From the July 2018 edition of the Hungarian Review. Gordon McKecknie reviews the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan. “… he has (…) also given us, through personal and often tragic histories, poignant insights into the enormous social changes that Hungary underwent in the middle years of the twentieth century.”
In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, then 18, set out from Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. It was the first year of Nazi power in Germany, and the last days of the old romantic era there and in the former Habsburg realms of Mitteleuropa, an era that had not quite been swept away by the First World War. Of course, the Second World War – and, for many of the countries that Paddy travelled through, the subsequent dark years of Communism – did sweep the old order away. Since then the landscapes that Paddy tramped through, and the populations he met, have undergone the further, and not-always benign, influence of the ubiquitous automobile, instant global communications, hordes of tourists, a camera in every pocket, the spread of English as the modern lingua franca, and cheap clothing made in distant sweatshops. The old aristocratic way of life that Patrick Leigh Fermor, also known PLF to his numerous friends, saw in its dying days, and nowhere more clearly than in Hungary and Transylvania, vanished not long after his “Great Trudge”.
PLF’s first volume describing his journey – A Time of Gifts – was published in 1977. It became an instant classic among travel books. In painterly and sometimes almost absurdly lyrical language, A Time of Gifts told of his travels through the winter landscapes of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and took him as far as the bridge across the Danube at Esztergom on Holy Saturday 1934, at the beginning of a magical spring and summer spent in Hungary and Transylvania. We had to wait until 1986 for Between the Woods and the Water recounting those Hungarian days. The third volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, was pulled together from Paddy’s notes by Artemis Cooper (his biographer) and Colin Thubron (a fellow travel writer) after PLF’s death in 2011 at the age of 96. It appeared in 2013.
As PLF wrote in his introduction to Between the Woods and the Water, he had set out “meaning to mix only with chance acquaintances, but almost imperceptibly by the time I got to Hungary and Transylvania I found myself having a much easier time of it than I had expected or planned: ambling along on borrowed horses, drifting from one country house to another, often staying for weeks under patient and perhaps long-suffering but always hospitable roofs”.
Sometimes in his books, PLF tells us what became of the people he met on his 1930s walk across Europe. Fritz Spengel, son of the proprietors of the almost medieval Red Ox in Heidelberg “was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met”. The Jewish, Proust-reading Baron Fülöp (Pips) von Schey de Koromla left his country house in Slovakia “when things began to go wrong in Austria and Czechoslovakia”, settled at Ascona on Lake Maggiore, and died in 1957 in Normandy at the home of his daughter, Alix, who had married into the French branch of the Rothschild family. But now, for a more comprehensive view, we have Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.
In his very enjoyable book, Michael O’Sullivan follows PLF from the moment he was standing on that Danube bridge, with a letter of introduction to the mayor of Esztergom in his pocket, to Budapest, across the Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the Bánát region, and into Transylvania. On this part of his journey PLF was the guest of the aristocracy of the land. Continue reading