Budapest in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The travel writer arrived in Budapest in 1934. Author Michael O’Sullivan traces his footsteps.

By Michael O’Sullivan

First published in iNews 25 February 2019.

Standing on Budapest’s Freedom Bridge some years ago, with a Turkish friend who comes from an old Ottoman family, I heard her exhale a long, almost doleful sigh. When I asked if everything was alright, she just stared down the Danube and said, “To think that this was once part of the frontier of our old Empire!” Budapest is that sort of city; a place with a capacity to easily unleash a myriad of complex historical emotions.

Few have realised this so perfectly in print as did a 19 year old English youth who came here in 1934. Patrick Leigh Fermor was, among other things, working off his frustration at having been expelled from school when he undertook what is now remembered as a legendary walk from the Hook of Holland to the place he liked to call Constantinople.

He arrived in Budapest on 1 April 1934. He could hardly have known then, that a mere 10 years later, much of what he saw in this ancient city would be greatly altered by the vicissitudes of war, but also by the brutality which was so often the handmaiden of communism.

Can the traveller to the Hungarian capital today hope to find anything left of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Budapest to explore and enjoy? Let’s start our quest where he did; on the west bank of the river Danube on the Buda side of the city so elegantly bisected by one of Europe’s greatest rivers.

Úri utca (Lord’s Street) is at the very heart of the Castle District and lining this ancient cobbled thoroughfare are the one-time palaces and townhouses of the old Hungarian nobility. Stop in front of number 15, a plain two-storey house, and you will be at the very core of Leigh Fermor’s Budapest. If the owner, Baroness Gloria von Berg is at home, you are likely to receive a warm welcome and a free tour of the very quarters in which PLF slept. It was her father, Baron Tibor von Berg who hosted him in 1934. From this hospitable house he explored Budapest in a way that few English travellers had achieved at that time. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s passport

Go north on Úri utca and at its junction with Szenthármoság tér (Trinity Square) you will encounter an object which carries with it immense superstition for students who are about to sit exams: a statue of Field Marshal András von Hadik on horseback. Closer examination reveals the horse’s testicles to be highly polished. This comes from fervent rubbing by generations of students wishing to invoke good luck before sitting their exams.

You may regain your composure with a leisurely stroll to Leigh Fermor’s favourite vantage point for viewing the Danube, its bridges and the glories of Pest across the river. The Fisherman’s Bastion has all the deceptive appearance of an ancient cut-stone belvedere; however, this amalgam of neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque architecture was erected barely 30 years before Leigh Fermor reached Budapest. On its main terrace an eponymous restaurant, Halászbástya Étterem, offers Hungarian fare. But nearby, for Leigh Fermor devotees are two places of refreshment still thriving since his 1934 visit.

For the traveller seeking the perfect coffee break or a light lunch Ruszwurm (Szentháromság Street 7) was Leigh-Fermor’s favourite café in Buda. Still operating since 1827, it has many of its original Biedermeier furnishings, and its tiny interior offers the perfect Budapest time warp. Those seeking more hearty sustenance should head for the Fekete Holló (black raven) restaurant on nearby Országház Street 10. This is where Leigh Fermor worked with his Budapest mentor Rudi Fischer to shape Between the Woods and the Water into the masterpiece of modern travel literature which it became. Its interior has something of the feel of a Hungarian hunting lodge about it, and its speciality is fish. The fish soup is a meal in itself.

At this point, in order to follow at least some of PLF’s route on the other side of the city in Pest, take the dinky number 16 bus (stops at regular intervals throughout the Castle District) and cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge, first opened to traffic in 1849.

This mighty conduit between both sides of the city was Leigh Fermor’s daily route to Pest where, once he reached Vörösmarty Square, he often stopped at the capitals most famous Café Gerbeaud. Still operating as a café since 1870, today it represents the more expensive side of Budapest’s cafe life.

Opposite Gerbeaud is the former Teleki Palace (now the Bank of China) where Leigh Fermor made several visits to one of Hungary’s most learned Prime Ministers, Paul Teleki, who was on the team of geographers who mapped the Japanese archipelago. The foyer of this bank gives some idea of the former grandeur of this old Budapest palace.

Leigh Fermor described Pest as a modern place criss-crossed by a great swath of Oxford Streets. On one of these streets we find the house which once contained one of Europe’s most legendary nightclubs, frequented by such social luminaries as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At 20 Nagymező Street is the house which hosted the Arizona. Today, it contains a splendid photographic museum, but a faint sense of what Leigh Fermor described still lingers: ‘’The scintillating cave of the most glamorous nightclub I had ever seen. Did the floor of the Arizona really revolve? It certainly seemed to. Snowy steeds were cantering around it at one moment, feathers tossing: someone said he had seen camels there, even elephants.’’

Despite what war, revolution and communism have done to the physical fabric of Budapest, it is still possible to find a flavour of a city so elegantly described by one of the greatest English travel writers of his generation.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan is published by Central European University Press.

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Paddy’s House – Repair Works Completed

A weekend communication from the Benaki states that the repairs are complete and all on time! This is a very welcome achievement. Well done to all involved.

Here is the full press release:

The repair works at the Patrick & Joan Leigh Fermor House have now been completed, well within schedule. They had begun in August 2017 and were fully funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).

The main objectives of the repair works were maintaining the ambience of the House and improving its facilities in order to enable its operation as a residency centre. The garden was revived; where necessary, damaged plants were replaced and new ones were added, chosen among Mediterranean and Greek species.

The project proved successful thanks to the efforts of the team involved: the contractors, Ballian Techniki, the study and supervision team Maria Kokkinou, Andreas Kourkoulas, Pandelis Argyros, Dimitris Pastras and Helli Pangalou, as well as the consultant Efi Delinikola from STADION.
The Benaki Museum would like to extend particular thanks to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and to all those who participated to the realization of the project.

It is worthwhile visiting the House section of the Benaki website. It looks like it has been updated and there are some interesting sections, inclusing notes on conservation of the furniture etc.

For visitors to the Mani, it seems that the house will once more be open for viewing in summer 2019.

Exhibition – Painting the Southern Peloponnese: In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Mount Elijah above Anno Boularii, Sundown

I have just been alerted to what looks like a marvellous exhibition of paintings running until 11 March in the Friends Room of the Hellenic Centre in London.

In October 2017 Toby Wiggins embarked on an adventurous trek over mountains and across arid plains to the sound of gun shot in the mornings and howling jackals by night. He retraced the path taken by one of the 20th centuries leading travel writers Paddy Leigh Fermor, who in 1951 walked the peninsula and later published his seminal work ‘Mani’. After his own odyssey, Toby returned home with a rucksack full of tiny oil studies of the places described by Paddy and in his studio he used these studies to make larger paintings, about which he says:

…they are an attempt to translate the sensation of being there, the texture of this harsh land; iron-like outcrops and intense blue skies. Then there are those moments when the harshness is transformed by intense, luminous colour into something altogether ethereal.

Profoundly influenced by Patrick Leigh Fermor and artist John Craxton, who illustrated Leigh Fermor’s books, the beguiling lure of this remote place, the southernmost tip of mainland Greece, is plain to see in the intense light, colours and textures that run through Toby’s works.

The exhibition is free to visit during opening hours, please call 020 7487 5060 to confirm (Toby advises to call first), but usually 10 am -5 pm. The exhibition opens 12st February and runs until 11th March.

To view the paintings on-line visit Toby’s website. Call Toby on 07939 661075 for more information.

The exhibition catalogue can be found here.

Location and contact details for the Hellenic Centre are here.

Royal Academy Schools trained Toby Wiggins RP is renowned for his highly-regarded portraiture. He has won awards including the BP Travel Award (NPG), the Lynn Painter-Stainer Prize for Figurative Painting and the Prince of Wales Drawing Award. His interest in landscape has spread from his native Dorset to this most austere, but compelling landscape of ‘Mani’, one of the wildest and most remote corners of Greece.

75th Anniversary of Kreipe Capture – proposed special screening of Ill Met by Moonlight

April-May 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the ‘Hussar Stunt’, and certain events will take place in London to mark the occasion. One idea suggested is to hire a cinema or suitable location for a special screening of the 1957 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger movie, Ill Met by Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde. It would be wonderful if we could manage this during the period of the anniversary 26 April to 14 May or thereabouts.

We are looking at the possibility of this now and what arrangements we can make, but it would help enormously if we could gauge the level of interest amongst readers of the blog. The idea might be something like the following. All subject to change!

  • Special screening in a central London location.
  • Drinks reception before the screening.
  • The main event.
  • Possible panel Q&A afterwards.
  • Further drinks and fork/finger buffet to follow

We have no firm idea of what this might cost yet, but fair to say in the range £25-£50 pp.

It would help us enormously if you can complete the above poll. There is no commitment whatsoever, and you can add comments by clicking on “comments” once you have voted. For instance, some of you might like to have a similar event in another city, in your country. Why not tell us and we can work together. Poll replies at your earliest convenience would be much appreciated.

 

Holiday Planning? Crete, between the mountains and the sea

View from the village of Kapetaniana, Asterousia.

Thinking of going to wild and rugged Crete this year? It is the 75th anniversary of the Kreipe kidnap and there will be a lot going on. A nice little article here about one family and their efforts to create a unique holiday environment in Heraklion province.

By Michael Sweet.

First published in Neos Kosmos

On the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Cross, every September 14, the faithful from villages near Mount Kofinas climb its peak to observe an ancient rite. On the summit, three small trees – a species of white-beam – bear fruit at this time of year. The fruit, which looks like cherry-sized apples, is gathered, soaked in water, and blessed, before the priest shares the tiny ‘apples’ with the worshippers. They eat them not only as a holy Eucharist, but for their believed healing properties. Predating Christianity, this ritual dates back more than three thousand years, for here at this Minoan peak sanctuary, one of more than twenty across Crete, the echoes of deep history are carried in the wind.

What attracted the Minoans to settle at this sacred place is what brought the founder of Thalori Retreat – Marcos Skordalakis here: a spiritual energy which weaves its way through the peaks and passes, before sweeping down to the beaches that lie a dizzying thousand metres below.

The village of Kapetaniana, perched high on the western approach to Kofinas, is where Marcos began building (or rather rebuilding) Thalori in 2001. For six years the former restaurateur set about transforming a dozen ruined houses into some of the finest holiday accommodation available in Heraklion province. Combining rustic authenticity with contemporary comfort, Thalori opened in 2007 and today comprises 20 houses, a restaurant, and a working farm with riding stables.

“It was my dream to make a place that felt like a home, for my family and for my guests,” says Marcos, as we talk at one of the restaurant’s exterior tables and look out to the Libyan Sea. “I wanted it to be a place where guests could explore nature – all the special things the mountain and the sea has to offer.”

Below Thalori is the village of Agios Ioannis. Connected to Kapetaniana by an 8 km dirt road that spears downwards in a series of hair-raising bends, it’s a journey not for the faint-hearted. This is where Marcos keeps his boat, and it’s the set-off point for the remarkable cruises he offers along this wild shore. For adventurous types, in the summer he’ll even take you to your own beach (with cave) for the night, and pick you up the next day. [Read more]

The forgotten war which made Transylvania Romanian

An interesting travel piece about Romania, which is actually more about history than travel. Worth a read if you want a quick overview of the formation of modern Romania. Perhaps 2019 will be the year you make your first visit. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions and I’ll do my best.

First published in The Telegraph

By Chris Leadbeater

Sometimes, the world can seem set in stone. You can gaze at the map and believe that it has always been that way – that the border which divides one country from another has always followed this mountain ridge or that river; that one celebrated place has always been aligned with the state of which it is declared a part; that a certain region, heavily associated with one nation, has always been a stitch in that particular tapestry.

You might certainly think this of Transylvania. There can be few segments of the European landmass which seem more closely linked to their domestic mothership. You might even argue that Transylvania is Romania, that Romania is Transylvania – a totemic emblem which defines the country in international eyes. True, the area’s image – all cape-swishing Draculas and sharp-turretted castles on lonely crags – may be a little on the Halloween side of things, but it is inseparable from the general perception of Romania; a tattoo on Bucharest’s arm which cannot be erased.

And yet, leaving aside questions of population and ethnicity, Transylvania has only been officially tied to Romania for a century. Indeed, an exact 100 years ago, in the mists of January 1919, it was, effectively, still in the process of becoming Romanian – soldiers inching west across its forested, furrowed contours, eating into terrain that was nominally Hungarian. The era of outsiders considering this enclave of vampiric legend and Gothic reputation to be a symbol of all things Romanian was still decades into the future (although Bram Stoker’s famous novel had been in print for 22 years, the broader silver-screen treatment that would turn Dracula into the stuff of global nightmares was not yet even a spark in the Hollywood directorial consciousness). Instead, the wider world did not look to Transylvania with much fascination at all. It was, rather, a region with no proper national identity; a bone for which several dogs had been prepared to fight – only without the strength to claim their prize conclusively.

Of course, it was not alone in this. The European pages of the atlas changed hugely in the second decade of the 20th century, as the firestorm of the First World War burned away a sizeable swathe of the old world and replaced it with something freshly etched. New and reconfigured states – Poland and Czechoslovakia among them – would emerge as the bullets and brutality of 1914-1918 killed off the two empires which had held much of the continent in their grip. The Austro-Hungarian realm which had extended its reach far beyond Vienna and Budapest was consigned to the past; so was the Ottoman sphere of influence, which had stretched its hands up from Constantinople (Istanbul), into the Balkans and beyond, for almost six centuries. Transylvania, which had long been caught between the two, found itself on the verge of a different dawn.

Romania itself was hardly a concrete piece of the European jigsaw as 1919 appeared. Although various parts of what now constitutes the modern country – Wallachia and Moldavia, as well as Transylvania – had existed as principalities since medieval times, a Romanian state (of sorts) had only really solidified in the late 19th century. Moldavia and Wallachia had both been under the Ottoman boot, but as the Turkish super-state entered its twilight years, so the pair had torn themselves free – initially, in 1859, as the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, a halfway house still under Ottoman suzerainty; later, in 1881, as the independent Kingdom of Romania. It was still holding this precarious position when 1914 arrived, and the globe was spilled into the inferno.

Brasov spreads out around Piata Sfatului CREDIT: HOLGER METTE/HOLGS

Brasov spreads out around Piata Sfatului CREDIT: HOLGER METTE/HOLGS

Romania survived the First World War through a mixture of denial and deception – staying neutral for the first two years, then clandestinely allying itself with the Entente Powers (Britain, France, Russia et al) in the summer of 1916 via a secret treaty. This promised to give to Romania various slices of Hungarian territory with majority Romanian populations – in exchange for a successful assault on the latter’s less guarded east flank. It was a courageous move. And also, it seemed at first, a foolish one. Romania attacked to the north-west after declaring war on August 27 1916, but this brought a swift and vicious response from the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire et al) – to the extent that, by December of 1916, Bucharest was in enemy hands. Left marooned amongst its foes by Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1917, Romania sat on its haunches to lick its wounds – and effectively conceded its independence, as well as parts of its domain to both Bulgaria and Austria, via the harsh terms of the Treaty of Bucharest, on May 7 1918.

And yet, there was still fight left in the dog. As the First World War turned finally and decisively in favour of the Entente Powers in the summer of 1918, Romania glimpsed its opportunity. And just as the rest of Europe was looking to stamp down the flames in the autumnal hours of 1918, a country which had appeared to be cowed in 1916 threw its last stockpile of fuel onto the bonfire. On November 10, one day before the Armistice on the Western Front, Romania re-declared war on the Central Powers – and, two days later, began a reinvigorated north-westerly military push into Hungarian land.

Its target was a Transylvania that, ethnically, it regarded as its own – but which had been long been a possession of either Hungary or the Ottoman Empire. It had been a formal element of the Austro-Hungarian empire since 1867 – but as the autumn of 1918 turned into another grim winter, much of it tumbled into Romania’s grasp. On December 1, the newly convened National Assembly of Romanians of Transylvania and Hungary loudly declared “the unification of those Romanians and of all the territories inhabited by them with Romania”. On December 7, Brasov (now the second biggest city in Transylvania) fell. On Christmas Eve, Cluj, the regional capital, went the same way. And as 1919 tripped over the horizon, and a distracted, weary continent felt its way towards the First World War’s flawed conclusion, the Treaty of Versailles (June 28 1919), Romania drove home its advantage. Satu Mare, pretty much on the modern-day border with Hungary, was captured on April 19. By August 4, when the gun-fire ceased, Romanian troops were patrolling the streets of the Hungarian capital.

Budapest would, inevitably, be returned to Hungary, but much of what was taken in this seismic nine-month postscript to the First World War – Transylvania included – was formally ceded to Romania in the Treaty of Trianon on June 4 1920. It is an agreement which still outlines much of the border between the two countries 99 years on.

Can you see the scars of this conflagration if you travel in the region? Not really. Romania has been through much worse in the intervening century, from a fascist government as evil as that which arose in Germany during the Second World War, to a Communist regime which was arguably the most oppressive of any behind the Iron Curtain. It is the breezeblock buildings of the latter epoch which give the Bucharest skyline its brute force (not least the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, built by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, which ranks as the heaviest building on earth) – but a tour of Transylvania will take you to places where you can see little evidence of trauma. It is rustic and agricultural, fields fanning out at the side of its highways – and even its cities have a certain quiet charm. Brasov is engagingly pretty, caught in the direct shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, spreading out around the flagstones of Piata Sfatului, cafes and restaurants fringing the edges of the square. Sibiu is, perhaps, even more attractive – a regional outpost which took its time in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture in 2007 and restored its medieval centre to something which looks more akin to Italy than the Communist East, gelaterias pinned to the perimeter of Piata Mare. Timisoara – in westerly Banat rather than Transylvania, but taken in the Romanian advance of 1918-19 – will surely benefit from taking on the same artistic role in 2021.

Sibiu was European Capital of Culture in 2007 CREDIT: JEAN-FRANCOIS

Sibiu was European Capital of Culture in 2007 CREDIT: JEAN-FRANCOIS

Yet hints that Transylvania has always been a European crossroads, home to people of different languages and creeds, are there if you search for them. The colossal Black Church, a Gothic bastion in Brasov, bears the names “Schwarze Kirche” (German) and “Fekete Templom” (Hungarian) as well as the more lyrical Romanian of “Biserica Neagră” – a gentle reminder that it was constructed in the 14th century by the city’s German speakers. The Lutheran Cathedral in Sibiu tells a near-identical back-story. Brasov’s onetime German name, Kronstadt (Crown City), is visible in its coat of arms.

You even find this connection to yesteryear in Bran, on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia, where the castle loosely connected to the Dracula yarn (and the most popular tourist attraction in Romania as a consequence) was also contructed in the 14th century, by Transylvanian Saxons (the region’s medieval inhabitants of German ethnicity). You cannot quite avoid the uber-vampire here – he haunts the tomato-puree-infused menus of eateries in the town, and the souvenir stalls below the fortress. But you can, if you pay attention to its history and culture, avoid the idea of Transylvania as a bloody Romanian cliche. It is far more fascinating and varied of heritage than that.

Paddy’s house – some photos showing progress

As we reported a few weeks ago, the progress of repairs and restoration at Paddy and Joan’s house appear to be on track. The Benaki sent me a few more photos showing work on the exterior which is looking very good. Hopefully more to come on the interior at a later date.