Tag Archives: A Time of Gifts

Colin Thubron recommends reading A Time of Gifts for 2012

A Time of Gifts, 1977

In the December edition of The Browser, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron talks about why A Time of Gifts remains one of this favourite travel books…

This is the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey in 1933-34 from the Hook of Holland, as he called it, to what he insisted on calling Constantinople [Istanbul]. It was to be in three volumes. This one takes him beyond Vienna. The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him through Hungary to the Balkans. The third volume was going to get him across Romania to Istanbul, but he never wrote it.

Like many people, I love the idea of this young 19-year-old gypsy going off on foot on his own, with just a pound a week, footloose and fancy free, full of delight at the world and fascination at where he’s going. That’s one of the lovely things about the book. It’s beautifully written, very rich prose. It’s model was Norman Douglas – rich in language, vocabulary, scholarship. It’s rather an acquired taste, and may seem old-fashioned to a younger generation.

I love the delight in everything, with all its byways in history or folklore, and the people he meets are so marvellously and generously described. He had such a big heart, a generous spirit. You feel he must have been a delightful companion for anyone to meet on the road. Some people find it a little bit showy-offy, because of all of the stuff he quotes as having by heart – but he did, it’s perfectly true. He had an excellent memory, and into his old age he was a great raconteur.

I know that you knew him quite well. Will you tell us about his character? He died not long ago of course.

Yes, he died [last June]. Well, he was what you would expect. In some ways, he was rather an innocent. He wasn’t an intellectual, but he loved facts and data and history and architecture. He also loved show, and a good story. He was a delightful companion, very funny, and he was a bit original. He would sometimes say something rather fanciful, he had a marvellous imagination. But there was this innocence about him.

It’s as if he was in a time warp, and in rejoining his youth in these two books he was rejoining somebody he still was, in a sense, his sensibility was so young. He hadn’t changed in many ways, he hadn’t been disillusioned. They are very “illusioned” books, if you like. It’s a very wonderful idea to go back to who he was, because he could so easily enter into the spirit of that liberated delight in the world which he kept with him always. He was very frail when he died, but he still kept that with him.

How does travel change a person? It’s a platitude that a physical journey is also an inner journey, but some platitudes are true.

I don’t know really. It’s supposed to broaden the mind. If I look at the travel writers I know and have known, there’s a certain breadth of knowledge. One would hope there’s a breadth of understanding or of sympathy too. Of course, it makes you a sort of amateur. You’re a free agent, you’re the oddball. One can understand why dictators find travellers a threat – you’re not beholden to anyone and you’re doing what you want, which is a marvellous privilege. But what it does to you character-wise, I don’t know.

The title A Time of Gifts comes from a line of poetry by Louis MacNeice …

“For now the time of gifts is gone / O boys that grow, O snows that melt.”

That certainly hints at growth of character.

Yes it does. This was his great extended epiphany, to be suddenly going out travelling. That was the time of gifts for him, when the world opened to him. He was obviously ready for it. He was always on the wrong side of authority in England, and he was expelled from school. He got into a rather posh artist society in London and he was enormously entertaining and fun, and very handsome as a young man. But he hadn’t travelled anywhere. So suddenly to loose yourself on the world was surely his time of gifts.

I love Leigh Fermor’s motto. Solvitur ambulando.

It is solved by walking

£1 a week Hook of Holland to Constantinople: Where is Nick?

Since his departure on 9 December we have heard little from Nick Hunt. He did post a short piece describing his departure from Hook of Holland on his blog, but since then silence.

However, it appears that Nick is making good progress and on 28 December he was in Bingen near the end of the Rhine. It was here that Paddy celebrated Christmas 1933 staying with an innkeeper and his ‘pretty daughters, who were aged from five to fifteen …’ (A Time of Gifts p53 in the John Murray paperback). This is pretty good progress seeing as Paddy had earlier taken a trip on a Rhine barge.

Skip over to Nick’s blog to read about one of his first walking days in Holland.

Stop Press! – open the comments section of this article below to read a further update from Nick as he tells us a little more about his walk down the Rhine. He is now at Heidelberg .. the Red Ox beckons (ATOG p 56 if you are keeping up!).

£1 a week to Constantinople – Bon Voyage to Nick and Nice Weather for Young Ducks

Paddy does not say if his last night in London before his epic journey was as busy as it was on Wednesday as Nick Hunt gathered with some friends in Shepherd Market to wish him well on his epic journey, but seventy-eight years ago today our hero, and let’s not be ashamed to say it, our hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor celebrated his last night in London as just another under-achieving public schoolboy, setting out to emulate Robert Byron, from this untouched corner of old London, which is now the haunt of hedge fund managers and buccaneering chief executives of junior mining companies; London clay brick Georgian squeezed into some of the highest priced real-estate in the land.

A new endeavour is about to start as Nick sets off on Friday to walk across the New Europe just as it is probably about to undergo the most significant peacetime turmoil since the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s into which Paddy stumbled with only a few links to ‘civilisation’ to accompany him, including his copy of Horace’s Odes.

Frankly I am as envious as I can be. Who could not wish to spend time away from the demands of today’s ever connected world? To endure physical challenges whilst encountering architectural marvels and meeting interesting people, each with a unique story to tell. It could well be the journey of a lifetime and I hope I send Nick off with all your best wishes. He has mine.

The weather today is better than that encountered by Paddy as he set out ….

The weather in London on December 9th 1933 was typical. The sky darkened, the clouds lowered and then it rained hard. A young man walked the cold pavements towards Cliveden Place to collect a rucksack that his friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant had used on a journey to Mount Athos accompanied by Robert Byron. After stopping to buy a stout ash stick, and probably some cigarettes, at the tobacconist on the corner of Sloane Square, the young man collected his new passport – occupation ‘student’ – from the office in Petty France. He cast his eyes up to the ominous clouds and then made his way quickly north across Green Park. Now the rain splashed down as he dashed between the traffic on Piccadilly and entered the house of his landlady, Miss Beatrice Stewart, in Shepherd Market.

A former model who sat for Sickert, and Augustus John, and who is said to be the model for the bronze figure of Peace atop Wellington Arch, Beatrice Stewart’s career was cruelly cut short after she lost a leg in a road accident. She had arranged a lunch for the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor and two of his friends to wish him bon voyage before the start of what was to become one of the most famous journeys of all time, and certainly the longest gap year in history.

After lunch, Paddy said thank you and goodbye to Miss Stewart, and jumped into a waiting taxi, which drove off through Mayfair, around Trafalgar Square, up Ludgate Hill, and past the Monument towards the Tower of London. It was raining so heavily that all they could see out of the steamed up windows were hordes of umbrellas, some carried by bowler hatted men, as the rain splashed down in the dark. “Nice weather for young ducks.” said the taxi driver as he dropped the small party by the first barbican on Tower Bridge.

The two companions, one a young girl wearing a mackintosh over her head like a coal shifter, stood in the rain to watch Paddy descend the stone steps down to Irongate Wharf. With a final wave, he strode up the gangplank of a Dutch steamer bound for Hook of Holland.

This was the start of Paddy’s journey down the Rhine and along the Danube which he so memorably describes for us in his book A Time of Gifts. This part of the story ends on Easter Sunday 1934 as Paddy stood on the long bridge over the Danube, in no-man’s land, between Czechoslovakia and Hungary at Esztergom, just as the Easter celebrations started in earnest.

A Time of Gifts is almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of English literature; Sebastian Faulks is a dissenter, but he would be. Described by some as a travel book, it is essentially the journal of a young man with a superb gift of memory, for languages, and for making friends, written with the benefit of a lifetime of amazing experience and learning, forty years after the events it describes. It is embellished by anecdotes and essential historical background, making it a rounded piece of literature and no mere travelogue. It should be compulsory reading for all seventeen year olds; it is truly inspirational. The sad part is that the very reason for the ending of Paddy’s ‘gap year’ whilst with his lover Balasha Cantacuzene in Romania in September 1939, resulted in the destruction of many of the towns and cities he passed through, and certainly ended the way of life of the peoples of Europe that he describes so well.

I have no doubt that today, were Paddy still with us that he would pause for a while to recall that day, wish Nick all the best, and reflect on the events that followed during his amazing and full life, and the friends and lovers who have gone before him.

Perhaps Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor DSO OBE, who was the Greatest Living Englishman, would pen a short letter to Debo?

Snail’s pace to Byzantium: journey of a lifetime

This is a combination of profile and review of Words of Mercury. An interesting piece.

by Ann Elder

First Published in Athens News, 9 Jan 2004

“I HATE the word travel-writer,” London-born, Mani-based Patrick Leigh Fermor told a British journalist in 1995. Under the title Words of Mercury, a selection of his writings was published by John Murray this autumn. The excerpts from half a dozen of his books, some articles and reviews show clearly why he must flinch from being slotted anywhere confining.

As his followers know, he writes with an enchanted pen. Any topic he takes up becomes something ‘rich and strange’. He has a story-teller’s knack of compelling interest, like the Ancient Mariner mesmerizing listeners with his glittering eye. And he has a particular flair for catching the heightened receptivity and visceral thrill felt at new encounters, what Cavafy wished the traveler in his poem Ithaka:

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbours never seen before.”
(Kimon Friar translation)

Not least, Leigh Fermor wins readers’ allegiance by creating the sense of affinity with an engaging personality, uncensorious, untinged by chauvinism, reveling in life, akin in spirit to A E Housman, onetime professor of Latin at Cambridge, in his lines:

Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love or fights
Lief should I rouse at mornings
And lief lie down at nights.

Edited by Artemis Cooper, a writer (Cairo in Wartime) and wife of historian Antony Beevor (Crete: The Battle and the Resistance), the book has five parts: travel, Greece, people, books and flotsam (finishing with a poem on Christmas maybe better forgotten). Cooper gives brief introductions to each piece and starts off with a succinct biography.

As an 18-year-old living on a pound a week in a flat off Picadilly in 1933, Leigh Fermor spent more time partying than buckling down to write. As fate had it, he had read The Station: Athos: Treasures and Men by the irreverent young Robert Byron in 1928. The ‘great and misunderstood spirit of Byzantium’ had greatly impressed him.

“About lamp-lighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table,” he related later. “A plan unfolded – to set out across Europe like a tramp – a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight.”

“The chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it hovered Mount Athos; and the Greek archipelago.”

In excess of his wildest dreams, he found material to write about. All was grist to his mill, but his mill ground slowly. His writing proved to require long gestation. He became fanatical about polishing his product, and research, the more obscure, the more it seemed to appeal to him, like the origins of the Sarakatsans or the Laz-speaking Greeks of Trebizond. The first book about his venture, A Time of Gifts, came out in 1977, over 40 years later, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water about “those mysterious regions between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea” as Saki put it – in 1986. In France they called him “l’escargot (the snail) of the Carpathes.”

Real life and events also delayed his writing. The trek took him about a year. He reached his goal on New Year’s Eve, 1934, after ending his traverse of Bulgaria with a splash, falling into the Black Sea on a cold December evening. He came to the coast some 150 miles north of the Bosphorus. “An old man was smoking a narghileh on the doorstep of a hut beside a little boat beached among the rushes – a Tartar fisherman, the only human being I saw all day,” he  wrote over 20 years later in an article in the May 1965 Holiday Magazine.

Darkness fell. “I lost my footing on a ledge and skidded – waist-deep into a pool. Jarred and shaken, with a gash on my forehead and a torn thumb, I climbed out, shuddering with cold. At the bottom of the pool, about two fathoms down, my torch was sending a yellow shaft through sea anemones and a flickering concourse of fish.”

Crawling round the rocks, he came to a veritable Cyclop’s cave sheltering a dozen Greek fishermen and Bulgarian goatherds with their 50 goats and cheese-making apparatus, eating lentils by a thornbush fire. The young wayfarer was soon dried and warm, tossing back slivovitz and eating fresh fried mackerel.

Leigh Fermor is in his element in the climax of this thoroughly Homeric episode, when one of the Greeks, Costa, turns out to be an unsung Nijinsky, his dancing invested with a ‘tragic and doomed aura.’ He performed the stunt  with which Greek cruise ships like to wind up their Greek night shows: dancing with a table between the teeth.

“On a rock, lifted there to clear the floor, the low, round, heavy table was perched. Revolving past it, Costa leaned forward: suddenly the table levitated itself into the air, sailed past us, and pivoted at right angles to Costa’s head in a series of wide loops, the edge clamped firmly in his mouth and held here only by his teeth. The dancer whirled like a dervish, till the flying table melted into a disc, finally returned to its rock, glasses, cutlery, lentil pot and cigarette burning on the edge of a plate undisturbed.”

Time in Greece he dates from his 20th birthday, February 11, 1935, when he arrived at Mt Athos as ‘snowflakes were falling fast’ and ‘in deep snow, trudged from monastery to monastery.’ In Athens later, he frequented the  Romanian embassy, meeting descendants of Phanariot hospodars, Ypsilantes, Ghikas and Cantacuzenes. As with Greece, he fell in love with Balasha Cantacuzene whose forebear, Emperor John Vl, invited the Seljuk Turks to  Europe (and is recalled sorrowfully in a Cavafy poem for having coloured glass not jewels in his coronation crown).

After time writing and painting in an old mill among the lemon groves overlooking Poros, they went to her decaying family estate in Moldavia. Published in 1961 was a perfectly pitched account of a picnic in sunlit  countryside by open carriage and on horseback on September 2, 1939, the last day of peace. “It had been a happy day, as we had hoped, and it had to last us a long time, for the next day’s news scattered the little society for ever.”

Utterly desolating is the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine article of May 1990 on his first breaking through the Iron Curtain in 1965. He found the Cantecuzene sisters in a Bucharest attic eking out a communist state pension  teaching. The gracious old houses he had stayed in among flowery meadows and nightingale-filled woods were psychiatric hospitals, their owners dead.

Leigh Fermor seems happiest gilding the past, writing to ‘the brave music of a distant drum,’ as old Khayyan put it, not dwelling on ‘bitter furies of complexity’ or ‘that gong-tormented sea’ of Yeats’s “Byzantium” which he refers to at the outset in Time of Gifts. The days of his youth were the days of his glory and he evokes them with zest, if no doubt some selective memory. He admits he is beset with ‘retrogressive hankerings,’ but these add to the richness of the embroidered prose dazzling his readers, to twist Yeats a bit. And sometimes he might be shoulder-to-shoulder with the poet:

Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

His review of Edmund Keeley’s Cavafy’s Alexandria in a 1977  Times Literary Supplement (TLS) shows him at his serious best. He recalls “the blacked-out, jolly, rather wicked wartime port” he knew as a young British World War Two agent, then is off with Cavafy into the Judaeo-Hellenic Franco-Levantine city “old in sin, steeped in history, warrened with intrigue.”

He notes the depths of irony and dark humour in the notion of citizens aghast with consternation when the barbarians fail to invade them on cue. He ponders “the jagged Ithaka at the long Odyssey’s end; the imminent Ephialtes ready to sell the Thermopylae of the spirit.” He goes on: “Issued without preamble from an atmosphere of earthly delights these warnings sound as harsh, for a moment, as the words of Mercury after the songs of Apollo at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.'”

Leigh Fermor is a mild Mercury though. In a review of Oxford classicist CM Bowra’s Primitive Song in a 1962 Spectator he commends him for eschewing ‘a softer technique, swaying to the seductions of every coincidence  and historical chance-shot.’ He himself tends to yield to the tempting vistas of ‘alluring byways.’

The selections from his writings on Greece include a report he wrote for London’s Imperial War Museum archives in 1969 on how the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe was abducted by a Cretan-British force he led in April 1944. While still controversial, the coup makes a cracking good story.

At Anoyeia where captors and captive rested, villagers were ‘convulsed by incredulity, then excitement and finally by triumphant hilarity. We could hear running feet in the streets, shouts and laughter. “Just think, we’ve stolen their General!”‘

Heading south round Psiloritis – Mt Ida of antiquity, over 2,200 metres high and snow-covered till late May – the getaways were to meet a British vessel on the coast to spirit them to Egypt. After a night in a shepherd’s hut sharing  one blanket, “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mt Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said (in Latin): ‘See, how it stands, one pile of snow’. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off (likewise in Latin);

‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents flow
With clear sharp ice is all congealed.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.

(Conington’s translation)

The stanzas are much-loved, ‘a picturesque Christmas card,’ say scholars. They evoke the perfect ambience in which to peruse the book. Those unfamiliar with Leigh Fermor will surely have appetites whetted for more. Those who know him and have his books around will dash for them to locate the extracts, then hotly debate the choices, such as the punning Achitectural Notes from a 1994 Spectator: “If you squinch, aisle screen,” and “Put those Saxon  here Norman,” and “Overhung? Per apse, when dais done.”

The author has covered himself. “Pure nonsense is as rare among the arts as an equatorial snowdrop”, he wrote in a review of George Seferis’s Illustrated Verses for Small Children in a 1977  TLS.

£1 a week from Hook of Holland to Constantinople – packing the rucksack

With just over a month to go I asked Nick if he could provide us with an update on his preparations. Nick is absolutely delighted with the support that many  of you have given to him. Some by giving money. Others with offers of accommodation or contacts to help him on his way. Hopefully, we will have one more update before he sets out.

I have just over a month to go before starting my walk to Istanbul, following in Paddy’s footsteps. Ferries don’t leave from London these days, so I’m sailing to Rotterdam from Harwich, and from there will pick up his route to Dordrecht, and on towards Germany.

With my funding from the Globetrotters Club, I’ve bought most of my supplies. It’s kind of reassuring to know that despite 80 years of advances in technology and materials, and the growth of an entire ‘outdoors’ hiking industry, the most important things I could buy are still a rucksack and a decent pair of boots. Essentially I’ve just bought the same stuff Paddy did, but lighter and more waterproof. So while Paddy packed ‘different layers of jersey, grey flannel shirts’ and ‘a soft leather windbreaker,’ I have layers of merino wool and a wonderfully warm down vest. No hobnail boots, I’m sorry to say, but a pair of Scarpa Terra GTX boots, waterproofed with Goretex. And in place of an ‘old Army greatcoat,’ a lightweight Berghaus jacket.

During my journey I’ll be posting intermittently on afterthewoodsandthewater.wordpress.com – there’s a ‘Follow’ button, if you’d like to be informed when something new comes up. I may also be writing a weekly column for a newspaper – details are still to be arranged, so I can’t say more at the moment. It will surely be an interesting time to be walking through the heart of Europe, with the Eurozone bucking and writhing and its future increasingly uncertain … a reminder that the continent is still changing, is always in a state of flux, struggling with its identity, as it was when Paddy did his journey.

More to come before I go. For now, I’d just like to quote from James Kenward, Paddy’s great-nephew, who I had the great pleasure of meeting in London a few weeks ago. Paddy was clearly a huge influence and source of inspiration to him, and here are a few of his thoughts on what I’m setting out to do:

Personally I always find it difficult to understand why someone would seek to follow the line of someone else’s arrow … but the mission statement that emerged through our conversation seemed full of fresh intent and knocked the aforementioned out of me. Perhaps the very course of a great journey holds its own through time’s passing like the essence of structure provides timelessness to a heroic tale. The breadth of Europe will not cease to be a story and having such an incredible point of reference in Paddy’s writing adds another dimension. I think that Nick will dig deeply and write well of his journey and my hope and suspicion is that the seed of his inspiration — his regard for Paddy and his adventuring ways — will yield entirely new crop that Paddy would admire. Frankly his romantic masochism invested in and infected by a new age interests me — previously there was snow, and there will still be that — but imagine the frigging motorways.

Related article:

£1 a week – Nick explains the reason for his journey 

Honoring Patrick Leigh Fermor: Review Essay

This is quite an excellent essay that focuses on Paddy’s writing more than many other profiles.

Paddy in 1966

by Willard Manus

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor today is both an exhilarating and depressing experience, exhilarating because of the depth and brilliance of his prose, depressing because the Greece he portrays so memorably has been hammered to dust by the march of time. Fermor, who was knighted in 2003, is best known in Greece and in his native Britain, where he was born nine decades ago to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, director of the Geological Society in India, and Eileen Ambler, who was partly raised there. His first book, The Traveller’s Tree, published in 1950, dealt with the journey he made through the Caribbean islands in 1947-48. The book won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature, and established him as a writer of note.

His next two books, 1952’s A Time to Keep Silence, which described his stay in various European monasteries (where he discovered in himself “a capacity for solitude”), and 1956’s The Violins of Saint-Jacque, a novel, are interesting but minor works. His literary and political importance is linked to the two books on Greece he published a decade later—Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. Established his reputation as the pre-eminent non-native writer on 20th century Greece.

Fermor’s first experience of the country dated back to 1933, when as a rebellious and untamed 19-year-old, he dropped out of Sandhurst and set out on a walking tour of Europe with Constantinople as his ultimate destination was Constantinople. Envisioning himself as “a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots,” he embarked, in mid-winter, on a journey that eventually spanned three years and took him through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Rumania and, eventually, Greece. 2

Remarkably, Fermor did not write about his picaresque adventures in pre-war Europe until many years later. “So when A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977 and Beneath the Winds and the Water in 1986, the life of the mid-thirties that he described had been utterly destroyed,” his biographer Artemis Cooper has noted, “and much of the land he had walked over was in the grip of communism for years. Yet his memory recreated this world with an astonishing freshness and immediacy, and recaptured the young man he was then: full of curiosity, optimism and joy in the vibrant diversity of the world.”  The concluding volume of Fermor’s trilogy is scheduled for publication (by John Murray Ltd.) in early 2007.

Fermor made it to Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935, and then crossed south into Greece. He spent time in a monastery on Mt. Athos, got caught up later in a Royalist vs. Republican battle in Macedonia, arriving finally in Athens, where he met the great love of his life, the Romanian Balasha Cantacuzene. They went to Poros and lived together in an old water mill, where he wrote and she painted. When the money ran out they retreated to her decaying family home in Baldeni, Moldavia.

Fermor described the house in an essay published in Words of Mercury, “Most of a large estate had been lopped away in the agrarian reform. There was little cash about, people were paid in kind by a sort of sharing system, so, in a way, were the owners; and, on the spot, there was enough to go around. Elderly pensioners hovered in the middle distance and an ancient staff would come into being at moments of need. . . .

“There was one crone there who knew how to cast spells and break them by incantations; another, by magic, could deliver whole villages from rats. After sheep-shearing, a claca, fifty girls and crones, bristling with distaffs would gather in a barn to spin; hilarious days with a lot of food, drink, singing and story-telling.

“Snow reached the windowsills and lasted till spring. There were cloudy rides under a sky full of rooks; otherwise, it was an indoors life of painting, writing, reading, talk and lamp-lit evenings with Mallarme, Apollinaire, Proust and Gide handy; there was Les Enfants Terribles and Le Grand Meaulnes and L’ Aiglon read aloud; all these were early debarbarizing steps in beguiling and unknown territory.”

Fermor was not quite the barbarian he fancied himself. Despite having rejected higher education, he was already something of a polymath, an autodidact. Not only was he conversant in five European languages (only Hungarian stumped him), he was knowledgeable about art, history, architecture, geography, sociology, religion, fashion, etymology, cartography, heraldry and many other subjects, all of which he had absorbed through voracious reading.

The importance of books in his life was discussed in a piece he wrote for The Pleasure of Reading (ed. Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury, 1992). “When the miracle of literacy happened at last, it turned an unlettered brute into a book-ridden lunatic,” he confessed. “Till it was light enough to read, furious dawn-watches ushered in days flat on hearth-rugs or grass, in ricks or up trees, which ended in stifling torch lit hours under bedclothes.”‘

Among his favorite writers were Dickens, Thackeray (Vanity Fair, anyway), the Sitwells, Norman Douglas, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, not to speak of Kipling and Houseman; Baudelaire and Ronsard in French; Horace and Virgil in Latin; Holderlin, Rilke and Stefan George in German.

“The young learn as quick as mynahs, at an age, luckily, when everything sticks,” he continued. What also stuck were “reams of Shakespeare, border ballads, passages of Donne, Raleigh, Wyatt and Marvel . . . two Latin hymns, remnants of spasmodic religious mania . . swatches from Homer, two or three epitaphs of Simonides, and two four-line moon-poems of Sappho.”

Fermor’s list also includes “the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica … a battery of atlases, concordances, dictionaries, Loeb classics, Pleiades editions, Oxford companions, Cambridge histories, anthologies and books on birds, beasts, plants and stars.”

When Britain declared war in 1939, Fermor immediately went home to join up, leaving Balasha behind in Romania. He first enlisted in the Irish Guards, but because of his fluent command of Greek he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, serving at first as liaison officer to the Greek army fighting the Italians inAlbania. After Greece fell, Fermor was sent to Crete where he took part in the battle against the German airborne invasion. He remained on the island after the German triumph; disguised now as a Cretan shepherd, with a big handlebar moustache and a dagger in his belt, the tall, slim, Fermor cut a swashbuckling figure as he roamed the mountains to help organize the resistance movement.

It was there, in Crete’s high, wild country, that he recalled in Words of Mercury that…

“devotion to the Greek mountains and their population took root. . . . We lived in goat-folds and abandoned conical cheese-makers’ huts and above all, in the myriad caverns that mercilessly riddle the island’s stiff spine. Some were too shallow to keep out the snow, others could house a Cyclops and all his flocks. Here, at ibex- and eagle-height, we settled with our small retinues. Enemy searches kept us on the move and it was in a hundred of these eyries that we got to know an older Crete and an older Greece than anyone dreams of in the plains. Under the dripping stalactites we sprawled and sat cross-legged, our eyes red with smoke, on the branches that padded the cave’s floor and spooned our suppers out of a communal tin plate: beans, lentils, cooked snails and herbs, accompanied by that twice-baked herdsman’s bread that must be soaked in water or goat’s milk before it is eaten. Toasting goat’s cheese sizzled on the points of long daggers and oil dewed our whiskers. These sessions were often cheered by flasks of raki, occasionally distilled from mulberries, sent by the guardian village below. On lucky nights, calabashes of powerful amber-colored wine loosened all our tongues. Over the shoulders of each figure was a bristly white cloak stiff as bark, with the sleeves hanging loose like penguins’ wings; the hoods raised against the wind gave the bearded and mustachioed faces a look of Cistercians turned bandit. Someone would be smashing shells with his pistol-butt and offering peeled walnuts in a horny palm; another sliced tobacco on the stock of a rifle; for hours we forgot the war with talk and singing and stories; laughter echoed along the minotaurish warrens.”

In 1944 Fermor took part in a bold and perilous mission that later became the subject of a best-selling book, Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, a fellow intelligence officer. 5 The British plan was to kidnap the German army’s chief of staff, General Muller, who had become notorious and hated for his brutal treatment of both Cretan partisans and civilians. When Muller was called away, the new target was his replacement: General Heinrich Kreipe, a professional soldier arriving straight from service on the Russian front.

Fermor and his team, which included Moss, Sandy Rendel (former political correspondent for the Sunday Times), the Cretan partisan Niki Akoumianakis and a dozen other andartes, had to radically alter their original plan. Fermor and Moss agreed to disguise themselves as German military policemen. That meant Fermor had to part with his Cretan moustache Without it, he looked so much the stiff-necked Teuton that Moss kidded him about being on the wrong side. They decided to promote themselves to corporal’s rank and decorate themselves with a few (stolen) ribbons.

Taking up positions outside the isolated Villa Ariadne—the headquarters for the German army had been built above Heraklion before the war by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans—Fermor and Moss flagged the general’s car down at 9.30 pm.

“Is dies das general’s wagon?” he asked.

“Ja, ja,” came the muffled answer from inside.

With that assurance, key members of the band attacked from all sides, tearing at the doors of the car. The beam of a flashlight showed the startled face of the general and the chauffeur reaching for his automatic. There was the thud of a bludgeon; the chauffeur keeled over and was dragged out of sight.

The general, who offered no resistance, was brought to Anogia, the largest village on Crete, located on the northern slopes of Mt. Ida. “Famous for its independent spirit, its idiosyncrasy of dress and accent, it had always been a great hideout of ours,” said Fermor in an account written in 1969  for the Imperial War Museum.

Fermor related that a note had been left in the general’s car stating that he was safe and “would be treated with the respect due to his rank,” and that the kidnap had been carried out by British officers and Greek nationals serving as soldiers in the forces of His Hellenic Majesty. “The point  was to give the Germans no excuse for carnage and reprisals in the Knossos area.”

The next day, however, a single-winged Feiseler-Storck reconnaissance plane circled above Anovia and dropped a steady snowfall of leaflets. “To all Cretans,” the message read, “last night the German General Kreipe was abducted by bandits. He is being concealed in the Cretan mountains and his whereabouts cannot be unknown to the inhabitants. If the General isn’t returned within three days, all rebel villages in the Heraklion district will be razed to the ground and the severest reprisals exacted on the civilian population.”

The general was not, of course, returned to the Germans; he was smuggled off the island and delivered by submarine to British army headquarters in Egypt, and the Germans exacted their promised revenge. Fermor deals with this in circumspect fashion in his official report, asserting that “most untrue to form, there had been little violence, few arrests, no shooting on the part of the Germans.”

Fermor’s statement is disputed by Dr. Michael E. Paradise, a Midwest-based Greek-American whose father and two brothers were members of the British intelligence group on Crete. Though in his teens, Michael himself was often used as a courier. “Attacking in the darkness of one night,” he wrote in the April 10, 1997 edition of The Greek American (a now-defunct, New York-based newspaper), “the Germans proceeded to destroy several villages with the utmost brutality and ferocity. I was witness of the destruction of one of the villages, Ano Meros, on Mt. Kendros in Amari.”

The kidnapping of Gen. Kreipe, Paradise asserted, “contributed to the unnecessary death of hundreds of men, who were hunted down like wild animals in the streets of their villages, then, while some were injured and still alive, they were burnt in the houses of the villages, and buried in them when the dynamiting of the houses followed.”

Most Cretans, though, have not held a grudge against Fermor and his gung-ho confederates. As one veteran Cretan commando said at the time of Kreipe’s abduction, “So they’ll burn down all the houses one day. And what then? My house was burnt down four times by the Turks. Let the Germans burn it down for a fifth time! And they killed scores of my family, scores of them, my child, yet here I am! We’re at war and war has all of these things. You can’t make a wedding feast without meat.”

After the war—and his brief Caribbean sojourn—Fermor realized that his love of Greece had tied himself forever to the country’s fortunes. He lived for a time on Evia, then Ithaca and Hydra (in the house of the painter, Niko Ghika). Soon after he began his travels in the far corners of the Greek mainland which led to the publication of his two masterpieces, Mani and Rozemeli. Accompanied by the photographer (and his wife-to-be) Joan Rayner (daughter of the Conservative politician and First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government, Belton Eyres Monsell), whom he had met in wartime Cairo, Fermor set off with this goal in mind: “To situate and describe present-day Greece of the mountains and islands in relationship to their habitat and history.”

Mani is the southernmost part of Greece, an isolated, mountainous and forbidding peninsula known for its stark, sun-blistered landscape and warlike, feuding inhabitants. Despite having been warned not to attempt to penetrate into The Deep Mani— “the Maniatis are dangerous”—”they are Jews”—”they fear and hate foreigners”—”they live on salted starfish”—Fermor and Rayner defiantly set out on foot and mule, bus and caique, in search of an authentic Greek world.

What they found and reported on was a revelation to one and all. The Mani was a strange, combative place, to be sure—most people lived in pyrgi, stone towers that were more fortress than domicile—but it was fantastical at the same time, rich in history and bravery (no part of Greece played a more conspicuous and valuable part in the War of Independence). With its code of honor and hospitality, its love of freedom, the Mani was also pulsing with life, colorful in speech, custom, ritual and superstition.

The book that came out of this expedition into the heart and soul of the Mani became an instant classic. Fermor’s prose and Rayner’s photographs (sadly dropped from subsequent editions) won plaudits from critics and readers alike. The British artist (and longtime Greek resident) Polly Hope has said, “Mani was one of the books that brought me to Greece. When my husband and I first read it we knew instantly that this was the world we wanted to go to. It told of magic and fury and history and people and landscape. Completely breathtaking. We read it and reread it and read it again until our heads were full of towers and feuds, cucumbers like slices of ancient pillars, and ouzo. Donkeys and heat. And the dark sea that because of the extraordinary Greek light stands up vertically as far as the horizon. We had to go. And immediately. “We did, and remained, though not in Mani. Still all these years later it is the book that tells about Greece as it is. It is still right and as clear and informative as that first reading. Although tourism has spread its ugly veil over most of Greece the people are still there, the feuds and cucumbers, the vertical sea and broiling sun.”

Similar praise was bestowed on Roumeli when it was published eight years later. Fermor and Rayner’s portrait of the northeast corner of Greece, including Messolonghi, where Lord Byron (one of Fermor’s heroes) fought and died for Greece, is as vivid and compelling as anything in Mani. Whether writing about the sarakatsans, the nomadic shepherds—”self-appointed Ishmaels”—who inhabited the mountaintops, speaking in a  secret tongue; or the origins of the local Karayiozi puppet shows; or the Meteora monasteries; or the “stone-age banquet” (celebrating an arranged marriage) to which they were invited, Fermor’s prose shines and shimmers like beaten gold.

Historian John J. Norwich believes that Fermor “writes English as well as anyone alive.” 7 He also praised ‘the preternatural copiousness” of Fermor’s two books. Jan Morris seconded the statement, adding that Fermor was “beyond cavil, the greatest living travel writer.” In November, 2004 the British Guild of Travel Writers concurred, bestowing on Fermor its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fermor won another important prize in 2004: the second Gennadius Trustees’ Award for his support of things Greek. At the ceremony in Athens,  the previous recipient of the award, writer/translator Edmund Keeley, said, “I look upon Mr. Fermor as one of my first mentors, a man of letters who taught me, perhaps more than any other Philhellene, the best way to write about the second country we have both come to love and to  celebrate in our work.”

After lauding Fermor for his “imaginative projection of Greece,” Keeley offered a specific example of the kind of “special insight” that Fermor  brings to his writing about Greece. “A scene in his superb book on the Mani . . . not only captures the essence of Greek hedonism . . . but  demonstrates his easy and subtle understanding of the Greek sensibility.”

The scene took place in “the glaring white town” of Kalamata where the Feast of St. John the Baptist was being celebrated. Fermor, his wife Joan, and their friend the writer Xan Fielding sat down to eat their dinner set out at the water’s edge on flagstones “that flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off.”

Suddenly they decided to pick up their iron table, neatly laid out, and set it down a few yards out to sea, followed by their three chairs, then by the three of them sitting down with the cool water up to their waists. Quite sensible, the only slightly odd thing about this was that all three were fully dressed. Yet the really significant moment, the epiphany, came when the waiter arrived on the quay, gazed in surprise at the space they’d left empty on the burning flagstones, and then (quoting Fermor) “observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure,” stepped without further hesitation into the sea and “advanced with a butler’s gravity” to put down their meal before them, three broiled fish, “piping hot, and with their golden brown scales sparkling.”

As Keeley pointed out, “It is Fermor’s seeing both that flicker of pleasure and the quick masking of it that says so much, more even than his report that others on the quay sent their seaborne fellow diners can after measuring can of retsina, and a dozen boats gathered around to help them consume the complimentary wine, and a mandolin arrived . . . to accompany rebetika songs in praise of the liberated life. Only those who have often taken apart and savored a broiled tsipoura or fangri . fresh from the sea and amply bathed in an olive-oil-and-lemon sauce would recognize why no representative Greek citizen given to pleasure would think of disturbing, except in a celebratory way, any table holding such a succulent, earthy gift from the Gods. And only a writer with Fermor’s precise vision and brilliant skill in expression would choose to show our hedonistic waiter appropriately masking his pleasure and assuming the gravity of a butler as he entered the sea on his mission to deliver the gods’ gift.”

It is, alas, harder and harder to find such raffish scenes in 21stcentury, tourist-choked, EU-regimented Greece. Even Fermor, in a recent essay, had to admit that much of what he first encountered and experienced in Greece has disappeared. “Progress has altered the face and character of the country,” he commented. And as for tourism, “it destroys the object of its love.” 10

That said, Fermor still continues to write about Greece. In his 90s, living alone in the pyrgos he built in the Outer Mani—Joan died in 2000, of injuries suffered in a fall—he toils away on the final book of his Hook of Holland to Constantinople trilogy, the one that deals with his first years in Greece, working from notebooks, maps and memory. In a way Fermor is a chronicler of a bygone age, a rememberer of things past. The Greece he reveres may have died, but he battles with the last strength in him to keep its spirit alive.


1. ‘Only two of Fermor’s books are in print in the United States: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. They are New York Review of Books Classics. In the UK, most of Fermor’s books are published in hardbound and paperback by John Murray Ltd., but Penguin has published a few of his titles as paper reprints. The following are his major publications. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. Photos by Joan Eyres (London: Murray, 1958); Translation of George Pyschounadkis, The Cretan Runner: His story of the Germany Occupation. (London: J. Murray, 1978, c1955); Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (London & NY; Penguin, 1983, c1966); Introduction to Kostas Chatzepateras, Greece 1940-41 Eyewinessed (Anixi Attikis {Greece}: Efstathiadis Group, 1995); Text with Stephen Spender of Ghika: Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture (London: Lund Humpries, 1964); A Time of Gifts; On Foot to Constantinople, from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (NY: New York Review of BooKs, 2005).

2. Quotations is from a review from “Scholar in the Woods,” a review by James Campbell in The Guardian, April 8, 2005.

3. ‘James Campbell, Words of Mercury.

4. A11 quotes regarding Fermor’s reading tastes are taken from his essay in
the anthology The Pleasures of Reading edited by Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury,

5. ‘The details of the kidnapping are taken from Ill Met by Moonlight (London:
Harrap, 1950). In the movie of the same name released in 1958, Fermor is
played by Dirk Bogarde.

6. Letter to the author sent in 2004.

7. Copy written for the dusk jacket of the paperback edition of Between the Woods and the Water.

8. Ibid.

9. This and subsequent Keeley citations are from a 2004 letter to the author. Date?

10. See Fermor’s essay in A Time of Gifts.

Travel writing: Lost art in search of a lost world

Few authors have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ability to dissolve into the places described in his books.

Editorial, first published in The Guardian 18 June 2011

“I hate the French cookery, and abominate garlick,” Tobias Smollett told his readers 245 years ago, with a snooty disregard for foreigners that runs through too much travel writing today. Describing distant places fairly, curiously and entertainingly has never been easy. Few authors, in any century, have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s liquid ability to dissolve into the places described in his books, so that he seemed to be less reporting on than living in them. His death this month, at 96, with the third of his great trilogy of prewar European exploration still unpublished, is a moment to ask what travel writing can still achieve.

Leigh Fermor was lucky, in that he walked through an archaic and aristocratic eastern Europe soon to be obliterated by the second world war. His two greatest books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, take readers into a time and place that can never exist again, and that, as much as his pitch-perfect writing, is why they are among those few books worth reading many times.

Few of today’s writers have this advantage. They must describe a world in which it is easier to communicate, and travel, than ever before. No teenager setting off from Tower Bridge now would find themselves amid ballgowns, hunting parties and lonely mountaintop shepherds. Facebook and text messaging have brought Bucharest and Birmingham closer. Describing difference has been made harder.

Leigh Fermor was one of the last of the great travel writers whose experience spanned the previous century. A varied assortment, mostly men, wrote books that still stand as classics today: among them Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger. Jan Morris, still writing, deserves to be among them. Two decades ago, a fresh crop of authors revived the art but then fell victim to their own celebrity, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux included.

Where does travel writing stand now? There are fewer famous authors and fewer sales. Some of the best books involve almost no travel at all: Roger Deakin’s account of wild swimming in Britain, Waterlog, or Neil Ansell’s lovely Deep Country, about the birds and landscape of mid-Wales. William Dalrymple remains an explorer in the classical sense: in From the Holy Mountain he shows Byzantium is not quite destroyed. William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way, about eight years living in rural Romania, is the closest modern writing has come to Leigh-Fermor, and not only because the Gypsy and Saxon life he shares is almost gone.

Always, the attraction is the slow pace. There is no need for hurry, no requirement for horror, just immersion in a place and time that is different, even when it is not far from our own.

Anthony Lane’s New Yorker article on Fermor is now free to view

Anthony Lane's New Yorker article, May 2006

In trying to make this blog a focal point for all information related to Paddy I have had some problems accessing all on-line material. The one I most sought is the acclaimed May 22, 2006 profile by Anthony Lane which was published in the New Yorker.

This has sat behind their subscriber firewall, tempting us with one-off subscriptions. Now it appears that (possibly marking Paddy’s death?) this is no longer the case. You can now visit their archive, read the article in full on-line, print it or possibly even download it.

There are many profiles of Paddy. This is probably one of the longest and best, and includes interview material with him that many will have not seen before.

Take a trip to the New Yorker website and have a read.

Editor’s Note:  the pdf download appears to be no longer available – click on the article to magnify to read and then drag your cursor to move around the page.

Benedict Allen’s Travellers’ Century on Patrick Leigh Fermor

This is from the television review pages of the Independent covering Benedict Allen’s 2008 ‘Traveller’s Century’ series and the episode that focused on Paddy’s walk ending at the Iron Gates. I have seen this programme and share some of the frustrations of the author, but on balance it was a pretty fair programme given the tight time slot of just one hour.

by Deborah Orr

First published in The Independent 8 August 2008

The bit that delighted us all in this final episode of Travellers’ Century was a clip from another television show. There he was, Patrick Leigh Fermor, the star of the Greek version of This Is Your Life, meeting all the resistance fighters that he had worked with on Crete during the Second World War. And there, unbelievably, and every bit as thrilled to be reunited with Leigh Fermor as all the others, was the German former general Heinrich Kreipe. The two men grinned, hugged and fell into excited conversation, absolutely chuffed to see each other again. That is charm, is it not, the ability to inspire the deep affection of a man you only ever knew because you had spearheaded his humiliating wartime capture, then imprisoned him in a cave? A man, indeed, who was then portrayed in the film of the operation, Ill Met by Moonlight, as a bull-necked, grunting, Nazi ugly, while his nemesis was played by Dirk Bogarde?

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Leigh Fermor – dazzlingly charismatic company in his nineties – on a couple of occasions. So it seemed apposite to gather round the telly with the mutual friends who introduced us, so that we could all watch this film about his life together. Such is the fervour of loyalty that the man inspires, though, that it quickly became apparent that this show, or perhaps any show, would disappoint us. The first heckles came when Benedict Allen described Leigh Fermor as “the accidental superstar of travel writing”, a description we all decided would make him squirm. Concerns over tone were swiftly replaced with outright indignation, when Allen announced that he would be retracing the steps of Leigh Fermor’s first great walk across Europe, which he set off on in 1933, aged 18, in order to judge whether his descriptions had been “accurate”. This idea, again we all agreed with some disgruntlement, was facile beyond belief.

Allen’s idea was perhaps not such a weird one, though. Leigh Fermor’s book detailing the first leg of his journey had been published in 1977, after all, decades after he had made it. The delay had come about because his notes had been stolen in Romania. Again, it is testament to the affection he inspires that the local people who recovered the young Englishmen’s journal hung on to it in the hope that they would one day get the opportunity to return it to him. We all abhorred Allen’s attitude, nevertheless. When he suggested that Leigh Fermor’s two books describing his travels, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, might have been “endlessly worked and reworked, with whole decades of hindsight”, there was a generally mutinous feeling in the room that our man was being seriously impugned.

Allen regained a little trust when he decided, having visited some little-altered spots in Heidelberg, that the writer had indeed told it like it was. But when Allen changed his tune, and started suggesting that the books were weirdly apolitical, and offered too little detail about his own inner life, we sank again into despondency. The purity of Leigh Fermor’s writing comes from his scrupulous observation of what he encountered, and the beauty with which he describes it. He doesn’t bang on about himself. Anyway, on it went, as we nit-picked every assertion. By the time Allen got to interview Leigh Fermor, at his home of very many years in the Peloponnesus, we hated and resented him, and were only too happy to dismiss the interview itself as a dead loss. “And the programme was too long,” we agreed at the end. “If we thought that, what did everyone else think?” Actually “everyone else” would probably have enjoyed the thing a great deal more, not being hampered, like us, by an almost deranged sense of hyper-loyalty.

Tales of a literary traveller: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

I have been amiss and I should have published this earlier. I was contacted by John Stathatos who is a Greek photographer and knows Paddy. He emailed me back in January which was during my ‘down time’ on the blog.
Dear Tom,
While chasing up references to Costa, I discovered that the Robin Hanbury-Tenison piece on your site (“The Friendly Isles: in the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor“) is actually based on an earlier and more wide-ranging article entitled “Tales of a Literary Traveller”, first published in the Geographical magazine in 2004. You can find the earlier one here: Why this should be available on a site called CBS MoneyWatch is entirely beyond me, but that’s the Internet for you…
All the best,

Tales of a literary traveller: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor DSO, OBE is widely considered to be our greatest living travel writer, and was knighted earlier this year for, as he put it, just writing a few books. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who has known ‘Paddy’ for 50 years, explains why the great man’s writing is as powerful and important today as it has ever been

First published in the Geographical August 2004

by  Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Patrick Leigh Fermor is a unique mixture of hero, historian, traveller and writer: the last and the greatest of a generation whose like we won’t see again. Bringing the landscape alive as no other writer can, he uses his profound and eclectic understanding of cultures and peoples, their origins and current place in the world, to paint vivid pictures–nobody has illuminated the geography of Europe better through literature. Everything is grist to his mill; nothing is ever banal. He expects much of his readers and we’re kept on our toes, constantly reaching for the dictionary or Brewer’s. In return for these achievements, he was finally knighted this year at the age of 88. He had modestly refused this honour previously on the grounds that all he had done was “write a few books”.

I first met Paddy (as he has always been known) in Athens in 1954 when I was a callow 18-year-old travelling through Greece. I remember sitting at a cafe in Metaxas Square while waves of witty erudition washed back and forth between him and my older travelling companion, and being humbled into awed silence. Paddy has always appeared larger than life, both in his personality and in his relatively rare and carefully honed writing. We corresponded from time to time over the years and eventually met again when he and his wife Joan had my wife and me to lunch at their house in Greece, where we were made to feel instantly at home.

Since Joan’s death, Paddy has spent more time in England, which gives us all more opportunity to see him. In May this year, a dinner was held for him by the Travellers Club, at which he was presented with a specially commissioned map of the route that he followed through Europe during the early 1930s and that he later wrote about so vividly. He spoke at the dinner and, now 89, held us all spellbound with some classic tales. One of the club waitresses was from Sofia and, to her delight and the amazement of all around, he launched into apparently fluent Bulgarian as she served him.

The bare details of his life, too, delight and amaze. The son of Sir Lewis Leigh Ferrnor, the director of the Geological Survey of India, Paddy was sacked at 17 from King’s School, Canterbury (for the terrible crime of “holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter”), and spent the next 18 months walking to Constantinople, a journey that he wrote about with apparent total recall some 40 years later in A Time of Gifts, the first volume of a trilogy. It was followed by Between the Woods and the Water. We still await the final volume.

In the Second World War, Paddy served with the Special Operations Executive–the precursor of the SAS–and, because he spoke Greek, was parachuted into Crete behind enemy lines to help organise resistance against the Germans. In April 1944, having already spent more than a year living there, he pulled off one of the most dramatic exploits of the war.

Dressed as Feldpolizei corporals, Paddy and Captain Billy Moss–who subsequently wrote the book on which the film Ill Met by Moonlight was based–stopped the car in which General Heinrich Kreipe, the recently arrived commander of the German occupation forces, was being driven by his chauffeur. The driver was removed and handed over to members of the Cretan Resistance, while Paddy put on the general’s hat and proceeded to drive on through 22 control posts. The car was then abandoned, and the two soldiers marched their prisoner through that night and the next day to a cave high in the mountains.

In order to avoid reprisals against the Cretans, leaflets were to be dropped all over Crete, containing a message that the BBC also broadcast: that the general was safe, and would be treated with the respect due his rank; that the operation had been carried out by British officers; and that they were all on their way to Cairo by submarine. Two days later, they woke among some rocks near the summit of Mount Ida, just as dawn was breaking. Half to himself, General Kreipe recited in Latin the opening line of a Horace ode. As Paddy subsequently described in his report to the Imperial War Museum: “He was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart–Ad Thaliarchum, I.ix” and he went on to recite the remaining five stanzas. “The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine–and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

After the war, Paddy spent six months travelling through the Caribbean with Joan Eyres-Monsell–the woman who, 20 years later, was to become his wife–and Costa, the great Greek photographer. The result was his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which brought the Caribbean to the notice of post-war Britain. Back then, the many islands they visited were thoroughly run down. The great buildings–of church, state and planters’ wealth–were mostly ruined and rotten. In the depressed economic climate immediately following the war, the future looked bleak; indeed, ‘King Sugar’ was about to die, this time as a victim of sugar beet and the macropolitics being played out between the USA and Europe.

Yet Paddy still managed to reveal the archipelago’s romance and magic, and The Traveller’s Tree was hailed as a masterpiece and won the Heinemann Prize. Paddy’s portrayal of the islands could be said to have jump-started the tourism industry upon which the Caribbean has since largely depended.

It was the Caribbean, too, that provided the backdrop to Paddy’s only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which brings alive the glamour and the passions of the planters in their heyday. This tale of a rich island being destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the middle of a splendid planters’ ball is based on the true story of the annihilation in 1902 of St-Pierre, the old capital of Martinique. There, 26,000 people died instantly in the New World’s Pompeii. The sole survivor was the town drunk, who was incarcerated in a cell below ground. He spent the rest of his life as an exhibit in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

Paddy eventually returned to Greece, where, during the 1960s, he built a wonderful house above a private cove near the fishing village of Kardamili in the southern Peloponnese. There, in a large room that John Betjeman, an early visitor, called “one of the rooms in the world”, he and Joan entertained a string of artists and writers with copious quantities of retsina, and Paddy wrote.

His greatest book, Mani, was about a journey through that little-known and, at the time, archaic region; the book has been in print ever since. Paddy travelled simply, staying with fishermen and farmers, which enabled him to capture the essence of the region, as this extract reveals:

Beyond the bars of my window the towers descended, their walls blazoned with diagonals of light and shade; and, through a wide gap, castellated villages were poised above the sea on coils of terraces. Through another gap our host’s second daughter, wide hatted and perched on the back of a wooden sledge and grasping three reins, was sliding round a threshing floor behind a horse, a mule and a cow–the first cow I had seen in the Mani–all of them linked in a triple yoke. On a bank above this busy stone disc, the rest of the family were flinging wooden shovelfuls of wheat in the air for the grain to fall on outstretched coloured blankets while the husks drifted away. Others shook large sieves. The sun which climbed behind them outlined this group with a rim of gold and each time a winnower sent up his great fan, for long seconds the floating chaff embowered him in a golden mist.

Almost every page has its own literary tour de force, often with intimidating displays of learning and research mixed with fantasy, imagination and acute descriptions of the scene itself. In his next book, Roumeli, about the minority communities of northern Greece, Paddy becomes fascinated by the last true nomads of the region, the Sarakatsans. His description of their wanderings is, for me, the best sort of literary geography lesson, and has even more geopolitical relevance now than when he wrote it:

The sudden cage of frontiers which sprang up after the Balkan Wars failed to confine them and they fanned out in autumn all over southern Albania and across the lower marches of Serbia as far as Montenegro and Herzogovina and Bosnia and into Bulgaria to the foothills of the Great Balkan. Those who thought of the Rhodope mountains as their home–the very ones, indeed, in the highlands that loom above the Thracian plains–were particularly bold in the extent of their winter wanderings. Not only did they strike northwards, like those I saw by the Black Sea, but, before the Hebrus river became an inviolable barrier, their caravans reached Constantinople and up went their wigwams under the walls of Theodosius. Others settled along the shores of the Sea of Marmara and spread over the rich green hills of the Dardanelles. Many crossed the Hellespont to pitch camp on the plain of Troy. Bold nomads would continue to the meadows of Bythinia and winter among the poplar trees or push on into Cappadocia and scatter their flocks across the volcanic wildernesses round the rock monasteries of Urgub. The boldest even reached Iconium, the home of Jellalludin and the metropolis of the whirling dervishes. They never looked on these enormous journeys as expatriation: until the deracination of the 1920s, much of Asia Minor was part of the Greek world; and even beyond its confines there were ancient Greek colonies.

Those attempting today to sort out the chaos in what was, for a while, southern Yugoslavia could learn a lot from reading Paddy’s books.

One of the main criticisms of Paddy’s writing is that there simply isn’t enough of it. But very few 20th-century writers, with perhaps the exception of Graham Greene, have managed to be prolific while maintaining consistent quality of this kind. The relatively small number of books (much boosted by the release of the paperback of Words of Mercury this mouth) is the work, to quote Anthony Sattin in the Sunday Times, of “one of the greatest travel writers of all time”, a heartfelt wanderer truly involved in mankind.

New editions of both Mani and Roumeli will be published by John Murray near the end of this year. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were reissued by John Murray in March. Words of Mercury is out now in paperback.

Early inspiration: Following Paddy around the Caribbean

Though Patrick Leigh Fermor’s most famous works recount his European travels, it was the Caribbean that inspired his first book. Fifty years later, Robin Hanbury-Tenison and his wife retraced Paddy’s steps:

We hired horses and rode, as Paddy did, between tall forest giants, listening to the jungle buzz and background twitterings. Suddenly, a beautiful, melodious note rang out. This was followed after o moment by three more notes of startling clarity and sweetness and the theme, a bit like the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, was repeated every few minutes. It was a rufous-throated solitaire, which Leigh Fermor describes as making “a noise so melancholy that it seemed the perfect emanation of these sad and beautiful forests. It haunts the high woods of Dominica and nowhere else in the world.”

How does everything about a place change in 50 years, and yet the place itself remain the same? It is because of that unique mixture of cultures that is the Caribbean–and no-one has captured and evoked the extraordinary differences between the islands better than Paddy did in The Traveller’s Tree. Ash says: “Each island is a distinct and idiosyncratic entity, a civilisation, or the reverse, fortuitous in its origins and empirical in its development. “And then again, quoting an old Jamaican: “We’re always going somewhere. But we never get there.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor, however, not only travelled but also arrived. And those of us who read his dispatches home–those calm, intelligent tales of lives lived elsewhere–are in his debt.

Home truths on abroad – where now for travel writing?

William Dalrymple recalls an encounter with Paddy in the Mani in 2008, discusses the impact of Bruce Chatwin, and asks where next for travel writing.

First published in The Guardian, 19 Sep 2009

William Dalrymple

What is to become of travel writing now that the world is smaller? Who are the successors to Chatwin, Lewis and Thesiger? William Dalrymple names a new generation of stars and sees a sparkling future for the genre – one less to do with posturing and heroic adventures than an intimate knowledge of people and places

Last year, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit the headland where Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be scattered.

The hillside chapel where Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, brought his urn lies in rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above the bay of Kardamyli. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows built from stone the colour of haloumi cheese. Inside are faded and flaking Byzantine frescoes of mounted warrior saints, lances held aloft.

The sun was sinking over the Taygetus, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. It was, I thought, a perfect place for anyone to rest at the end of their travels.

My companion for the visit was Chatwin’s great friend and sometime mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was Chatwin’s only real rival as the greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Leigh Fermor’s two sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer, later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder.

Bruce Chatwin, 1940-1989

Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to honour the memory of the dead friend who had introduced us, but Leigh Fermor himself was not in great shape. At dinner that night, it was clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-90s, was in very poor health. Over dinner we talked about how travel writing seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in the late 1970s and 80s, when both Leigh Fermor and Chatwin had made their names and their reputations. It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel writers were either dead or dying.

Wilfred Thesiger (1909-2003), who was in many ways the last of the great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four exemplary books in his final decade. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading for his centenary when he published The Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax anyone, never mind a man in his early 90s who should by rights have been shuffling around in carpet slippers, not planning trips to visit the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions Lewis settles on to bring “some stimulation and variety” to his old age.

One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police investigation into rumours that “women on the small island of Anirini were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells”, he merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront (“they spent the crossing sleeping, eating and making love – the last on a strict rota”) in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows. Before long Lewis, then aged 92, had hopped ashore, rented a room from one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down well-heads in search of rotting cadavers. Continue reading


I am in Franconia this weekend, an area that as far as I know Paddy has not visited. It is however typical of the type of country that Paddy would have walked in 1934. The unsploit city of Bamberg, 80 km east of Wurzburg, is preserved almost as Paddy would have found any German city prior to the war.

One year on … the Patrick Leigh Fermor Blog

I am back. Sorry that I have been so quiet for the last few weeks. I don’t have any real explanation. Excuses may range from work commitments through some form of ‘writer’s block’ (where has my muse gone?) to the genuine excuse of being totally absorbed by Miklos Banffy’s first volume of his trilogy – They Were Counted.

This is an exceptionally good book. I will write about it at greater length at some future date, but I do recommend it. He can sometimes get a little bogged down by Hungarian politics, but when he gets going, describing balls, duels, gambling and love, he really does have a very fine style. Paddy wrote the forward to the English translation whilst staying at Chatsworth during Christmas 1998. Much of the story is set in Kolozvar (Cluj) and our old friend the Hotel New York, where Paddy and Angéla went for a cocktail, is frequently mentioned.

We have just had a blog anniversary. The Patrick Leigh Fermor blog started in late March 2010. In that time it has reached almost the very top in any Paddy search you care to mention. There have been over 64,000 visits, 156 postings, 206 comments, and there are now well over 100 subscribers (you can sign up in the top right of the home page so that you receive future posts by email – no spam).

When I started I wondered if there would be any interest in our heroic and talented subject. There were just a few dozen visits in the first month. But visits grew rapidly to a peak of 9,400 in January 2011. We now track at nearly 7,000 visits a month on average so you are not alone in your interest in The Greatest Living Englishman.

I am extremely grateful to all of you who have got in touch with me with messages of support; offers of information; and especially to those who have sent me material to publish. I can assure you that there is much more material (I have over 60 items in various stages of draft) and it will come in a steady stream. To one of you, please be assured I remain your #1.

Finally, let’s not forget why we are here. Paddy is now 96 years of age and, as far as I can tell, in reasonably good health. I am sure we wish him all good health and pray that he is working as fast as he can on that third volume. It is without doubt one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the decade.

Why not visit some of our top posts?

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

A Meeting between Paddy and George Psychoundakis the “Cretan Runner”

Patrick Leigh Fermor – star of the silver screen?

On the Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall

I knew Patrick Leigh Fermor through his words, and he will know me by mine

Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen

I guess that many of us enjoy the chapter in A Time of Gifts when the eighteen year old Paddy spent two nights in Stuttgart with two very pretty nineteen year old German girls, Lise and Annie. It was Epiphany, 6th January 1934, and they went to a party where Paddy had to pretend to be Mr Brown, a family friend. He particularly enjoyed singing a song about the Neckar Valley and Swabia. Paddy could not remember all the words but his stunning memory recalled most of them (page 66).

As we approach that time of year I thought we ought to share this delightful song.

Here is a link to the music sung by a German choir. The words are below so that you too can sing along! Let’s hear it now, one two three …. 

  1. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
    Das schönste dort am Neckarstrand?
    Die grünen Rebenhügel schauen
    Ins Tal von hoher Felsenwand.

Es ist das Land, das mich gebar,
Wo meiner Väter Wiege stand,
Drum sing’ ich heut’ und immerdar:
Das schöne Schwaben ist mein Heimatland! 

2. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Mit Wald und Flur so reich bekränzt,
Wo auf den weiten, reichen Auen
Im Sonnenschein die Ähre glänzt?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .

  3. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Wo Tann’ und Efeu immer grün,
Wo starke Männer, edle Frauen
In deutscher Kraft und Sitte blühn?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .4. Kennt ihr das Land im deutschen Süden,
So oft bewährt in Kampf und Streit,
Dem zwischen seiner Wälder Frieden
So frisch die deutsche Kraft gedeiht? 

Ja, wackre Deutsche laßt uns sein!
Drauf reichet euch die deutsche Hand;
Denn Schwabenland ist’s nicht allein:
Das ganze Deutschland ist mein Heimatland!

A Traveler’s Tale: On Patrick Leigh Fermor

by Wes Davis

First published in The Nation, December 2010

At a Chelsea-to-Richmond boating party held sometime in the early 1950s, the Duchess of Devonshire, then a beautiful young woman of 30, met a dashing man, some five years her senior, who was dressed as a Roman gladiator and armed with a net and trident. It was a look she thought suited him.

The fancy-dress gladiator was Patrick Leigh Fermor, a former officer in Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert unit that aided resistance movements throughout occupied Europe, and an up-and-coming writer best known at the time for kidnapping a German general during the war. He had crossed paths with the duchess before and remembered her clearly from a regimental ball in 1940, when she was still Deborah Mitford—the youngest of the soon-to-be-famous Mitford sisters. She was then engaged to Andrew Cavendish, a tall naval officer and younger son of the Tenth Duke of Devonshire who had no expectation of inheriting his father’s title until the war took his older brother’s life four years later. Leigh Fermor had watched the couple dance their way through the evening, “utterly rapt, eyes shut, as though in a trance.” Mitford had not noticed him.

But when they met again—as duchess and gladiator—Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor struck up a friendship that has endured for more than half a century. In Tearing Haste, a collection of their letters newly available in this country, gives the impression that the conversation that started at a boating party so many summers ago has never stopped. Spanning 1954 to 2007, the volume reads like an accidental memoir of a disappearing world stretching from the manor houses of the English aristocracy to the olive groves of Greece, its people and places rendered with a kind of care that’s becoming scarce in our age of helter-skelter communication. At the same time, the book’s title, a phrase deriving from Leigh Fermor’s habit of dashing off messages “with a foot in the stirrup,” captures the vigor and bustle of the lives that nourished the correspondence. I once happened upon the manuscript of a chatty letter Leigh Fermor had written in 1944 to an Englishwoman stationed in Cairo. Amusingly composed and illustrated with a witty hand-drawn cartoon, it closed with Leigh Fermor mentioning offhand that he was in hiding on occupied Crete and that an undercover runner was waiting outside to receive the communication.

In Tearing Haste is engaging from start to finish. There isn’t a dull letter among Charlotte Mosley’s selections. Even her annotations, often incorporating information from the book’s two correspondents, are as surprising as they are informative. One biographical note on the painter Augustus John includes Deborah Devonshire’s recollection of meeting him in London: “He looked me up and down and said, ‘Have you got children?’ ‘Yes.’ Another long look. ‘Did you suckle them?'” More than anything else, the collection is important as an addition to Leigh Fermor’s body of work, both because his letters constitute a larger portion of the volume and because the writing in them harmonizes with the books that established his literary reputation. But let it be said that the Duchess of Devonshire is no slouch either. Her letters, though generally shorter and less frequent than Leigh Fermor’s, share his wit and many of his interests—a fascination with language, for example, or with the byways of English and European history. She puts a charming twist on these topics while adding a few bright threads of her own to the correspondence.

Deborah Devonshire’s books—beginning with The House (1982) and The Estate (1990)—focus largely on the management of Chatsworth, the massive estate in Derbyshire that she and her husband put into charitable trust and opened to the public in 1981. (The house was a stand-in for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and throughout the letters Leigh Fermor refers to it as “Dingley Dell,” after Mr. Wardle’s house in The Pickwick Papers.) As a writer, she is best when describing the seasonal rhythms of country life (the arrival of the year’s pullets, say) or assessing the gamut of rural arts (from drystone walling to mushroom gathering) and tilling their linguistic soil. In Counting My Chickens, a collection of notes and essays published in 2001, she remembers leaving Leigh Fermor “stumped” by the meaning of words gleaned from the glossary of a pamphlet about sheep. “One sheep disease,” she recalls, “has regional names of intriguing diversity: Sturfy, bleb, turnstick, paterish, goggles, dunt, and pedro all are gid.” On the same page she can be found rhapsodizing over “the glorious language of the 1662 prayer book, with its messages of mystery and imagination.”

She takes any opportunity to undercut the preconceived notions one might have about a duchess’s likes and dislikes. “I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows,” she says in Counting My Chickens, “and good stout things they are.” For the playwright Tom Stoppard, who contributed an introduction to the book, this was one of her most characteristic revelations. For me, a close runner-up is her discussion of flower gardening on a grand estate, where she admits, “I prefer vegetables.” Many of her stories turn on a similar blend of unexpected rusticity and unflagging old-school civility. In an essay about the life the Mitfords led for a time on the island of Inchkenneth in the Hebrides, she describes traveling by train in the company of a goat, a whippet and a Labrador back to her sister Nancy’s house in Oxfordshire when the war broke out. “I milked the goat in the first-class waiting room,” she confesses, “which I should not have done, as I only had a third-class ticket.”

For all her modesty, the duchess isn’t embarrassed to mention boldface names that have sailed in and out of her social circle. (They range from Fred Astaire to the Queen Mother, the latter called “Cake” when she appears in the letters.) The humor in one anecdote depends on knowing that John F. Kennedy was intimate enough with the duchess to employ her nickname. This caused some confusion when her uncle Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, found himself involved in a telephone conversation with the American president about matters involving Castro, SEATO and NATO. It took him a moment to switch tracks when Kennedy asked, “And how’s Debo?” (Evelyn Waugh, a friend of hers, might well have written the scene.) In the letters, Kennedy is counted among the “bodies to be worshipped,” and several entries describe the friendship that developed between JFK and the duchess in the years between his inauguration and his death.

Her relationship with Leigh Fermor has many dimensions, its ardor fueled by humor, charisma and delight in a good tale. The revealing joke that runs through In Tearing Haste is that Devonshire is not a reader and that despite her lively correspondence with Leigh Fermor, she can’t manage to read his books. She praises one of his letters not for its vivid language but because it has instructions about which parts to skip. Leigh Fermor takes revenge in another letter, marking a set of passages with notes “don’t skip” and “ditto.” The bit he wants her to see—a foray into history by way of language—might well have been lifted from one of the books that made him famous: “The inhabitants are Koutzovlachs who speak a v. queer Latin dialect akin both to Rumanian and Italian. Some say they are Rumanian nomad shepherds who wandered here centuries ago with their flocks and never found their way home again. Others, more plausibly, say they are the descendants of Roman legionaries, speaking a corrupt camp Latin, stationed here to guard the high passes of the Pindus, miles from anywhere.” Continue reading

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked


Patrick Leigh Fermor was a major in the Paras during the Second World War

This profile by William Dalrymple is perhaps the most well known of all the on-line pieces about Paddy. I have so far been reluctant to add it to the blog, but as my blog is meant to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for all things Leigh Fermor I have decided its time has come.


By William Dalrymple

First published in the Telegraph 06 Sep 2008

At 18 he left home to walk the length of Europe; at 25, as an SOE agent, he kidnapped the German commander of Crete; now at 93, Patrick Leigh Fermor, arguably the greatest living travel writer, is publishing the nearest he may come to an autobiography – and finally learning to type. William Dalrymple meets him at home in Greece

‘You’ve got to bellow a bit,’ Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor said, inclining his face in my direction, and cupping his ear. ‘He’s become an economist? Well, thank God for that. I thought you said he’d become a Communist.’

He took a swig of retsina and returned to his lemon chicken.

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion. I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I’m two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well. But both of them have gone now, and that’s one reason why I am off to London next week. Glasses, too. Running out of those very quickly. Occasionally, the one that is lost is found, but their numbers slowly diminish…’

He trailed off. ‘The amount that can go wrong at this age – you’ve no idea. This year I’ve acquired something called tunnel vision. Very odd, and sometimes quite interesting. When I look at someone I can see four eyes, one of them huge and stuck to the side of the mouth. Everyone starts looking a bit like a Picasso painting.’

He paused and considered for a moment, as if confronted by the condition for the first time. ‘And, to be honest, my memory is not in very good shape either. Anything like a date or a proper name just takes wing, and quite often never comes back. Winston Churchill – couldn’t remember his name last week.

‘Even swimming is a bit of a trial now,’ he continued, ‘thanks to this bloody clock thing they’ve put in me – what d’they call it? A pacemaker. It doesn’t mind the swimming. But it doesn’t like the steps on the way down. Terrific nuisance.’

We were sitting eating supper in the moonlight in the arcaded L-shaped cloister that forms the core of Leigh Fermor’s beautiful house in Mani in southern Greece. Since the death of his beloved wife Joan in 2003, Leigh Fermor, known to everyone as Leigh Fermor, has lived here alone in his own Elysium with only an ever-growing clowder of darting, mewing, paw-licking cats for company. He is cooked for and looked after by his housekeeper, Elpida, the daughter of the inn-keeper who was his original landlord when he came to Mani for the first time in 1962.

It is the most perfect writer’s house imaginable, designed and partially built by Leigh Fermor himself in an old olive grove overlooking a secluded Mediterranean bay. It is easy to see why, despite growing visibly frailer, he would never want to leave. Buttressed by the old retaining walls of the olive terraces, the whitewashed rooms are cool and airy and lined with books; old copies of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books lie scattered around on tables between Attic vases, Indian sculptures and bottles of local ouzo.

A study filled with reference books and old photographs lies across a shady courtyard. There are cicadas grinding in the cypresses, and a wonderful view of the peaks of the Taygetus falling down to the blue waters of the Aegean, which are so clear it is said that in some places you can still see the wrecks of Ottoman galleys lying on the seabed far below.

There is a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air; and from below comes the crash of the sea on the pebbles of the foreshore. Yet there is something unmistakably melancholy in the air: a great traveller even partially immobilised is as sad a sight as an artist with failing vision or a composer grown hard of hearing.

I had driven down from Athens that morning, through slopes of olives charred and blackened by last year’s forest fires. I arrived at Kardamyli late in the evening. Although the area is now almost metropolitan in feel compared to what it was when Leigh Fermor moved here in the 1960s (at that time he had to move the honey-coloured Taygetus stone for his house to its site by mule as there was no road) it still feels wonderfully remote and almost untouched by the modern world.

When Leigh Fermor first arrived in Mani in 1962 he was known principally as a dashing commando. At the age of 25, as a young agent of Special Operations Executive (SOE), he had kidnapped the German commander in Crete, General Kreipe, and returned home to a Distinguished Service Order and movie version of his exploits, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing him as a handsome black-shirted guerrilla.

It was in this house that Leigh Fermor made the startling transformation – unique in his generation – from war hero to literary genius. To meet, Leigh Fermor may still have the speech patterns and formal manners of a British officer of a previous generation; but on the page he is a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly a single living equal.

It was here in the isolation and beauty of Kardamyli that Leigh Fermor developed his sublime prose style, and here that he wrote most of the books that have made him widely regarded as the world’s greatest travel writer, as well as arguably our finest living prose-poet. While his densely literary and cadent prose style is beyond imitation, his books have become sacred texts for several generations of British writers of non-fiction, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Philip Marsden, Nicholas Crane and Rory Stewart, all of whom have been inspired by the persona he created of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of books on his shoulder.

As Anthony Lane put it in the New Yorker, Leigh Fermor ‘was, and remains, an Englishman, with so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient – pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope… We fret about our kids’ Sats, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul. In his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron – his hero, and to some extent his template. In between he has joined a cavalry charge, observed a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and plunged into a love affair with a princess. He has feasted atop a moonlit tower, with wine and roast lamb hauled up by rope. He has dwelt soundlessly among Trappist monks.’

For myself, it was the reading of his travel books while at Cambridge that inspired me to attempt to follow in his footsteps. With a paperback of Leigh Fermor’s in my backpack, I set off to Jerusalem following the route of the Crusaders during my first summer vacation. Meeting my hero for the first time at Bruce Chatwin’s house, just before the publication of my first book in 1989, was the nearest thing I have had to a formal graduation ceremony as a writer, the moment when you suddenly feel that maybe you really have passed out of your novitiate.

Foremost among Leigh Fermor’s books are his two glorious Greek travelogues, Mani and Roumeli; an exquisite short study of monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence; and most celebrated of all, an account of his journey in the early 1930s, travelling on foot, sleeping in hayricks and castles ‘like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’, from Holland to Constantinople. On and off for nearly 70 years Fermor has been working on a trilogy about this epic walk. The first volume – and many would say his masterpiece – A Time of Gifts was finally published in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, followed nine years later. Since then, 22 years have passed with no sign of volume three, the book that should take us to the gates of Byzantium.

Leigh Fermor is now 93 and his fans are getting anxious. But travel writers have longer professional life expectancies than most – Norman Lewis, for example, produced four books between his 88th birthday and his death five years later – so we should not give up hope. Indeed, on a low table when Leigh Fermor showed me into his study, lay an 8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.

In the meantime, Fermor fans have a small savoury to keep them going until the final course is served. This week John Murray is bringing out In Tearing Haste, a volume of letters between Leigh Fermor and the last surviving member of the Mitford sisterhood: Debo Devonshire, his close friend for nearly half a century. The letters are the nearest thing Leigh Fermor may ever get to writing an autobiography, faithfully chronicling his movements since the mid-1950s with the same detailed, painterly, highly written style that he uses in his travelogues.

Though inevitably slighter than his more polished work, the book includes wonderful accounts of some of his most celebrated adventures, such as his disastrous visit to Somerset Maugham at Cap Ferrat. Here he describes the elderly Maugham’s face as ‘so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille, or chained to a bench of a galley, or inside an iron mask for half a century’.

Having committed the faux-pas of appearing to draw attention to Maugham’s stammer at dinner, Leigh Fermor, who had initially been invited to stay for a week, was approached by his host at the end of the evening who offered him ‘a hand as cold as a toad, with the words “W-w-well I’ll s-s-say g-good-b-b-bye now in c-case I’m not up b-by the t-time y-you l-leave.”?’

It emerged that Leigh Fermor’s proof of the book had yet to reach the Peloponnese, so after supper I produced my own copy. He frowned: there had been a disagreement between the authors and their publisher over the cover produced by the artist John Craxton, who has illustrated all Leigh Fermor’s book since the 1950s, and the book was now covered with something more sketchy, and clearly not at all to Leigh Fermor’s liking. ‘Debo and I complained,’ he said, holding the book almost to the end of his nose and peering disapprovingly at the illustration, ‘but they kept on about business trends or some such jargon. What was it now? Market forces, that’s it. Well I never…’

As he flicked through the proof, I asked if the rumours were true: that after a lifetime of writing in longhand, he was now finally learning to type, the quicker to finish the third volume of his masterpiece.

‘Well, not exactly,’ he replied. ‘At the moment I seem to be collecting typewriters. I’ve got four now. People keep giving me their old ones. But it is true, I am planning to take typing lessons in Evesham this September.’ He paused, before adding, ‘In truth, I am absolutely longing to get down to it, before my sight gets any worse.’

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915 to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, the director general of the Geological Survey of India, and the ‘sophisticated and wild’ Eileen Ambler. His mother was a bohemian and highly literate woman, who loved reading to her children and encouraging them to learn poetry by heart. She had been brought up in the wilds of Bihar, as a result of which Leigh Fermor can still sing, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in Hindi. ‘Although I was brought up in England,’ he remembered, ‘India was a presence in the household, like voices in the next room.’

Almost immediately Leigh Fermor was deserted by his parents. It was the war, and they had to return to India; given the threat of U-boats, it was decided to leave the young Leigh Fermor in England so that someone would survive if the ship were torpedoed. The boy was sent to a farm in Northamptonshire where he was allowed to run free. ‘I think it formed me, you know,’ he said. ‘Made me restless and curious. I was constantly climbing trees and hayricks.’

When his mother and sister returned to collect him three and half years later, he ran away from these ‘beautiful strangers’. In retrospect, Leigh Fermor thinks the experience of ‘those marvellously lawless years unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint’, something that marked the rest of his career, especially at school, where he was expelled from a variety of establishments until finding happiness at ‘a co-educational and very advanced school for difficult children’.

After that school was closed down due to a series of ‘vaguely guessed at improprieties’, Leigh Fermor moved on to the King’s School Canterbury. He liked the fact it was founded during the reign of Justinian ‘when fragments of Thor and Odin had barely stopped smouldering in the Kentish woods’; but his teachers were less sure about their new pupil: ‘He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,’ his housemaster wrote, shortly before expelling him. Unqualified to join Sandhurst, the direction in which his family had been pushing him, he attended crammers in London where he began to write poetry and to read voraciously.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings' Canterbury

One of the books he chanced across was The Station, Robert Byron’s newly published book about his travels through the monasteries of Mount Athos. A subsequent meeting with Byron in a ‘blurred and saxophone-haunted nightclub’ made Leigh Fermor, aged 18, ache to follow in the author’s footsteps and visit ‘serpent-haunted dragon-green Byzantium’. He had also read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. With nothing to keep him in Britain he set off, having first borrowed a knapsack that had accompanied Byron to Athos, aiming to walk to that living fragment of Byzantium while living as cheaply as Orwell: ‘I loved the idea of roughing it.’

On the wet afternoon of December 9, 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, as ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats’, Leigh Fermor left London, boarding a Dutch steamer at Irongate Wharf. His rucksack contained pencils, drawing pads, notebooks, The Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. He would not lay eyes on Britain again until January 1937, when he returned ‘for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels’.

‘I thought I’d keep a diary and turn it into a book, which of course is what I did,’ he said. ‘Except I am still writing that book more than 70 years later.’ It was not just that the journey gave Leigh Fermor the subject for his lifework, it ‘broadened my mind, taught me history, literature and languages. It opened everything up: the world, civilisation and Europe. It also gave me a capacity for solitude and a sense of purpose. It taught me to read and to look at things. It was a great education. I didn’t go to university, I went travelling instead.’

The journey also led him to meeting one of the two great loves of his life, a beautiful Byzantine princess named Balasha Cantacuzene. Leigh Fermor met Balasha in Athens, to which he walked after finally reaching Athos in early 1937. She was 12 years older than him, and had just separated from her husband, a Spanish diplomat. ‘She was 32, and I was 20. We met at just the right time and fell into each other’s arms. It was instant, we clicked immediately. We went off together and lived in a watermill in the Peloponnese for five months. I was writing, she was painting. It was heavenly.’

Balasha Cantacuzene

From there the couple moved back to Balasha’s rambling country estate in the dales of Moldavia, where they moved in with Balasha’s sister. Leigh Fermor has written that the two sisters were ‘good, beautiful, courageous, gifted, imaginative, immersed in literature and the arts, kind, funny, unconventional; everybody loved them and so did I.’

For Leigh Fermor, this was one of the happiest periods of his life. For two years he lived there, savouring the last remnants of a world that was just about to disappear: ‘Her family was part of an old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world: country-dwelling noblesse of the sort described by Turgenev. They were intensely civilised people. The house was an old manor house, not grand, but delightful and full of pictures and books.

There was a butler who was always a bit tight, and no electricity, so we read with lamps and wicks. I spent the time reading my way through the whole of French literature and playing chess – when I wasn’t making a hash of writing this book.’ He paused, then added, ‘Of course I wanted to marry her, but she said, “Don’t be ridiculous – I’m much older than you.”?’

Both the romance and the world in which it was set were ended for ever by the war. ‘We were aware that war clouds were looming, but didn’t realise how serious it was. We were out on a picnic, some of us on horseback and some in open carriages, when someone shouted across the fields that the Germans had gone into Poland. I made the decision at once: if war had broken out I had to join the Army. I thought it would be over in six months.’

In the event, Leigh Fermor did not lay eyes on Balasha again for a quarter of a century. With the end of the war came the Iron Curtain, and Balasha could no more get out of Romania than Leigh Fermor could get in. When he eventually managed to find a way to get in as a journalist, he found Balasha living in poverty in a Bucharest garret, surviving by teaching English, French and painting. ‘We sat up and scarcely went to bed for 48 hours, laughing the whole time: “Do you remember?” By this time I was with Joan. Balasha took it all in such a philosophical and charming way. She was an extraordinary person.’

It emerged that the Cantacuzenes had been branded ‘elements of putrid background’ and Balasha’s lands had been confiscated soon after the end of the war. She had lost everything. The day Ceausescu’s commissar turned up she and her sister had been given quarter of an hour to pack. The house had subsequently been turned into a lunatic asylum. In Leigh Fermor’s account of the reunion, he wrote how he ‘found them in their attic.

In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of 26 years… [But] early thoughts of leaving Romania lapsed in the end, and they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; secretly, perhaps they also shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away.’

The same war that destroyed Leigh Fermor’s great love affair also made his name as a man of action. From Moldavia he returned to Britain and enlisted in the Irish Guards. As a fluent Greek speaker he was soon singled out for intelligence work, and was sent first to Albania and then to Greece as a liaison officer working with the Greek army. After the fall of Greece he found his way to Crete just in time to fight in vain against the Nazi invasion. From there he was evacuated to Alexandria where he set up house with several other young intelligence agents and a refugee Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska, who moved in with her few possessions: ‘a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses’.

Before long Leigh Fermor was sent back into Crete to work with the Cretan resistance. He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into the occupied island disguised as shepherds and established a troglodyte existence under the stalactites of mountain caves, commanded by a Fellow of All Souls. The port from which Leigh Fermor set off was captured by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. ‘It was a low moment in the war: the Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.’ It was partly for this reason that Leigh Fermor’s bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale: kidnapping the German commander of the island.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

In Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE partly dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the highlands and hence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as ‘a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida’.

‘We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”. It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off… The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’

It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: fabulously erudite and romantic, and just a little showy. For his greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Leigh Fermor has been responsible for some of the most brightly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

Back in Egypt, Leigh Fermor met his future wife, and the companion for the second half of his life. Joan Eyres Monsell was then working for the intelligence department as a cipher clerk. ‘She had a house near the Ibn Tulun mosque, and was very go-ahead,’ Leigh Fermor remembers. ‘She was a nurse when the war broke out, and had lived in Spain and Algiers before Cairo. We met at a party and hit it off very quickly.’

When the war was over, Joan and Leigh Fermor remained in Greece, wandering the country and initially finding work in the British Council, whose Athens office was then run by the other great British philhellene of that generation, Sir Steven Runciman. But as ever, Leigh Fermor’s wanderlust soon got the better of him, and before long he had resigned. In 1949 they caught a ship to the Caribbean, a trip that resulted in two books: a travelogue, The Traveller’s Tree, and a fine novel, The Violins of St Jacques. Both were written partially in Trappist monasteries, an experience that Leigh Fermor turned into his third and most tightly written book, A Time to Keep Silence.

It was in the early 1960s that Leigh Fermor married Joan and settled down with her in Kardamyli, to continue his life of writing travel books, interspersed with weekly book reviews for Cyril Connolly’s Sunday Times book pages. It is this more settled phase of life that is so well captured in the new book of letters between Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire. There are lovely descriptions of Leigh Fermor and Joan finding the bay at Kardamyli; the struggles to finish A Time of Gifts; Leigh Fermor’s surprise and pleasure at its rapturous reception; and the slow writing of its sequel.

The final 50 pages of the book have a more melancholy tone, as their friends begin to die, one by one: the English ones often of cancer, the Cretans, more dramatically, falling from precipices, and the like. Finally come the deaths of both Debo’s husband, Andrew, and of Joan Leigh Fermor: ‘The cats miss Joan bitterly,’ Leigh Fermor writes at the end of the book. ‘They are not the only ones… I keep thinking of things I must remember to tell Joan at lunch, knowing they could make her laugh. Letters addressed to her still arrive from distant parts, but even they are dying out now, and increasingly it’s only subscriptions to be renewed.’

Leigh Fermor enjoys a two-hour siesta after lunch – ‘Egyptian PT’ as he calls it. But on my last day in Kardamyli he emerged at 4pm, smiling from ear to ear. ‘Didn’t sleep a wink,’ he said. ‘Got quite carried away reading the book. I was rather dreading it, but was pleasantly surprised.’ He held up the proof approvingly. ‘Some passages are really awfully good.’

Paddy at home in the Mani

After our lunch we went up the mountain beside the house to see the Byzantine chapel around which the ashes of his friend Bruce Chatwin had been scattered. The chapel was very small – only a little larger than a big garden shed. It had a domed red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lay in the rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above Kardamyli, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese.

The sun was slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of goat bells cut through the drowsy background whirr of cicadas as shepherd children led their flocks back for the night. It is perfect, beautiful, a peaceful place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Leigh Fermor whether he would like to be buried there, too.

‘Oh no,’ he replied instantly. ‘Joan is in Dumbleton. I’d rather like to end up there.’

It’s a characteristic of so many of the greatest English travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, for example, finally recognised ‘that I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin’, and the same is true of Leigh Fermor. For all his years in Greece, he remains almost the archetypal Englishman, in its best possible form: ‘My heart is in both,’ he said as we headed downhill. ‘England is not a foreign country to me.’ He paused and looked down over the Aegean, glinting now like broken glass far below us: ‘I do love both countries,’ he said as we headed on home. ‘I really do.’

Nice weather for young ducks

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Ithaka, 1946, photographed by his wife Joan Leigh Fermor

The weather in London on December 9th 1933 was typical. The sky darkened, the clouds lowered and then it rained hard. A young man walked the cold pavements towards Cliveden Place to collect a rucksack that his friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant had used on a journey to Mount Athos accompanied by Robert Byron. After stopping to buy a stout ash stick, and probably some cigarettes, at the tobacconist on the corner of Sloane Square, the young man collected his new passport – occupation ‘student’ – from the office in Petty France. He cast his eyes up to the ominous clouds and then made his way quickly north across Green Park. Now the rain splashed down as he dashed between the traffic on Piccadilly and entered the house of his landlady, Miss Beatrice Stewart, in Shepherd Market.

A former model who sat for Sickert, and Augustus John, and who is said to be the model for the bronze figure of Peace atop Wellington Arch, Beatrice Stewart’s career was cruelly cut short after she lost a leg in a road accident. She had arranged a lunch for the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor and two of his friends to wish him bon voyage before the start of what was to become one of the most famous journeys of all time, and certainly the longest gap year in history.

After lunch, Paddy said thank you and goodbye to Miss Stewart, and jumped into a waiting taxi, which drove off through Mayfair, around Trafalgar Square, up Ludgate Hill, and past the Monument towards the Tower of London. It was raining so heavily that all they could see out of the steamed up windows were hordes of umbrellas, some carried by bowler hatted men, as the rain splashed down in the dark. “Nice weather for young ducks.” said the taxi driver as he dropped the small party by the first barbican on Tower Bridge.

The two companions, one a young girl wearing a mackintosh over her head like a coal shifter, stood in the rain to watch Paddy descend the stone steps down to Irongate Wharf. With a final wave, he strode up the gangplank of a Dutch steamer bound for Hook of Holland.

This was the start of Paddy’s journey down the Rhine and along the Danube which he so memorably describes for us in his book A Time of Gifts. This part of the story ends on Easter Sunday 1934 as Paddy stood on the long bridge over the Danube, in no-man’s land, between Czechoslovakia and Hungary at Esztergom, just as the Easter celebrations started in earnest.

A Time of Gifts is almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of English literature; Sebastian Faulks is a dissenter, but he would be. Described by some as a travel book, it is essentially the journal of a young man with a superb gift of memory, for languages, and for making friends, written with the benefit of a lifetime of amazing experience and learning, forty years after the events it describes. It is embellished by anecdotes and essential historical background, making it a rounded piece of literature and no mere travelogue. It should be compulsory reading for all seventeen year olds; it is truly inspirational. The sad part is that the very reason for the ending of Paddy’s ‘gap year’ whilst with his lover Balasha Cantacuzene in Romania in September 1939, resulted in the destruction of many of the towns and cities he passed through, and certainly ended the way of life of the peoples of Europe that he describes so well.

I have no doubt that today, aged ninety-five, Paddy will pause for a while to recall that day, reflect on the events that followed during his amazing and full life, and the friends and lovers who have gone before him.

Perhaps Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor DSO OBE, the Greatest Living Englishman, will pen a short letter to Debo?

Meine Suche nach Patrick Leigh Fermor

This title from a book by the German author Michael Obert hits the spot for me. Like Michael I am also engaged in a ‘search’ for Paddy and I know from your comments and emails that many of you are finding your own ways to follow in Paddy’s footsteps and to understand and enjoy his works.

Following the publication of the Wolfgang Büscher video just a few days ago, I was contacted by Christian from Koln (Cologne) saying how pleased he was to see the video and at the same time sending me a couple of other articles from German newspapers and magazines. Christian made the point that in recent years there have been many features and articles published in Germany about Paddy, including Michael Obert’s book which provides the title to this article. Chatwins Guru und ich: Meine Suche nach Patrick Leigh Fermor by Michael Obert is available from Amazon.

I have pdfs of two more articles and those of you who followed the blog in its early days may remember that I have previously featured a further article by Wieland Freund. Therefore, perhaps for the first time in one place, a collection of German (and Swiss) material about Paddy.

Der letzte Byzantiner by Wolfgang Büscher, first published in Die Zeit 24 May 2006

Wolfgang Büscher discussing A Time of Gifts video

Mit der Feder im Rucksack durch die Welt by Georg Sütterlin, first published in Der Bund 30 Aug 2005

Besuch beim Haudegen des Peloponnes by Wieland Freund first published in Welt Online 8 July 2007

Wolfgang Büscher discussing A Time of Gifts

The Germans remain keen fans of Paddy’s work. I don’t know if that is because he travelled through their land, or because of his fame from the Kreipe kidnap, or perhaps because they just appreciate good writing.

For those who speak German here is the German writer Wolfgang Büscher talking about Paddy and his work.

“He mentions the decision of PLF to change his life by taking the tour of Europe at barely 19 after having quitted (“flo”wn” out of) school, the fact that he wrote the two volumes forty years later from memory (having lost all notes from that time). One of the most wonderful books he knows. First volume “A time of gifts” is reporting Germany and Austria, second volume Hungary and Romania.”

A further profile of Büscher in French! 

Wandering scholar and war hero: the traveller’s tale

By Peter Terzian

November 27, 2005

On the telephone from his home in Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes what he does as “travel writing” but adds “I hate the phrase.” Indeed, calling him a travel writer is a little like calling Proust a gossip columnist. Rather, Leigh Fermor is a great writer whose subject is travel.

In “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), he narrated two-thirds of what he calls his “great journey” – an 18-month walk he took across Europe in the years before World War II. (New York Review Books has just reprinted both volumes.). Readers have been waiting for the concluding book ever since, and some interviewers write that he is “pained” when the subject arises. But in the first few minutes of our conversation, Leigh Fermor, now 90 (“Unbelievable!” he says; “I never thought I would attain this dignified age”), volunteers that he is currently working on the journey’s end. “At the moment, I’m going down the Black Sea coast, the Bulgarian coast, halfway down it.” He is, he says, “the opposite of a Deadline Dick,” and a rigorous self-editor. “I cut like anything, because I’m inclined to overwrite a bit.”

Leigh Fermor “got the sack from school early,” he says, “because I was sort of useless. I was rather undisciplined.” At “18 and 3/4,” he pulled on a pair of hobnailed boots, packed a rucksack with some clothes, an “Oxford Book of English Verse” and a volume of Horace (both soon lost), and crossed the English Channel by ship to the Hook of Holland.

From there, on foot, he followed the Rhine through Germany and into Austria, where he met the Danube. After a detour to Prague, he resumed the river’s course through Slovakia and Hungary. His youth and openness brought him into contact with peasants, students, rich country gentlefolk and fellow vagabonds.

Almost without exception, Leigh Fermor describes the men and women he encountered as hospitable and generous, amused at his adventure and happy to provide him with conversation, lodging and bundles of food for the road. In a cafe in Stuttgart, Germany, Lise and Annie, two flirtatious students, picked him up for a weekend of parties and dancing. In a town on the banks of the Danube, over bottles of  Langenlois wine, a polymath mapped for him, on the back of a newspaper, the tribal wanderings of Huns, Visigoths and Vandals. (“This was the way to be taught history!” Leigh Fermor writes.) In Slovakia, he stayed with Baron Pips Schey, who introduced him to Proust’s work. As they sat up late in armchairs and walked through the spring countryside, the older man unraveled “an entire mythology” of fin-de-siècle Central Europe.

Walking alone, the teenage Leigh Fermor passed the time by reciting poetry. In “A Time of Gifts,” he details his memorized “private anthology”: “a great deal of Shakespeare … most of Keats’ odes; the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge,” Kipling, “some improper stretches of Chaucer,” mastered chiefly for popularity purposes at school, Carroll and Lear and “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” The list continues, through French, Greek and Latin, for three pages. (When he exhausted his repertoire, he declaimed verse backwards.) “I think people are absolutely wrong not making children learn things by heart at school,” he says. “Because if they learn it at a very young age, it’s with them for life.”

In “Between the Woods and the Water,” Leigh Fermor tramps through Mitteleuropa. It was “a season of great delight,” he writes, in which he hopscotched, via a series of introductions, among the castles of learned aristocrats. He rode horseback through Hungary and hiked the mountains of Romania (where he met a family of shepherds, gold-panning Gypsies, a rabbi at a logging camp and a nest of enormous eagles). The book leaves the 19-year-old at the Iron Gates gorge, between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains.

Much of the books’ appeal lies in Leigh Fermor’s exuberant, witty voice. He shares his delight in every piece of historical knowledge uncovered, every medieval castle stumbled upon, every alien language heard. At one point, he reflects on 16th century German painting  (“The severe Bürgermeister’s features of the Holy Child have the ferocity, sometimes, of a snake-strangling infant Hercules”). Elsewhere, he attempts to locate “the coast of Bohemia,” a setting in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” long thought mythical.

During his trip, Leigh Fermor took plentiful, detailed notes and transcribed conversations. “I scribbled away like mad every night,” he tells me. Why did he wait 40 years before writing about his walking tour? “It’s a mystery,” he says; “I think it’s possibly I was putting it down for the right time, like putting down a wine to drink.” After the journey came a romance with a young painter – “a bit older than me, terribly nice” – and two idyllic years in Moldavia at her family’s “very tumbledown old country house, full of books. … I did a tremendous amount of reading there, more than writing.” When the war broke out, he says, “I didn’t realize it would take so long a time, and I left all my notes there like an idiot.” After the war, the Communist regime forced the family out of their home. Each member was allowed to bring one suitcase, and one of them thought to salvage Leigh Fermor’s diary. It took, in all, 26 years for him to be reunited with his notebook.

He visited Greece after his great walk, and his connection to the country deepened during World War II, when he was stationed on the island of Crete as a member of the British Special Operations Executive. The organization assisted the Cretan resistance after the Germans occupied the island, and Leigh Fermor spent much of his time hiding in remote caves dressed as a shepherd. In 1944, he led the kidnapping of the commanding German general, spiriting him off to Egypt by submarine. In “A Time of Gifts,” he recalls the moment when his captive began to recite a Horatian ode, and Leigh Fermor chimed in to complete it. “For a long moment, the war had ceased to exist.”

He feels so strongly about his time on the island that when asked whether he feels he’s achieved all he wants out of life, he replies quickly, “I should have written more about Crete.” His second in command, William Stanley Moss, published a book about the escapade, “Ill Met by Moonlight,” in 1950. (Dirk Bogarde played Leigh Fermor in the 1957 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressberger film based on the book.) “It would be rather old hat if I did it again,” Leigh Fermor says. “But there are lots of Cretans that I’d have liked to mention because they were so extraordinary.”

He wrote about other regions of Greece in “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966), to be reissued by New York Review Books in May. (He has published three other books about his travels: “The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands,” in 1950; “A Time to Keep Silence,” about his sojourns at two French monasteries, in 1957; and “Three Letters From the Andes,” in 1991.)

Leigh Fermor has spent the past four decades living in the southern Peloponnese, in the house that he designed with his wife, Joan, an architectural photographer, who died two years ago. They built their home using limestone blocks carved out of a nearby mountain range, hiring a local mason they met “purely by chance in the road. … He was a wonderfully inventive chap. He said to me, ‘For seven generations we’ve all been master masons, and we’ve all played the violin.'”

Together, Leigh Fermor and Joan had a life of “undiluted happiness,” he says. “We had the same ideas. She was highly literate, very charming and amusing, and a marvelous companion.” They traveled to the Far East and throughout Europe, “but mainly we lived here, and we’ve got thousands of books, so one’s got everything one needs here, and the sea handy to jump into.”

He takes great pleasure in describing the art-filled main room and the gardens, with “a descending staircase of olive groves with a lot of cypresses scattered among them” and “shady places where you can sit and write and read.” He is a consummate host to the many friends who come to Greece. “Do you know, we’ve been here for about 38 years. I went through the visitor’s book last week and counted up – spread over this period of time – 1,220 people have stayed under the roof.” I express astonishment. “I don’t know … It sounds like a milling mob, but it’s never that way.”

Shelves of reference books line Leigh Fermor’s dining room. He paraphrases T.S. Eliot, who told a mutual friend that “you must have books of reference handy for mealtimes, because that’s where questions crop up about history or literature, and these problems, one always thinks one will write them down and remember them after, but one doesn’t.” He lists the titles of some of his favorites: the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” “Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary,” “the ‘Oxford Companions to Literature’ in various countries, and art, religion and so on,” and “the thing that’s absolutely invaluable, ‘Chambers International Biographical Dictionary’ … It’s tip-top.”

Leigh Fermor laments that his “great traveling days I suppose are going downhill a bit,” in the same breath that he mentions recent trips taken to France, Spain and Morocco. (He also lives a quarter of the year in England.) I ask him if he’s traveled much in America. “No! I’ve spent a fortnight only. It’s most extraordinary. I’ve always meant to do it. And that fortnight was a very curious one, because I was invited there by the Pan-Cretan Association of America, and they all live in Long Island. So I went there and I saw really nothing but Greeks!”

The strange case of the Swabian poet by Patrick Leigh Fermor

An article Paddy wrote for The Spectator about his alarm at hearing of the possible piecemeal sale of the The Trumbull Papers and their subsequent salvation. The Trumbull Papers are an archive including letters from James I, Charles I and II, Sir Francis Bacon, John Donne, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, John Dryden and Alexander Pope, 29 letters from Philip II of Spain, secret correspondence about the Council of Trent and much concerning the British colonies in the New World long before the American War of Independence.

First published in the Spectator on 28 September 1996.

An image like a god’s I gazed on as I slept, Which a resplendent throne full richly did upraise,

While foolish multitudes, from need or pleasure, crept

To serve, or stand on guard there; and my gaze

Saw how, in the true God’s despite, it did accept

Hungry, but never fill’d – vows, offerings and praise,

And how its lightest whim spared some, but others reaped,

And joy’d in punishment, revenge, and wickedness.

To smite this ingrate image down did Heaven oft-time

Assemble all its stars in many a sign and wonder,

Yet still this idol’s voice rang out more loud than thunder,

Until at last, when pride did the high zenith climb,

A flash of lightning struck the shining form asunder

And all vainglory chang’d to worms and stink and slime.

Years ago, chancing on this sonnet in an anthology, I was fascinated by the metre – the extra foot at the end of each line and by the strange and ambiguous vision it conjured up. `Dream: on the D. of B.’, it was called, or rather `Traum: von dem H. von B’, for the poem was in German, and a footnote explained that the initials meant ‘H(erzog) von B(uckingham)’. I made an immediate dash at translating it, so the creaks, the faulty rhymes and the Wardour Street syntax are not the poet’s fault, but mine. (The poem in its original is given at the end of this article.)

Ever since reading The Three Musketeers, we have all been haunted by the Duke of Buckingham; haunted and dazzled by the satin and the diamonds and the strings of pearls, the starched lace zigzag ruff, the preposterous splendour and the panache; and when we learnt later on how this Phoebus Apollo had been stabbed to death at Portsmouth with a tenpenny knife, the horror, eerily laced with relish, was almost too much to take in.

And here, in the sonnet, was a contemporary foreign poet smitten by the same astonishment: ‘G. R. Weckherlin,’ the anthology said: ‘1584-1653’. I had never heard of him; nor had anyone else.

Georg Rodolf Weckherlin by Daniel Mytens, 1634.

In the German-speaking world, I learnt, Georg Rudolph Weckherlin, from Swabia, was thought second only to Martin Opitz, `the Father of German Poetry’, and though some writers call him `early Baroque’, both of them really belonged to a group of late Renaissance German poets (akin to the Pleiade in France a couple of generations earlier, with Ronsard and Du Bellay as their brightest stars).

He was also a scholar, a diplomatist and a courtier at the Duke of Wurtemberg’s palace at Stuttgart and travelled widely in France. Some time after 1602, he was three years at the Court of St James, and was sent on missions to Central European states and the Empire. In England again in 1616, he must often have been under the same ceilings as Buckingham. He entered the royal service and accompanied Charles on his expedition against the Scots, and soon afterwards he married Miss Elizabeth Raworth, of Dover, and took root in England. He seems to have changed sides at the Commonwealth: he became Latin Secretary, then Secretary of Foreign Tongues, to the Joint Committee of the Two Kingdoms, and held both posts until he was replaced by Milton, perhaps because of ill health. Paradoxically, he often helped the older poet when his eyes began to fail; then he succumbed to his adopted country’s distemper and died of gout.

He had been equally at home in German, Latin, French and English and almost certainly knew some Italian and some Greek. It was he who brought the sonnet and the sestina to Germany and he left a mass of poems, strongly influenced by his friend Samuel Daniel and his fellowdiplomatist, Sir Henry Wotton. (As I read about him a dignified figure began to take shape, with a kindly blue eye gleaming above a pale fog of beard and a wide collar fastened with tassels breaking over black broadcloth and silk: half-Van Dyck, halfHonthorst, lyrically wreathed, perhaps, in a chaplet of bays . . . )

Completely English by now, his daughter Elizabeth married Mr William Trumbull of Easthamstead in Berkshire, whose deer park was part of the King’s Chase. The latter served in several diplomatic posts, most notably in the Low Countries; and his son, Sir William Trumbull, followed him in his career. Beginning as a youthful Fellow of All Souls, he made the Grand Tour with Christopher Wren, visited Tangier with Pepys, sat in Parliament for a Cornish borough, became Charles II’s ambassador at Constantinople, then Principal Secretary of State to William III, and retired at last to his Berkshire library and the company of his friends. It was Sir William who first prompted Dryden to translate Virgil, and he performed the same office for Pope by suggesting Homer to him. Kneller painted him and Pope wrote the verse epitaph on his fine tomb at Easthampstead, where he still reclines in his full-bottomed wig.

I forgot all about them. But in the Times a few years ago, Miss Sarah Jane Checkland announced, with infectious alarm, the imminent sale of `the largest and most important collection of English state papers to be offered at auction this century’. They were the Trumbull Papers! The archive included letters from James I, Charles I and II, Sir Francis Bacon, John Donne, Samuel Pepys, John Locke, John Dryden and Alexander Pope, 29 letters from Philip II of Spain, secret correspondence about the Council of Trent and much concerning the British colonies in the New World long before the American War of Independence.

Perhaps the most exciting of all [the column went on, to my growing emotion] is the hitherto unrecorded series of papers belonging to William Trumbull’s relative, the German poet Georg Rudolph Weckherlin, Charles Is secretary from 1624 until the Civil War. These include letters, signed but not sent, from Charles to Louis XIII, Gustavus Adolphus and Marie de Medici, as well as many Royalist letters intercepted during the Commonwealth. Finally, there is a beautiful calligraphic manuscript of a still unpublished verse-translation of Book VI of the Aeneid, which Sir John Harington, Elizabeth’s `witty godson’, prepared and presented to James I, in 1604, for the young Prince Henry.

(Harington was also the author of a racy disquisition on water-closets that he punningly called The Metamorphosis of Ajax. When cross with him, the Queen used to catch him by the belt, even when he was grown up, and give him a good shake as she taxed him with his misdeeds.)

What a haul! And what a tragedy if such an Aladdin’s cave were to be ransacked! The contents had come down in a direct line of a dozen generations from Weckherlin and the Trumbulls to their present-day descendant, the Marquis of Downshire. The heritage lobby was in despair. There had been talk of a private sale to the nation; now it seemed that the open sale was to go ahead. The total price predicted – two million pounds — sounded enormous, but it was very little more than the damages which had been awarded in the recent Cossack libel action. If – albeit ludicrously – ordinary people were thought to be capable of forking out sums like this, there ought to be some public fund or government organisation to deal with such emergencies; but there isn’t, and things looked black. `In a few days’ time,’ the article had said, `this unique and wonderful collection comes under the hammer at Sotheby’s. Once split up, it will be scattered to the winds.’

At this point I was overcome, as though by an onslaught of heady gas, by dreams of grandeur. I would try to help save the Papers! After all, not every millionaire was an illiterate philistine. My mind’s eye evoked a rich, unknown and hypothetical humanist, steeped in concern for the country’s treasures. As he was only conjectural, the approach would have to be indirect.

Emulating Miss Checkland, I wrote two stirring pages and sent them to a famous weekly (this one, indeed) which I felt sure the unknown saviour was bound to see; on publication morning, kind fate and my wishful thoughts would waft him up the steps of clubland and lead him to the table where the weeklies were spread, and then guide his hand. Next, this not impossible he would be deep in an armchair with his glance halted at the right page. He would finish the piece with a pensive ‘H’m’; and a few minutes later my mind’s ear would detect a finger ruffling through the telephone directory; then dialling: `Lord Downshire? Good morning, this is – I’m so sorry to bother you. Could you spare me a few minutes, if I came round?’

It all ended happily, and fast, but not at all as it was planned. News suddenly came that the owner had solved the whole problem with impeccable generosity and public spirit, and all the treasures were safe. The piece, of course, never came out, the putative benefactor dissolved into the shadows and I suffered from a touch of the flatness Raleigh might have felt if the Queen had preferred a convenient plank. The anticlimax, bit by bit, gave way to exhilaration at the thought of the brimming deed-boxes, the crackling tiers of parchment, the faded pink tape, the hundreds of broken seals and all the mystery and the dust. The improper jokes of Harington cheered the air, and Buckingham’s ruffling plumage, and the thought of classical tags bandied by candlelight round Sir William’s table. I was buoyed up, above all, by adumbrations of Weckherlin, backed by youthful memories of the arcaded castles of bookish Stuttgart, and the vineyards and the ricks and the beetling oakwoods of Swabia: the landscape, after all, of the earliest sonnets and sestinas ever to be heard beyond the far bank of the Rhine and to the north of the Black Forest and the Danube.

Traum: von dem H. von B. Ich sah in meinem Schlaf ein Bild gleich einem Gott,

Auf einem reichen Thron ganz prachtiglich erhaben,

Auf dessen Dienst und Schutz, zugleich aus Lust und Not,

Sich die torichte Leut stets haufenwies begaben.

Ich sah, wie dieses Bild, dem wahren Gott zu Spott,

Empfing – zwar niemals satt – Gelubd, Lob, Opfergaben,

Und gab auch wem es wollt das Leben und den Tod

Und pflag sich mit Rach, Straf und Bosheit zu erlaben.

Und ob der Himmel schon oftmal, des Bilds Undank

Zu strafen, seine Stern versammlete mit Wunder,

So war doch des Bilds Stimm noch lauter dann der Dunder,

Bis endlich, als sein Stolz war in dem hochsten Schwang,

Da schlug ein schneller Blitz das schone Bild herunder,

Verkehrend seinen Pracht in Kot, Wrm und Gestank.

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I knew Patrick Leigh Fermor through his words, and he will know me by mine

I think I am quite privileged to receive so many positive comments about the blog from people I have never met. One thing many agree upon is that Paddy has had a significant impact upon their lives. In some cases reading A Time of Gifts has been life changing, with some literally getting out there on the road and creating their own journey.

One message that really struck a chord was from Thos Henley – after the old abbreviation of Thomas I am told – who was originally from my neck of the woods in Hampshire, England, but who set off on the road two years ago and is now living what I imagine to be a bohemian life somewhere on the left bank of the Seine in Paris. He has even written and recorded some of his own songs, one which includes a reference to Paddy; it is good music and worth listening to. [Edit – I have listened to it a few times now and it really is quite good; have a listen]

Thos’ story is very moving and I asked if he would like to share it with other blog readers. He agreed so over to Thos …

Thos Henley at Paddy's door

“I am a 22 year old musician and a writer from Netley Abbey, Hampshire. Around two years ago I set off the travel France. One of the reasons I did so, was because I had recently discovered Paddy’s work. After this eventful trip all around the country, I settled in Paris, which now acts as my home and I have not been back to England since. In this time I have walked around the largest lakes of Sweden, travelled the expanse of Europe, and released a record in Paris named GOLDEN EUROPE. One of the songs on the record is about my travelling companion on the trip through France. He was my Xan Fielding and in the song I reference Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is called ANOTHER BROTHER and you can find it by clicking here.

Recently, I took a trip with my girlfriend to Greece. We went to Patras and walked to the edge of the Peloponnese. Slowly moving down south we made our way to Kalamata and then Kardamyli. I became good friends with certain locals and on the third day I had a map drawn out for me, with the whereabouts to Paddy’s home.

When I got there, the soles of my shoes had withered away (an overdue happening as I had worn them out for years). I met his house-keeper who spoke a very gentle Greek-English. I was nervous and I could hear Paddy eating his lunch next door and after a few minutes of introducing myself to his assistant I learnt that he was just too old to see anyone. She explained that the emotional toll was too much for the man who had been through it all. Passion carried my persistence but in the end I started to feel like some kind of a stalker and I gave up. Leaving his incredible garden, I heard through an open window, the mumbled low tone of Sir Patrick himself, obviously inquiring about the energetic English boy who had just been at his ocean blue door.

Sitting on the wall that he had made some 20 years or so before my own birth, I began to write him a letter. I explained my story and the fact that in his words I had come to find some sense of freedom in this ever enclosing world in which we all reside. Tears and sweat dripped onto the scribbled words that, no matter how much I tried, would never portray truly what this man meant to me. I wrapped the piece of paper over and around my old Swedish compass. In the letter I had told him I left it for him, as I had no need for it now; it had guided me to his house, where I sat boiling in the Greek sun, and its job, in my eyes, was done.

I swam for hours that day, washing away the heat and the sadness of not meeting ‘my’ Byron. However after reaching my hotel, after the sun had died and the raging fire of the crickets sang in their clicking chorus, I began to see the up side of what I had done. Yes I may not have met the man, but the fact remained that I had been to his home which I wished to visit over my childhood home in England. It was his seas that I wished to swim in over any other ocean in the world and it was his door step where I wrote, what I still hold as the best piece of writing I have done to this day.

This is not an ego talking but personal victory. I can live my life here, in this rainy, grey city of lights, Paris, knowing in myself that Paddy read my words and opened the same compass that I had used for years, its red point quivering on the W. And he would go to sleep that night knowing once more that his life had indeed been the greatest life ever lived and was still just as appreciated as it had always been.

In the end I knew Patrick Leigh Fermor through his words, and he will know me by mine.”

Visit Thos’ MySpace page where there are more photographs, you can find some of his music and videos.

Blue River, Black Sea: A Journey Along the Danube Into the Heart of the New Europe

The following is a piece by Dimiter Kenarov from The Nation which contrasts the journey of Paddy along the banks of the Danube with the more recent account of Andrew Eames, recounted in Blue River, Black Sea. It is clear that if we were to try to follow the foosteps of Paddy that much has changed – I guess that much we knew – but that also the pace of change means that if we are to encounter the last feeble remnants of that post-Austro-Hungarian world, we had better move very fast. This is worth the read.

From Black to Black, a review of Blue River, Black Sea: A Journey Along the Danube Into the Heart of the New Europe
By Andrew Eames.

Every day, at three in the afternoon, I make a trip down the Danube. To travel from Germany’s Black Forest to Romania’s Black Sea takes a matter of minutes, so I try to enjoy myself as much as possible. I sink into a cushy armchair, rev up the stereo and embark on an epic voyage. “Information on the water levels of the Danube River, in centimeters,” the familiar voice on Horizont, the Bulgarian National Radio, announces with the deepest solemnity before reading out the relevant hydrographical values, first in Bulgarian and then in Russian and French. Vienna: 310 (+3); Mohács: 415 (+7); Novi Sad: 162 (-13); Vidin: 380 (+40); Giurgiu: 220 (0).

The captains of river vessels can easily map a course on the Internet, but the daily radio bulletin has remained a fixture in my life. For many years, listening to the fluctuations in the water levels of the Danube was the closest I could get to traveling abroad. Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Vienna: these names mesmerized me. Even places like Bratislava and Budapest, comrades in arms against the decadent West, had the ring of myth to a boy growing up in Bulgaria. Remembering his childhood in the Bulgarian river port of Ruschuk (now Ruse), Elias Canetti wrote, “There, the rest of the world was known as ‘Europe,’ and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to Europe.” If people in Canetti’s immediate circle, at the beginning of the twentieth century, still had the occasional opportunity to waltz up to the palaces of the Habsburgs and back, however, the “Europe” I imagined in the 1980s existed only in a galaxy far, far away. To travel up the river as a tourist during the cold war required visas, special permissions, bureaucratic ballast. To swim across it, a negligible distance of a few hundred meters, was to risk both drowning and the bullets of border guards. For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava.

The Danube—or Ister, as the ancient Greeks called it—is a natural highway of nearly 3,000 kilometers. “The greatest of all the rivers which we know,” declared Herodotus. “A path for the spirit to follow,” wrote Hölderlin, following the footfalls of the Greeks in his hymn “The Ister.” Human tribes traveled west against the current, colonizing the core of the continent, gradually shaping it. Before the Americas, there was Europe. The Romans made a few feeble attempts to bring traffic under control by turning the river into the fortified frontier, or limes, of their empire, but without much success. South of the Danube civilization cowered; in the north, the barbarians bided their time.

There is probably no other geographical element of Europe that has absorbed more political weather than the Danube. Unlike the Russian Volga and the Franco-German Rhine, it has served many masters, as a shield or a spear. In 1683, by the walls of Vienna, John III Sobieski and Charles of Lorraine routed the armies of Kara Mustafa, marking the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Not long thereafter, in 1704, the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy vanquished the Franco-Bavarian alliance at the Battle of Blenheim, an important event in the War of the Spanish Succession. Near the river town of Ulm, Napoleon forced the Austrians to surrender with barely a fight. And Hitler’s Drang nach Osten—yearning for the East—had a strong Danubian stink. “Do not forget,” the elderly Heinrich Heine wrote to the young Karl Marx, “the difference between water and a river is that the latter has a memory, a past, a history.”

It has taken twenty years of European integration for the memories of the cold war to seep away. Quietly meandering across ten countries—Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine—and running softly past more than fifty-five towns and cities, including four capitals, the Danube is once again a major route for trade and tourism, diluting national and political borders and linking numerous shoreline communities into a single organism. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, completed in 1992, allows ships to navigate passage from the North Sea to the Black, chugging through the heart of the continent. The river’s delta, with its sprawling network of lagoons and marshes, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and an important bird sanctuary—with its own environmental problems, of course. Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is. And, luckily for me perhaps, the daily radio bulletins on Horizont are no longer my only means of travel.

Traveling the Danube became a fad in 1829. That was the year two Englishmen, John Andrews and Joseph Pritchard, founded the First Danube Steamship Company, which lured scores of elated pleasure seekers. “A motley crowd on board, such perhaps as never met together on the deck of a steam-boat before,” wrote the Irish journalist and literary editor Michael Quin about one of those early voyages. Standing among Austrians, Moldavians, Jews, Hungarian nobles and Tyrolean emigrants, he traveled in style down the river from Pest (Budapest) to the Ottoman town of Ruschuk. It was a thrilling but perilous undertaking. Unlike the well-trodden path of the Grand Tour, with its picturesque Parisian streetscapes and Florentine galleries, the Danube offered a wilder ride for people with money and a taste for adventure. Although its waters flowed across half the continent, knowledge of the river was scarce and scattered, especially when it came to portions under Ottoman control. Europe was split in two long before the cold war, and the Danube was the main gateway into its eastern, darker territories. The course of “civilization” had gradually reversed directions.

William Beattie, another of those early steamboat passengers, portrayed that division with typical Victorian bigotry. East of Budapest, he wrote in his 1844 travelogue The Danube, the tourist “feels as if he were taking farewell of civilization, and entering upon a vast primeval desert, where man is still a semi-barbarian; and where the arts by which he converts to his use the natural products of the earth are still in their infancy, or wholly unknown.” As far as Beattie was concerned, Eastern Europe might as well have been an island in the middle of the Pacific. Quin was similarly dismayed by the seemingly crude ways of life he encountered but a little bit more optimistic in his vision of the future. He praised “the miracles of the age of steam” and then blithely prophesied, “Those countries, which have hitherto seemed scarcely to belong to Europe, will be rapidly brought within the pale of civilization…and new combinations…will be created, which may give birth to important changes in the distribution of political power on the continent.” He was right, of course: steam did alter the political landscape of Eastern Europe. (Could it be that James Watt was personally responsible for the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the whole contemporary history of the continent?) However, Quin’s journey down the Danube was also a reassertion of his cultural identity and his sunny view about technological progress. As the historian Larry Wolff pointed out in his seminal work Inventing Eastern Europe, “It was Western Europe that invented Eastern Europe as its complementary other half.” And the Danube was the road most inventors took.

So many writers have traveled the Danube that their tributary ink, if channeled into a single stream, would turn the water black. From the Italian naturalist and geographer Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, who professed to have mastered “the anatomy of the river” and then published in 1726 his magisterial six-volume Opus Danubiale, to the contemporary Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy, with his playful travelogue The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube), published in 1991, the outflow of words has been endless. To look for the authentic Danube would be futile, for nobody can describe the same river twice. “It is I who will say what the Danube is,” Esterházy’s protagonist, the Traveler, insists, as so many others before him have: Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, as well as the odd Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian. For some reason, however, it was the British and a few American explorers, outsiders with ever-roving empirical eyes and an insatiable appetite for the foreign, who frequently attempted to distill the Danube’s essence. Some, like Quin and Beattie, were deeply prejudiced against the world they were about to encounter. Others, like the American painter Francis Davis Millet, who paddled downriver in a canoe in 1891, wrote about the local people and their environs with sympathy and understanding. Then there were those who transcended the ranks of mere travelers to join the great writers.

Patrick Leigh Fermor is the best of the lot. In the winter of 1933, at 18, he set out on foot from Rotterdam toward Istanbul—or Constantinople, as his romantic imagination insisted. With just a rucksack on his back and two books in hand—The Oxford Book of English Verse and the poems of Horace—he traversed the better part of the pre-war continent “like a tramp or a pilgrim or a wandering scholar.” His trek along the Danube made up only one leg of his amazing odyssey, but it was the most remarkable one. Poring over his maps and trying to decide whether to head for sunny Venice or press farther east, he writes, “Just in time, the windings of the Middle and the Lower Danube began to reassert their claims and the Carpathians and the Great Hungarian Plain and the Balkan ranges and all these mysterious regions which lay between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea brought their rival magnetisms into play. Was I really about to trudge through this almost mythical territory?” Continue reading

Where in the world have you come across Patrick Leigh Fermor?

Between the Woods and the Water

I have just returned from Montenegro where I had a holiday with my family. It is a place that is not at the top of the list for most people I guess, but it does attract many Serbians and Russians, particularly to its spectacular coast.

We were attracted because it was different, has spectacular scenery dominated by huge mountains, is relatively unknown, and it also enabled us to visit some very famous Serbian Orthodox monasteries as my wife and I are also very interested in Byzantium and its art (see MyByzantine blog).

On our first night, as I casually flicked through the books left in our villa by the owner and previous visitors, I was surprised to come across a paperback copy of Between the Woods and the Water. It had been read and was in good condition. This gave me the excuse to encourage Kim to read it as she happened to be coming to the end of A Time of Gifts which she was enjoying.

It made me think that many of you who read the blog may have come across Paddy’s work in unusual circumstances, and in faraway places. It would be interesting to hear more; why not paste a comment below or email me (tsawford[at]btinternet.com)? Let’s see who has the most interesting tale to tell!

On the Same Steps as Patrick Leigh Fermor

On the same steps as Paddy

“In the heart of them stood a massive building; my objective, the Hofbräuhaus. A heavy arched door was pouring a raucous and lurching party of Brownshirts onto the trampled snow.

I was back in beer territory. Halfway up the vaulted stairs a groaning Brownshirt, propped against the wall on a swastika’d arm, was unloosing, in a stanchless gush down the steps, the intake of hours. Love’s labour lost.”

Those of you well versed in Paddy’s writing will by now have realised that the above is not my own feeble prose but an excerpt from the passage in A Time of Gifts when Paddy enters Munich’s Hofbräuhaus in January 1934.

When I entered that vast temple to beer, sausage and sauerkraut at the end of June, I instantly felt like I had been there before, and indeed I had when I read Paddy’s finest work. Instantly I wanted to visit the chamber bursting with SA men singing Lore, lore, lore, and overweight young German burghers ‘as wide as casks ’ who were ‘… nimbly, packing in forkload on forkload of ham, salami, frankfurter, krenwurst, and blutwurst’ lifting stone tankards ‘for long swallows of liquid which sprang out again instantaneously on cheek and brow.’ Had it not been for the fact that this was midday instead of night I am sure I would have found it barely changed, save for the SA men, whose children and grandchildren (all aged now) have taken up residency.

The Rathaus Munich

My wife and I were in Munich after taking the overnight sleeper from Paris Est to Munich on our journey to see the Passion Play (Passionspiele) at Oberammergau. We had arrived at the relatively ungodly hour of seven o’clock in the morning and had seen Munich come to life on a Saturday morning.

At the time the Alt Stadt was almost exclusively ours apart from some stall holders preparing their wares of ripe and juicy, brightly coloured fruit and vegetables for the Saturday market; two young men demonstrating their ability on MX bikes beside a fountain; and a couple of drunks who had obviously made the most of the warm Friday evening and had now belatedly discovered that the party was over.

During the war Munich was severely bombed by the Americans. When on a NATO course at the German Pioneerschule in the 1980’s I remember a particularly loud American officer asking in all seriousness, whilst we were on a tour of the city, when seeing the massive towers and basilica of the Dom, “How the hell did we miss that?”. Well, of course they did not miss it. Seventy per cent of Munich was destroyed by the bombing and after the war there was a serious proposal to abandon the city and rebuild nearby. Fortunately for the Hofbräuhaus (which sustained minor damage) and for us it was decided to rebuild the city. Many of the older buildings, as with so many German cities, were painstakingly restored. The Dom and the Hofbräuhaus were amongst these.

Following a morning of strolling around the centre, visiting some of the sights, drinking känchen’s of schokolade and eating cinnamon flavoured kuchen I was desperate to find the Hofbräuhaus. I was determined not to make the same mistake as Paddy and end up two miles away; although the prospect of doing so and having a couple of himbergeist to see us on our way was not so unappealing!

We followed a lederhosen clad gentleman ...

Inadvertently we had somehow attached ourselves to an American tour party and listened patiently whilst the bored German tour guide briefed them all on practical logistics like not entering their PIN number more than twice in those mysterious German cash machines, and what they might see on their one hour of ‘freedom from the group’ until it was time to meet up again, climb into their coach and visit yet another city. When it came to question time I asked where I might find the Hofbräuhaus. The guide looked quizzically at me, thinking I must have some obscure mid-western American accent and told me in all seriousness that eleven o’clock in the morning was rather too early to make such a visit and drink beer. I persisted and reluctantly she gave me the directions.

Hofbrauhaus exterior

We walked in the sunshine past the old schloss and down a lane to the ‘slanting piazza’ but I do not recall the Virgin on a column presiding over all she surveyed. We followed a lederhosen clad gentleman wearing a traditional Bavarian felt hat which was adorned by the most amazing plume, reminding me of something that may have been worn by a Roman first spear centurion to enable his men to identify him in the midst of battle.

There before us was our goal. Gothic and grand just as Paddy described it, we entered through wide doors underneath Gothic arches and walked up those vaulted stairs which survived the damage of the war. It was here in January 1934 that Paddy encountered his Brownshirt. The steps are now lined with photographs, one of a maternal looking frau holding eight heavy steins full of the cool, golden Hofbräuhaus beer. Perhaps she had served Paddy on that famous, alcohol fuelled night?

Kim considers joining the waitressing team

The Hofbräuhaus has four floors devoted to the adoration of beer, sausage and pretzels. We visited each one. They were all decorated in a different style with a large communal drinking hall, and a number of smaller private function rooms (which are for hire). It is one of these higher floors that Paddy stumbled into when full of SS officers, Gruppen and Sturmbannfuhrers, black from their lightening-flash-collars to the forest of tall boots underneath the table.

The highest floor is dominated by a large parquet floored room with a vaulted ceiling colourfully decorated with its predominantly pink and blue frescos of Bavarian coats of arms. The Festival Hall was built in 1589. It is light and airy with windows on each side, large chandeliers and dominated by a small stage with heavy, theatrically red velvet curtains. The Hall can seat over 900 on its long tables arrayed in neat rows before the stage, and gives the impression of being eternally ready for a party. Indeed on the occasion of our visit, it was being prepared for the post- Abitur celebration for a very lucky young girl. The mood darkens somewhat when you know that it was in this very room, standing on that very stage that the ambitious politician Adolf Hitler addressed his followers in the early days of the National Socialist Party in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Hofbrauhaus Festival Hall

Given the passage of time this ceased to have any sinister effect, but it is a sobering thought and brought to life a period of history, and its aftermath, that has come to dominate my generation, and certainly those preceding us.

Did Adolf visit here?

It was about this time that I needed to answer the call of nature. Kim and I were virtually alone and I sought out a gentleman’s lavatory. Finding one at the end of a corridor leading from this function room, I hypothesised that perhaps Hitler had, on more than one occasion, made this same trip, perhaps accompanied by colleagues such as Herman Goering, and discussed the finer points of how to grab political power, and achieve revenge on all those who had sought to so humiliate Germany via the Treaty of Versailles.

Like Paddy we were now guided right down to the bottom of the stairs, out of the doors and back in another, larger door on the ground floor. After passing the obligatory ‘Hofbräuhaus shopping experience’ we entered a new hall where the vaults of the great chamber did not fade into infinity through blue strata of smoke as this was, unbelievably, 21st century smoke-free Germany.

Drinking cool beer in The Schwemme

It was here that Paddy found the part of the Bastille he was seeking. The Schwemme is a huge, richly frescoed hall that wound this way and that, past huge stone pillars, toward the altar of Hofbrau beer where an army of male and female waiters attend upon the fountain of beer pouring litre upon litre of the marvelous nectar. And it did not stop there. What Paddy would have missed on a dark, cold, snowy night in 1934 was the courtyard beer garden which by now was filling with locals and tourists all keen to bathe in the unique Hofbräuhaus atmosphere.

If you visit the website of the Hofbräuhaus you will see it includes a list of ‘regulars’; those who attend services on a regular basis, with the specific visit days recorded. They have reserved seats and for larger groups, or even families, whole tables are kept for them so that they can indulge and worship whilst listening to the suitably attired Bavarian band that have a dedicated stage in the centre of the hall.

Hofbrauhaus Regulars

The band plays on

We had arrived early, at around 11.00 am and had spent forty-five minutes or so making our tour of the building. It was quiet, with just a few other like minded souls and the staff getting ready for the rush ahead. By midday we had chosen a table and ordered our first refreshing beer, a Würstlplatte for me and Spanferkel for Kim (read the menu in English here). The Schwemme was now filling with crowds of locals and tourists alike and the band had struck up. If you want to visit the Hofbräuhaus to look around, as we did, I would recommend going early, and you also need to be there pretty early to find a table.

It was a wonderful visit, and one that was brought to life even more as we imagined that young man avoiding Brownshirts and knocking back beer with the farming folk he found in the Schwemme. One thing that has not changed is the hospitality and friendliness of the Bavarian people, and it was with some reluctance that we walked out of the Hofbräuhaus into bright sunshine to catch our train to Oberammergau.

Now, where did I leave my rucksack?

Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor in the Mani

Recently we have been musing in some posts about following Paddy’s route. For many of his fans this is perhaps a dream, but nevertheless, something many would like to make real. Topping that of course is meeting Paddy himself. In this piece, New Zealand author Maggie Rainey-Smith unexpectedly meets Paddy on a trip to Kardamyli on Greece’s Mani Peninsula, where Paddy has lived since the 1960’s. Some of you may have read it but I think it is such a nice article that it is worth re-visiting.

First published in the New Zealand Herald 15 June 2008

The village of Kardamyli is on the west coast of the Mani Peninsula, one of the more traditional and conservative areas of Greece.Recently, I spent two months in Greece chasing the muse, searching for clues, looking for inspiration.

The Mani Peninsula region is famous for the Maniots and their resistance of the Ottoman occupation. It is isolated by the Taygetus mountain range and enclosed by the Aegean and Ionian seas.

The Ottomans failed to infiltrate, but I have to advise that the English have. As I shopped for my Twinings tea and sat outside a cafe in the village of Kardamyli, using the free internet, I lamented the globalisation of this once-remote peninsula.

I wished, for just a moment, that I was back in time when to be a strange woman alone in this small village may have attracted disapproving stares.

In the local bookshop was the very book I’d been looking for: Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. On my terrace overlooking the sea, I opened the book and found myself mesmerised by the most exquisite, evocative travel writing I have ever read. Not only that, I discovered that Fermor is a resident of Kardamyli.

The owner of the bookshop was unimpressed when I asked where Sir Patrick lived, and his lips remained sealed, his expression disapproving. Fermor is almost a saint in Greece.

He was a resistance fighter in Crete during World War II; his exploits were the subject of a film starring Dirk Bogarde (my father was in Crete, but a more modest hero at Maleme, the point where the island was finally lost to the Germans).

At the local cafe, where I made use of the technology, the owner (who looks like a Maniot right out of Fermor’s book, with her blanket of black ringlets and beautiful olive eyes), told me Paddy (as the locals call him) would celebrate his Name Day that very week and that he always opens his home to the locals on that day.

By then, and after one week’s residence, I considered myself a local, and everyone agreed with me.

So with joyous disbelief at my good fortune, on Thursday, November 8, I joined the local villagers at Sir Patrick’s Name Day celebration at his majestic and yet still homely yellow stone house overlooking the Messinian Gulf.

By 10.30am the service in his private chapel was over and we were seated in his lounge – books lining the walls from floor to ceiling: Nancy Mitford, Henry James, James Joyce – eating olives, meatballs, feta and drinking local wine.

On a person’s Name Day you are required to take a gift, and all I had with me was a copy of my first novel About Turns, which I gave to Paddy. He signed my copy of his own book with a personal inscription and a small drawing. We talked about Crete and my dad and his book on the Mani. I gushed, he charmed.

Then the singing began and Paddy was surrounded by adoring local women who toasted him with traditional Name Day songs.

At the end of the singing, Paddy stood and pretended to fire a pistol into the air (an old tradition where real pistols were once used). He is of English and Irish descent. Although his name is Patrick, his Greek Name Day is the day of Michali. Michael is the name he assumed while fighting for the Greek resistance.

With me was an American Orthodox nun who worked in Moscow and a Danish man of the cloth who was studying Byzantine churches. We were Paddy’s “non-local” guests and pinched ourselves to check we weren’t imagining our good fortune.

When it was time to leave, another Michael (Michali), a neighbour of Paddy’s, invited us to his home. We walked through an olive grove up the hill along the coast to another beautiful stone home.

Our new host sold Paddy the land and helped him build his house in 1964. We were feted with fresh coffee and cakes and listened to Michali’s son, who told us that when he decided to leave Kardamyli some years ago to travel, Paddy told him: “You can’t leave.”

And when he returned years later, Paddy told him: “You know we are very fortunate, we live in Kardamyli. We are fortunate – we have the mountains. We are fortunate – we have good food. We are fortunate – we have clean air to breathe. We are fortunate – we have the beautiful sea to swim in.”

“Yes, Paddy, the mountains, the food, the air and the sea,” said the young man, nodding in agreement.

And then Paddy said to him: “And for all these reasons and more, we may just forget to die.”

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor is 92 years old, he was wearing a double-breasted navy suit when I met him, had a full head of wavy grey-black hair and was still a handsome, charming man with just a slight deafness in one ear.

He spoke with a classical English accent which rather surprised me, considering the years he has spent in Greece.

He is still writing. If you’ve never heard of him, or never read his books, now is the time to start.

By Maggie Rainey-Smith

A Long Walk Starts (and Ends) With a Step

I was just taking another look at Matt Gross’ Frugal Travel section of the New York Times and discovered that after writing the piece I published on 13 June he left the NYT. I wonder if he was so inspired by Paddy’s travels that he decided to take off and cover the whole route? Perhaps not. Here is his signing off piece from his NYT Blog.


This weekend’s Travel section cover story — “Frugal Europe, On Foot” — is my last as the paper’s Frugal Traveler columnist. After four years of roaming the world on a budget, from Alabama and Albania to Uruguay and Urumqi, I’m taking a rest, and handing over the illustrious mantle to a new shoestringer, who’ll appear in this space next month.

But for my final feature, I wanted an adventure that would challenge me — physically, psychologically, culturally, linguistically, technologically, logistically and, of course, financially. Maybe a sailing adventure? Done that. A lengthy train journey? Done. A trek into the mountains? Done — on foot and on horseback. I’ve gone round the world, across America and grandly circled Europe, so what was left to be done?

The answer came in the form of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the 95-year-old war hero who’s known as Britain’s greatest living travel writer. His books “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” chronicle his nearly penniless journey, in 1933 and 1934, from Rotterdam to Istanbul — on foot. And when I looked at the route he took through the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I realized I had an adventure in the making: a two-week walking tour that would take me from Vienna through Slovakia to Budapest.

Throughout 180 miles, I dealt with three official languages (German, Slovak, Hungarian) and some unofficial ones (Italian, English, French, Hebrew). I used maps both paper and electronic. I took inspiration from literature: not just Mr. Leigh Fermor’s books but also “The Unnamed,” by Joshua Ferris, “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy, “The Places in Between,” by Rory Stewart, and “The Long Walk,” by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). I found great bars and restaurants via Twitter and Foursquare — and through common, random luck. I walked till my ankles screamed, and sang to myself during long hours alone.

And when I met new people — as I did just about everywhere — I was amazed, again and again, at their spontaneous generosity, their willingness to feed, shelter and befriend a mysterious stranger attempting to do what few sane travelers would even contemplate.

In other words, I don’t expect you, my readers, to follow precisely in my blistered footsteps, but I hope this story — and all the Frugal Traveler articles I’ve written — will inspire you to set off on your own crazy adventures, confident in the knowledge that no matter how little money you have, the world will, if you embrace it fully, take very good care of you indeed.

Are you inspired? I know I am. It would be a nice idea if perhaps next year we could get a bunch of people together and walk some of the route. On the other hand perhaps it is best to do as Paddy did and make a solo attempt. If anyone has ideas on this get in touch with me tsawford[at]btinternet.com or post a comment below.

Related article:

Walking Paddy’s Route in Mitelleuropa: Frugal Europe, on Foot

Walking Paddy’s Route in Mitelleuropa: Frugal Europe, on Foot

It’s time to be honest now: who amongst the regular readers of this blog, or even those that stumble across us because they have read ‘A Time of Gifts’ or ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, has not thought about following Paddy’s 1930’s route? For myself it is a definite goal. It is an ambition; probably a passion. I had come across the following article but have been inspired to re-produce it by Blog reader Matt who says he first got into Paddy’s work when stationed in Baghdad:

Tom, The New York Times travel writer, Matt Gross, just did an article on PLF. He walked the Vienna to Budapest stretch recently … I first read PLF while stationed in Baghdad four years ago and revisit him often. Living in Heidelberg, I’ve been able to visit some of the places he mentioned specifically and have recommended A Time For Gifts to many of my fellow Americans living here or travelling to Europe. As I’m in the process of moving back to the States, it will be a few years before I’m able to pick up the thread of his travels. I’m not sure if you’re in contact with PLF, but pass him the respects of this Yankee officer. Matt

Frugal Europe, on Foot

First published in the New York Times,  May 23, 2010

The article is written by New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist Matt Gross who attempted to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like all good stories it begins ….

ONCE upon a time, a young man went for a walk. It was December 1933, and an 18-year-old Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor put on a pair of hobnail boots and a secondhand greatcoat, gathered up his rucksack and left London on a ship bound for Rotterdam, where he planned to travel 1,400 miles to Istanbul [Ed: Constantinople!] — on foot. He had virtually no money; at best, he’d arrive in, say, Munich to find his mother had sent him £5. But what he did have was an outgoing nature, a sense of adventure, an affinity for languages and a broad network of friends of friends.

 “If I lived on bread and cheese and apples,” he later wrote, “jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, there would even be some cash left over for papers and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”

 Something to write about indeed! The books he produced from the yearlong journey — “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” — are gorgeously rendered classics that have led many to call Mr. Leigh Fermor, now 95, Britain’s greatest living travel writer. But to my mind, he’s always had another title: the original Frugal Traveler — the embodiment of that idea that, though a wanderer may be penniless, he doesn’t have to suffer.

 And Mr. Leigh Fermor never suffered, thanks to the miracle of human generosity. Peasants gave him baskets of eggs and swigs of raspberry schnapps. Small-town mayors found him beds. The lingering nobility of Europe put him up in their castles, invited him to balls and lent him their horses. When Mr. Leigh Fermor did sleep rough — in hayricks and barns or on the banks of his beloved Danube — he did it by choice, not because (or not merely because) poverty required it. He knew, even at 18, that the world is an experience to be savored in all its multifarious incarnations.

Matt Gross' route

Could a young person (is 35 still young?) with strong legs and little money find the same spirit of hospitality that Mr. Leigh Fermor encountered some 76 years ago? At the end of March, I set out to find the answer. With only two weeks free, my plan was to walk from Vienna to Budapest, a 180-mile route that would connect the old poles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and track Mr. Leigh Fermor’s trail as closely as possible, taking me along the Danube to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, and across the plains of Slovakia south to Hungary — through three countries whose languages, cultures and histories could not be more different, or more intertwined.

It was tempting, the day I arrived in Vienna, to just walk east from the airport, but I couldn’t completely skip the Austrian capital, where Mr. Leigh Fermor had spent three weeks among the “crooked lanes” and “facades of broken pediment and tiered shutter.” And so I followed his lead, going into the imperial crypt, where the grandest members of the Hapsburg family lay entombed in elaborate sarcophagi, and into the museums, although I shied away from the most famous in favor of oddities like the International Esperanto Museum. And I luxuriated in storied places like Cafe Alt Wien and Cafe Bendl.

But after two nights in Vienna, I was restless. So I crossed the Danube, put on my 45-pound pack and took off down the Donauradweg, a well-kept biking trail that runs from the river’s source to its mouth at the Black Sea. To my right, the Danube, more green than blue, sparkled in the cool sunlight, and I encountered fishermen tending their rods, elderly sunbathers, nordic hikers poling along and cyclists speeding in both directions.

This first day, I figured, I’d take it easy and do only 15 miles. Ideally, I’d need to hit 18 miles a day — about six hours of walking — to reach my goal. It seemed reasonable, especially with the terrain so uniformly flat. The path, sometimes dirt, sometimes paved, would often stretch so far and straight that I couldn’t imagine I’d ever reach the end, and then I’d finally hit a slight turn and face the same thing: an art-school lesson in perspective, complete with the first low foothills of the Carpathians at the vanishing point — and a scampering rabbit to remind me this was no still life.

Even with such straightforward terrain, there were snags. An attempted shortcut through a fuel depot left me with minor scratches and an extra three miles. But such mistakes have a way of turning out for the best. Had I stayed on the trail, I would have never crossed paths, two hours later, at the edge of Donau-Auen National Park, with Jean-Marc and Marie, newlywed French cyclists who stopped to say hello when they saw a lone hiker in the middle of nowhere. They were taking an extended honeymoon: a two-year bicycle journey from their home in Paris — to Japan!

“Do you know where you’re staying tonight?” I asked. They didn’t. I told them to meet me at Orth an der Donau, a small Austrian town a couple of miles farther down the Danube, where I had arranged for a place to stay via CouchSurfing.org. Maybe, I said, my host could find them somewhere to pitch their tent.

THE host, Roland Hauser, whom we met in front of Orth’s impressive castle, did better than that. He invited them home to his dreamland of soft beds and hot showers. Roland, 26, had traveled from California to Southeast Asia to New Zealand, and his German-accented English was peppered with words like “sí” and “bueno.” That evening, we cooked spaghetti Bolognese, nibbled Südtirolean ham and drank big bottles of beer. I went to sleep marveling at our extraordinary, Fermorian luck.

In the morning, after coffee, I threw out my underwear. This was a strategy to lighten my load — bring old undies and get rid of them day by day. Frankly, I should have done that with everything, as the pack was needlessly heavy. Along with two weeks’ worth of shirts, I had an ultralight down jacket, a waterproof shell and rain pants. A tent and sleeping bag. One pair of jeans and lightweight canvas shoes to change into at day’s end; nothing worse than walking 20 miles and spending the evening in the same clothes. And I packed Mr. Leigh Fermor’s books and Claudio Magris’s “Danube,” which I never had time to read. And my computer and camera gear — work necessities, alas.

When I set off, I was wearing my typical walking outfit: khaki pants by a company in Portland, Ore., called Nau; waterproof running sneakers by Lafuma; good socks (as important as good shoes); and a long-sleeved cotton shirt.

The walk began well. My feet were tender, but the flatness of the Marchfelddamm, a high berm that doubled as biking path and flood deterrent, ensured that I wasn’t struggling. This was the heart of the Donau-Auen National Park: forests of thin trees broken by occasional streams flowing to the Danube. At first, I appreciated the play of light on the water and between the trunks, but hour after plodding hour of unchanging scenery soon became mind-numbing, and I simply marched, putting one foot in front of the other and watching for kilometer markers. It would be 13 miles before I could stop for lunch, and another 10 before I reached my day’s goal: Bratislava.

But there’s a funny thing about long walks. With patience, all those steps add up, and by 2 p.m., I’d crossed a bridge over the Danube and settled into a cafe in the stately town of Hainburg, where an open-faced baguette pizza and glass of beer gave me the courage to face the miles ahead. And soon I found myself trudging along the shoulder of the small highway with cars flying past — and missing the monotonous near-silence of the forest.

Not far off, I could see Bratislava’s hilltop castle — in Mr. Leigh Fermor’s era, a burned-out wreck worked by prostitutes but in the 1950s rebuilt as a stately white-and-red palace — and it teased me with its apparent nearness. Still, I had far to go, past a derelict border post, and through three miles of snaking bike paths, before I crossed the Danube again and was in the heart of Bratislava’s old town, all cobblestones and tile roofs and sidewalk cafes.

After checking into the Hotel Kyjev — a 1970s tower turned budget boutique — I checked myself out: I wasn’t sore, out of breath or even tired. I did have blisters on my feet, but they were easily treated: puncture, drain, clean, bandage. My ankles, however, were terribly swollen, the peroneal tendons in particular, a result (I think) of how my body mechanics had altered with the weight on my back. I popped some ibuprofren, took a shower, then hobbled outside for dinner.

It was the Friday during Passover, and like any wandering Jew, I wanted a Sabbath meal. And thanks to Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach organization, I got one, at the home of the transplanted American rabbi Baruch Myers. He was only too willing to share his food (cucumber salad, gefilte fish), his friendship and his family, including a battalion of adorable children who cheerily walked me through the Passover story.

It wasn’t just this heartfelt welcome that got to me; it was the very existence of a Jewish community in Bratislava. Back in his day, Mr. Leigh Fermor wrote, the Jews “were numerous enough to give a pronounced character to the town.” No longer. The Holocaust had reduced the Jewish population to, in Rabbi Myers’s estimate, 1,000 people. There was a synagogue, a few kosher restaurants, a Jewish museum and even a pension, but few visitors today would see in Bratislava a Jewish-inflected city.

On Saturday, partly inspired by the rabbi and partly because of my feet, I rested and contemplated the future. I had walked 40 miles so far, and if my ankles were any indication, there was no way I’d make the remaining 140. Unless … If I took a train a short way — say, 15 miles northeast — I could certainly walk another 10 miles. I’d be breaking my rules, but those rules were arbitrary. Continue reading

A quick review of Three Letters from the Andes

I have just finished reading Three Letters from the Andes published in 1991, but first written by Patrick Leigh Fermor during the month long expedition to the high Andes in Peru in 1971. He was accompanied by good friends, most notably his close friend Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire.

The original text consists of three letters to his wife Joan and mailed by Paddy to her to try to describe to her much of what happened during the expedition which included some challenging climbing, which for the greater part, Paddy did not join. He describes his principal role as ‘minder of the primus stove’ and this duty enabled him to sleep in the spacious mess tent.

Three Letters from the Andes

The book is enjoyable enough and it does what it says; it describes the journey and I am sure Joan would have enjoyed the letters. Paddy did some editing prior to publication to make them more presentable for general readership (and probably removed any indiscreet comments). However, compared to the more familiar A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, this is a lightweight affair. Perhaps it shows how much work Paddy must put into his constant redrafts to expand upon his first thoughts. This is clearly work that had minimal redrafting, and is interesting because of that.

The description of the journey and key events remain in my memory but it did not give the deep pleasure gained by the former books. Just a couple of my favourite bits:

When flying in to Lima the party had to go through Peruvian customs and immigration. Paddy describes the staff as ‘sleepy, rather blank faced … officials who were far from brisk.’ He goes on to describe Andrew Cavendish’s experience. ‘… our passports seemed to puzzle them and Andrew’s proved utterly enigmatic. He got through the last barrier half an hour after they’d finished with the rest of us, murmuring sadly: ‘I can’t deny there are countries where being a duke is a bit of an advantage; but Peru’s not one of them.’

Right at the end of the journey at a dinner given for the party at the British Embassy, Paddy is seated next to a ‘very quiet and very beautiful neighbour called Dona Diana de Dibos’. After a while he realized that she was the sister of Lt Mike Cumberlege, a naval officer who used to ferry partisans and SOE agents into and out of Crete during the German occupation. He had been shot in a concentration camp just four days before VE day. Paddy cheered her up by telling her many stories about her brother that she had never heard before.

Three Letters is short and easy to read. For Paddy fans it is essential reading to complete our picture of him and his life and his various publications. There are probably better ways of spending a few hours, but I don’t think anyone reading it will be disappointed … as long as they don’t expect a short version of ATOG.