever actually travel there. Readers of the Paddy blog will know that PLF passed through in 1934 and returned during communist times. I have had the privilege of working and travelling there, and it is through this association that I met Lucy Abel Smith who is the organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival 2016 and author of this new Blue Guide.

If you are thinking of visiting Romania with all its cultural, historical, and natural riches, it may be difficult to decide where to start for it is a large country with a relatively small population. Transylvania itself is an area three times the size of Wales with diversity in all corners. The recently published Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley helps by picking one area and offers a detailed insight from someone who has been living and travelling since the time of Ceausescu, describing a journey through this one part of Transylvania, the fabled “Saxon Lands” of the south-east that Lucy knows so well. It essentially takes as its theme a 120km long journey along the course of the Tarnova river from Odurheiu Secuiesc in the Gurhui mountains, westwards along the Tarnova valley via Ruritanian cities like the beautiful Sighisoara and ends in Blaj.

Lucy herself describes the area thus:

“… there is still to be seen the stunning landscape, ancient farming methods and extraordinary botanical variety. But there is so much more. We travel through a fraction of ancient Hungary to encounter a vast array of the peoples of Central Europe, all up until recently living together, yet in distinct communities with different customs, architecture, costumes and languages. We find the Vlachs and the Szeklers, the Hungarians, the Saxons, and the the Jews, the Gypsies and others, such as the Armenians, who settled here to take advantage of this tolerant and diverse land in the very heart of Europe.”

The landscape that these peoples crafted and the architecture that they developed is both beautiful and unique. Accommodation is plentiful and will suit all budgets, with food on the whole being local and organic in many cases. It is easily accessible with flights from Vienna, London, and Munich amongst others, direct to Cluj, Turgu Mures, Bucharest, and soon Brasov. Above all the people are welcoming and it is safe. If you take Lucy’s excellent guide you won’t go far wrong. Your journey can be extended north to the baroque city of Cluj, west to Sibiu (a Saxon city and European City of Culture), or south to the large Saxon city of Brasov which is not far from the so-called Dracula’s castle (the violent warlord Vlad Dracul did live there) in Bran.

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy writes from a very personal perspective and is an engaging writer with an informative but never patronising style. She is an art historian and her explanations of church art – frescoes, altar-pieces and statues – are thorough but never boring. The guide is packed full of useful information, including accommodation details, and background history. There are some useful maps and illustrations. It could do with some colour photographs but other than this, the Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley would be an invaluable aid for the independent traveller.

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

If you are thinking of an alternative holiday in Romania you could do worse than combine a tour of the Tarnova valley with a few days at the second Transylvanian Book Festival which runs from 8th to 11th September. Full details can be found on the Festival website.

For those who have any questions about travel in Transylvania I would be more than happy to attempt to answer them. See the About and Contact page for details of how to get in touch.

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.

Wild Carpathia 4 fundraising a success!

CaptureFilming is to start immediately on Wild Carpathia 4. The target of £50,000 has been reached. A big donation of over Euro 20,000 was made by a Romanian country club and its members over the weekend which accelerated the funds towards the goal.

Thank you to all of you who follow the blog for your contributions. I am sure Paddy would have been pleased.

Audible

Please consider supporting Wild Carpathia 4

Over seventy people have now backed the funding of the next Wild Carpathia film, White Carpathia, and many came from this site. They have pledged over £9,000, but much more is needed to meet the target of £50,000 over the 25 days left for fundraising.

As we saw with the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe in July, wildlife and habitats all over the world are in danger from thieves, poachers, corrupt officials, and frankly the rich trying to enrich themselves even further or taking what they think they can buy. This is our collective heritage and no-one has the right to take it away from us. The countryside of Romania, and the Carpathians in particular which are rich in native trees and wildlife including wolves, European bear, lynx and deer, are true gems with a complex eco-system which need to be preserved and managed to provide income for local people. What is happening there now with the illegal destruction of the pristine forest is not management but rape.  It is theft, aided and abetted by corrupt officials and locals who just need a job.

Please consider giving something to this cause to ensure that the film is made, which can only add to the common understanding of the the beauty and value of this land that Paddy loved possibly even more than Greece. Raising awareness leads to raised pressure on politicians and authorities to do more. A small donation now may make a big difference.

You can pledge anything from a few pounds to as much as you like at the Kickstarter site here. Thank you.

Read more here.

Help to fund Wild Carpathia 4

After a glorious few weeks enjoying Italy, its food, landscape and sites, I am returned and will get some interesting posts up on the blog. First up is an appeal to help fund the fourth in the wonderful series Wild Carpathia which will be set in winter and called White Carpathia. Charlie Ottley and the crew are looking for £50,000 to produce the film expected to be released in summer 2016. If you love Romania as much as Paddy did (and I do) then please consider helping via the Kickstarter page where Charlie makes a very impassioned plea for your support surrounded by beautiful images of Romania. Together, let’s make this happen!

Here’s what Charlie says on Facebook:

Hello everyone and……help!. We need to make another Wild Carpathia urgently – to promote the beauty of Romania through the winter, and show the world what an amazing country this is, any time of the year, especially given recent bad press like The Romanians Are Coming on UK’s Channel Four. In light of further illegal logging and the recent scandal involving Schweighofer we must again highlight the plight of Europe’s last great forest.

We also need to protect the cultural heritage of Romania’s rural areas, by encouraging, Eco-tourism, sensitive development and modernisation. The film we must make to help do this, will be seen by millions of people across the world (the previous episodes had over 3 million hits online) and screened first on Romanian national television. We have half the money from foreign donors. Help us raise the other half so this can be a film for Romania by Romania, something we can all be proud of. Even a few euros each will make a big difference. And please forward this post. if you and your friends all contribute, we can make this happen – together. Click on the following link and go to our Kickstarter Campaign.

Enjoy the previous films here on You Tube.

Episode One: Wild Carpathia

Episode Two: From the Mountains to the Sea

Episode Three: Wild Forever

Preserving the best of Romania: Charlie Ottley and Jessica Douglas-Home on Pro TV

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Watch this inspiring interview with Charlie Ottley, presenter of the Wild Carpathia series, and Jessica Douglas-Home, President of The Mihai Eminescu Trust, to find out why Romania’s heritage, natural landscape and areas of wilderness are so special and need protecting.

An interview on Romanian TV in English where Charlie and Jessica discuss the importance of preserving Romania’s wilderness and cultural heritage.

In one generation all the forests of Romania may be gone.

Watch the interview here

Jessica Douglas-Home la ProTV from Mihai Eminescu Trust on Vimeo.