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