Tag Archives: Romania

The forgotten war which made Transylvania Romanian

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

First published in The Telegraph

By Chris Leadbeater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transylvanian Book Festival 2018

Following the success of the first two festivals, Lucy Abel Smith has taken the plunge again and has organised a third event for this year. It will take place as usual in and around Richis, a village in the Saxon lands of Transylvania, during the period 13-16 September.

The Transylvanian Book Festival was set up by Lucy Abel Smith in 2013 to promote the literature and landscape of Transylvania. It could not have been envisaged that over the space of 5 years, the success of the festival would lead to a second and, now in 2018, a third edition.

The idea is not to collect the big names on random subjects, as many other festivals, but to draw together those who have written or researched subjects relevant to Romania and the UK. It is important it takes place in the country and is about the country.

In 2018, some of the subjects are Louise XIV and a rebel prince; The Sublime Porte and the Transylvanian Princes; Queen Marie of Romania; Architecture in Romania between the wars; Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters Between Budapest and Transylvania; The Vagabond and the Princess (the story of PLF’s affair with Princess Balasha Cantacuzino); Dracula – an international perspective; as well as music, poetry and film.

The Festival provides a relaxed venue for writers, musicians and academics to meet with audiences which are mainly English speaking, and takes place in Richis, once a Saxon village, which has a large hall and stage. Richis is surrounded by similar beautiful villages offering accommodation amid the foothills of the Carpathians. The Festival brings much needed income into these communities.

The excursions are led by locals and meals are produced locally from the Priest House by Tony Timmerman and her team. Tony is a trustee of Pro Richis – the village charitable trust to which all profits from the festival are given. Literary Festivals have a record in being re-generative and we hope that the festival, as well as building international friendships, will help bolster local Transylvanian tourism.

Discover more about the Festival at the Festival website or contact Lucy Abel Smith: lucy[at]realityandbeyond.co.uk

Important! Venue change – Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania

Please refer to yesterday’s post here.

The RCI London have had to make a venue change to John Sandoe Bookshop as below. I’m not sure if you still need to get free tickets via Eventbrite link , but this says Sold Out. Don’t let that worry you: just turn up on the night. NB – the timing at the new location is earlier – 1830 start. The Eventbrite site still gives the old start time.

John Sandoe bookshop location here.

Dear All,
This is to inform you that, due to completely unforeseen circumstances, the “Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania” event, scheduled for 22 November at 7pm, has been cancelled. The event is to be staged at John Sandoe Bookshop, 10 Backlands Terrace, London SW3 2SR on the same day 22nd November, between 6.30pm and 8.30pm.
We apologise for any inconvenience and look forward to welcoming you to all our future events.

Best wishes,

RCI London

Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania

https-cdn-evbuc-com-images-25411158-126282815867-1-originalTransylvania, with its rich natural and historic heritage, enjoys a huge revival as a cultural and touristic destination. Historian Lucy Abel Smith is one of the British enthusiasts who have contributed, through her writing as well as various projects, to transforming this land of diversity and overwhelming beauty into a hotspot of unforgettable discoveries. The Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgravia is proud to provide the setting for the launch event of her latest book, ‘Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley‘, a new foray into the culture and history of central Romania.

When: Tuesday 22 November, 7pm
Where: Romanian Cultural Institute London, 1 Belgrave Square, SW1X8PH

Admission is free but by ticket from Eventbrite.

This charming and accessible guide takes as its focus the towns and villages of the Greater Târnava Valley, home to an exceptional cultural heritage. Here Romanian, Hungarian, Saxon, Jewish and Roma cultures come together in an extraordinarily rich mix, against the backdrop of some of the loveliest landscapes in Europe. The main towns are Sighișoara and Mediaș, with their towers and citadels. The villages are famous for their unique fortified churches and unspoilt rural way of life. The guide to the sights of the valley also includes sections on the plethora of flora and fauna, bee-keeping, winemaking and gypsy heritage, as well as an outline of the region’s complex and often turbulent history.

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

Lucy Abel Smith is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a historian and art historian, specializing in Europe and the Balkans. She has been leading tours for Museum Societies since her early 20s, specialising in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Her first tour to Romania was in the early 80s for the then British Museum Society (www.realityandbeyond.co.uk). In 2013, Lucy Abel Smith founded the Transylvanian Book Festival (www.transylvanianbookfestival.co.uk), whose second edition has just been completed. Together with her husband, she hosts a contemporary sculpture show, ‘Fresh Air’, in their garden in the Cotswolds every other year, where they strive to exhibit the work of a sculptor from Central Europe. The artist whose works were exhibited in 2013 was Vlad Olariu from Cluj, Romania.

When: Tuesday 22 November, 7pm
Where: Romanian Cultural Institute London, 1 Belgrave Square, SW1X8PH

Free entrance. Please book your ticket on Eventbrite.

Roumeli revisited? The Last Transhumance, a documentary film on shepherds


When I heard about this film it immediately made me think of the wonderfully compelling start to Roumeli and the story of the Sarakatsani, transhumance shepherds of Greek origin. This film by Romanian filmmaker and photographer Dragos Lumpan documents some of the last transhumance shepherds in Europe and Turkey. It is a record of something that will possibly completely die out in the next few years. Those Sarakatsani that Paddy mentions have almost all been absorbed into mainstream Greek society and the very first Romanian family that Dragos filmed gave up this lifestyle in 2008. It is interesting to note that despite writing for over forty pages about their origins, way of life, and most famously the details of their wedding ceremony, Roumeli is not directly mentioned in the Wikipedia references or bibliography; something that should perhaps be corrected.

Dragos Lumpan has 100’s of hours of footage from a project that has taken many years to complete, and he is now seeking some additional funding to help with post-producton costs. You may wish to help. Perhaps we can continue Paddy’s work by helping out a little? Dragos explains the importance of the project:

The title of the film wasn’t chosen for the sake of its dramatic sound. These ARE the last transhumances. These people and their way of life are not to be forgotten. Shepherds are strong enough to move mountains, which they actually did. They never back down and they never surrender to any obstacle. This is how they made their way into our history and this is how the history must remember them. The importance of this project goes beyond its artistic value. This film will be the last record of one of the things that shaped our history, out culture and ultimately our humanity.

The shepherds who still walk for hundreds and hundreds of miles in search of available pastures for their animals sleep outside most of the year, usually around their flocks protecting it.  They live in a parallel world not because they reject the modern times but because they embrace tradition. But the ones who still do it are fewer and fewer. The film will show the yearly cycle of life within these communities, showing their direct connection with nature cycle, with the astronomical calendar and with the people around them.

Transhumance represents a cultural heritage that has moulded for centuries the cultural landscape. Nowadays, transhumance is replaced by sedentary forms of sheep breeding. In many regions it is already extinct. The disappearing of transhumance affects not only the spiritual, social and cultural life, but also the mountain regions’ biodiversity.

To assist you can visit the Indiegogo page here. There are many rewards to those that can offer even modest amounts and a second movie trailer.

Dragos also has a website about the project with a number of photographs.

The 2016 Transylvanian book festival

IMG_4419Some of you will remember that the first Transylvanian book festival took place in 2013 and was a tremendous success. Typical comments were along the lines of “The Transylvanian Book Festival was not like any other book festival out there, it brimmed with excitement as visitors immersed themselves in the local culture to get a taste of the Transylvanian way of life, in a neatly packed event that transported you to a different world, one that has been suspended in time and that only now comes to light to the rest of the world.”

The organiser, Lucy Abel-Smith, is doing it again with another excellent line up of authors and events. This is a small festival with around 100 people attending each day, but one that permits those attending to mix and mingle with the authors in a way that is not possible at other events. All are tied together in the wonderful Saxon lands of Transylvania, in and around the village of Richis. It is more of a community of discovery than an event. And certainly a great holiday.

The 2016 festival runs from 8-16 September and places remain. The line up is varied and interesting, with excursions planned and many chances to sample the organic local food and excellent wines. The speakers confirmed so far include:

Anouk Markovits, author ‘I am Forbidden’
Alan Ogden, author ‘Winds of Sorrow’
Bronwen Riley, author ‘Transylvania’
Stephen Watts and Claudiu Komartin, poets who translate each other’s work
Bob Gibbons, botanist and author
John Wyse Jackson, author and founder of Zozimus Bookshop, who will speak on Walter Starkie
Dragos Lumpan, speaking on Transhumance
Mike Ormsby, author ‘Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania’
Simon Fenwick, author who will speak on Joan Leigh Fermor
Bernard Wasserstein, author of ‘On The Eve’
Norman Stone, historian and author
Julie Dawson, speaking on the Medias synagogue
Zsuzsa Szebeni, speaking on Banffy’s designs

Find out more and how to book on the Transylvanian Book Festival website and enjoy this short video from 2013.

Jaap Scholten talks about Comrade Baron

Dutch writer Jaap Scholten knows a good story when he hears one. In the early 1990s, when his Hungarian wife’s grandmother began telling him about life before communism, he was entranced. This was the beginning of the road to writing “Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy,” Scholten’s first work of non-fiction and the first to be published in English, launched May 5th.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on bookings@hungary.org.uk.

Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy by Jaap Scholten

baronI am very excited about this and I know that some you will be too as you have asked about it on many occasions.

Comrade Baron A journey through the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy, is written by Jaap Scholten and will be published for the first time in English on 5 May 2016. The book was winner of the Libris History Prize 2011 and shortlisted for the Bob den Uyl Prize for best travel book 2011.

Comrade Baron will be launched at an event, hosted by BBC presenter, Petroc Trelawny, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, on 4 th May. A best-seller in The Netherlands with more than 30,000 copies sold, Comrade Baron has been translated into French, Hungarian and Romanian. An extraordinary, passionate and important work, Comrade Baron is “in part, an oral history of a group we know little about, in part the account of a journey through one of the most beautiful and mysterious regions of Europe and in part a record of a Dutchman’s impressions on finding himself in an extraordinary milieu in the company of some exceptional families.”

In the darkness of the early morning of 3 March 1949, practically all of the Transylvanian aristocracy were arrested in their beds and loaded onto trucks. That same day the Romanian Workers’ Party was pleased to announce the successful deportation and dispossession of all large landowners. Communism demanded the destruction of these ultimate class enemies. Taken away with just the clothes they stood up in, what happened to these once mighty families? Their stories, as told first-hand in this fascinating and enlightening book, are ones of hardship and fear but also of determination, solidarity, family tradition, resilience and indomitable spirit…

Jaap Scholten lives in Budapest, which is where, in 2006, he first heard about the nocturnal mass deportation of the Transylvanian nobility. Fascinated by their plight, he determined to track down as many of the older members of the former aristocracy as he could, recording their stories before they were lost forever. His journey took him the length and breadth of Transylvania (a magical land that comes to vivid life through descriptions in the book), to apartment blocks, slums and ruined castles, and brought him face-to-face with a group of rare and fascinating families with an extraordinary tale to tell.

Supported by a selection of black and white photographs and told through poignant and illuminating first-hand conversations, Comrade Baron is their story – from the days that preceded communism to after the communists came to power and through to the modern day.

Grand houses were exchanged for homes in cellars, attics, laundry rooms and sculleries and pleasure-seeking lifestyles for work in quarries, steelworks or domestic service. Interrogation was a daily occurrence and many were sent to hard labour in the Romanian gulags. Yet despite living under terrifying conditions, inflicted upon them firstly by Gheorghiu-Dej and later Ceauşescu, the aristocrats were leading a double life. Secretly gathering at night, they maintained the rituals of an older world – “they carried on kissing hands and using other formal gestures, their conversations were governed by long established rules… They met in cellars to play bridge, rummy and canasta. They read poetry aloud and made music. The older aristocrats taught the children foreign languages and gave them music lessons.” In contrast, as Jaap travels through Romania and observes the behaviour of the new Romanian elite –extravagant behaviour at parties and restaurants, driving their Mercedes and SUV’s – he recognizes what has been lost and consider how best to rebuild a country in a moral vacuum.

Jaap Scholten studied Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft, Graphic Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy of Arts in Rotterdam (BA), and Social Anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest (MA). He is the award winning author of seven books, novels and short story collections. Comrade Baron is his first non-fiction book. Jaap has lived in Budapest since 2003. His Hungarian wife is of noble descent and distantly related to some of the families in the book.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on bookings@hungary.org.uk.

Wild Carpathia 4 fundraising a success!

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

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

Audible

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

Capture

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

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

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

Watch the interview here

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

Go east – the people get nicer, even if their dogs get nastier

Artemis Cooper’s review of Nick Hunt’s ‘Walking the Woods and the Water’. Hunt retraces the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor across the suburban wastelands of Holland to the woods of Transylvania.

by Artemis Cooper

First published in The Spectator 10 April 2014.

When Nick Hunt first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his youthful trudge across Europe in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, he knew ‘with absolute certainty’ that one day he would make that journey himself. When I embarked on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s biography, I made an equally firm resolve that I wouldn’t walk a step of it. Paddy’s books had left me with a vision of a timeless Europe suspended somewhere between memory and imagination, and I didn’t want that vision distorted by layers of personal impressions.

But to Hunt the books posed a question. Eighty years on, was there anything left of the ‘gifts’ Paddy had enjoyed in prewar Europe? Was there still room enough for wildness, freedom and spontaneous hospitality? In this moving and profoundly honest book, the answer is ‘yes’.

Hunt was in his late twenties when he set out from London, and he got off to a bad start. In Holland and Germany he was obliged to walk for miles on tarmac, under motorways and across industrial and suburban wastelands. He had done no prior training — after all Paddy hadn’t, and what was more natural than walking? The result was tendonitis so severe that he was laid up for a week in Ulm, cursing his stupidity and looked after by a couple called Dierk and Dora.

He found that the kindness of strangers — who included musicians, caretakers, house-painters and Buddhist soap-makers —  was an ever recurring miracle. And like the grandees Paddy met, Hunt’s benefactors contacted their friends and relatives, urging them to help the traveller too. He found these guardian angels online, through the Couch Surfing network. Their website is designed to weed out loonies, but it still requires a high level of trust — a trust that was never misplaced. His hosts gave him food and drink, took him to the pub, lent him their laptops — and not once did he feel uncomfortable or threatened by them. At the same time, Hunt was more willing than Paddy to brave the elements. He often slept in the open, twice in sub-zero temperatures; and he became expert at ‘castle-squatting’ — finding snug holes in ancient walls.

As he walked on, the industrial sprawl gave way to landscapes that Paddy would have recognised. Hunt is often haunted by the ‘unimaginable inhumanity that lay between his walk and mine’, but at the same time many things remained startlingly similar. Swapping cigarettes is still a great ice-breaker; the sheepskin coats and cross-gartered moccasins were gone, but in a bar one morning Hunt could see that all the men there had known each other since childhood, and worked in adjoining
fields. Hungary still mourned the loss of Transylvania like an amputation, and still hated the Romanians. Just like Paddy, Hunt was told that the moment he entered Romania he would be attacked by bears, gypsies, wolves and thieves. But as the author observes, people became nicer as he travelled eastwards, although their dogs got nastier.

Hunt is not Paddy, and never pretends to be. Baroque architecture and princely lineage leave him cold, and he never plunges into historical speculation or conjures fantasies out of thin air. But one of the most moving passages in the book tells of his meeting with Ileana Teleki, the great-granddaughter of Count Jeno Teleki, one of Paddy’s hosts in Transylvania. With her, he visits a number of the country houses described in Between the Woods; but now they are gutted, abandoned or used to shelter those who would never recover from the experience of being a Romanian orphan: ‘Traumatised children,’ writes Hunt, ‘housed in the ruins of a traumatised culture.’

The reader familiar with Paddy’s oeuvre will find that something of him has rubbed off on Hunt, which is hardly surprising: he took no other books on the journey, and he feels intimately connected to his predecessor. So in walking through the wooded Pilis Hills, or in watching for changes in physiognomy as he crosses from one territory to another, he is — consciously or unsconsciously — paying homage to Paddy by absorbing his way of looking at things.

At the same time, I’ve learnt so much from the vivid way Hunt describes the physiological effects of trudging on for month after month. Sometimes it brings a sense of unlimited freedom, sometimes joy, sometimes an extraordinary, dreamlike dislocation, always accompanied by a dazzling sharpness of hearing and vision. I see now how that youthful walk informed so much of Paddy’s style. Before embarking on his journey, Hunt was going to write to Paddy. The letter was never written, and by the time he set off, Paddy was dead. How touched and fascinated he would have been to read this book.

Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

Nicholas Brearley, pp.336, £10.99, ISBN: 9781857886177

Ignore the xenophobic hysteria and welcome our EU neighbours

Villagers in Clinceni, Romania cover a field with what they claim is the world's biggest ever flag

Villagers in Clinceni, Romania cover a field with what they claim is the world’s biggest ever flag

Britain is in the Orwellian middle not of a Two-Minute Hate, but a Two-Year Hate.

By Boyd Tonkin.

First published in the Independent, 27 December 2013.

This may surprise alarmed observers in Sofia and Bucharest – or even in Westminster. But one of the best-loved British books of 2013 takes the form of a fervent and heartfelt tribute to the peoples of Bulgaria and Romania. War hero, writer and traveller Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 before he could publish the third volume of memoirs about his “Great Trudge” though Europe in the mid-1930s. The Broken Road, which appeared posthumously in the autumn, takes the young literary vagabond from the “Iron Gates” on the Danube across both countries to the Black Sea coast.

Everywhere he walks, Leigh Fermor relishes the landscapes and the languages. He admires the culture and the customs. Above all, he comes to love the people of the Balkan peaks and plains: always hospitable and welcoming, forever willing even in the poorest backwater to greet this penniless young Englishman with unstinting generosity, feed him, shelter him and send him on his way with blessings – and with lunch.

Now, what would happen to a late-teenage Bulgarian or Romanian, without lodging, employment or any ready cash, who started to walk, say, from Dover to Glasgow in the spring of 2014? On the evidence of British public life just now, the result would not be a glorious trek across a land of smiles, fondly remembered from a ripe old age.

The Economist magazine has already issued its number-crunched fiat in their favour. Still, this column may count as an early squeak in the almost inaudible chorus of welcome for visitors or migrants to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania. More than a few of us belong to the open-hearted country of Paddy Leigh Fermor rather than the tight little island of Godfrey Bloom. If you wish to, fellow EU citizens, I hope that you will come. Should you choose, quite legitimately, to seek work here, then I hope that you prosper for as long as you stay. And most of all, I hope against hope that our morally bankrupt political class and ruthlessly cynical media will one day start to address the underlying reasons for home-grown fears: the living-standards crisis, deep-seated job insecurity, yawning chasms in wealth and opportunity, the greed and arrogance of a pampered “super-class”, and a chronic lack of decent homes for non-millionaires. Instead, they have set out on yet another sordid scapegoat hunt. Patrick Leigh Fermor Patrick Leigh Fermor

The grievances are genuine. But the actual culprits have got clean away. A useful watchword for 2014 might run: lay the blame where it belongs. August Bebel, a wise German social democrat at the turn of the 20th century, popularised the idea that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”. A century on, the quarry may have changed, but not the toxic rhetoric, nor the squalid logic of victimisation. As all the 28 million people in the so-called “A2” accession countries of the EU must understand, this lather of dread has been whipped into a perfect storm by the confluence of cannily inflammatory media and the blind funk of a shaky governing party. As a result, if you’re looking for fraudulent crystal-ball predictions, outrageously deceitful hucksterism and a brisk trade in ideological scrap and junk, there’s no need to visit some mythical gypsy encampment. You can find all that and more via any visit to Westminster, TV studios and newsrooms – plus a detour, of course, to the Ukip HQ.

Crashing rollers of anti-immigrant vitriol break day after day, loud as an end-of-year storm surge, and just as implacable. Anyone who resists this tide – who says without any niggling proviso that all legal incomers from European Union member states, as from -everywhere else, presumptively deserve trust, goodwill, courtesy and fair dealing – may feel just now like the enemy within. The tone of paranoia, suspicion and targeted hatred has made British political discourse through

2013 resemble propaganda-fuelled dictatorships such as – well, let’s start with Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania and Todor Zhivkov’s Bulgaria. As regards the citizens of those states, Britain is in the Orwellian middle not of a Two-Minute Hate, but a Two-Year Hate.

Plenty of the worried who fear this as-yet-phantom army of immigrants will have spent Christmas paying lip service at least to the festival’s religious roots. Presumably – and this, I’m afraid, is a rhetorical device shamelessly nicked from the works of Charles Dickens – their edition of the Bible fails to include the exhortation from Deuteronomy that insists “Love ye therefore the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt”, the lines from Matthew’s gospel that run “For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in”, still less the advice of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. A few weeks ago, Nigel Farage commented: “We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage.” To which one might reply: precisely.

Sentimental? Impractical? Airy-fairy? No more so that than the speculative pseudo-statistics that bedevil this “debate”. As to the likely numbers involved, absolute confusion reigns. An even-handed House of Commons briefing paper recently noted that the Foreign Office’s own inquiry into probable figures (commissioned from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research) had concluded that “it is not possible to predict the scale of future migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK numerically”. The Commons paper, by the way, also shows why the often-quoted Migration Watch prediction of circa 50,000 net arrivals per annum from Bulgaria and Romania is skewed. The numbers rest on an untested forward projection from events after the 2004 EU entry of Poland and its neighbours (the so-called “A8” countries) on to a wholly different set of circumstances.

Among the factors that suggest “low levels of migration”, the Commons researchers cite the obvious fact that “all remaining transitional controls will expire in all EU countries at the same time”. Among factors that may pull the numbers upwards are “high unemployment rates … in those EU countries that have so far been the preferred destinations for A2 nationals”, mainly Italy and Spain. In short, we don’t yet know. Maybe the invading wave will be crested by some of the estimated 14,000 doctors and 50,000 nurses who have left Romania since it joined the EU in 2007. If so, then our steam-driven pundits should on principle refuse treatment when their apoplectic xenophobia lands them in A&E.

Even if the feared influx of low-skill job-seekers does occur, and does put pressure on underfunded services in certain areas, then public figures still have a choice to make. Some of the windier press invective that craven politicians have done nothing to deflate – especially against Roma people – pretty much amounts to incitement to racial violence.

Whoever wins the dismal numbers game in 2014, a failure to condemn that sort of hate speech opens the door to further barbarism in political life.

We have been here, many times, before. Back in 1517, Londoners rioted on “Evil May Day” against foreign workers. According to legend, the mob was calmed by the then under-sheriff of London, Sir Thomas More. About 75 years later, the event was dramatised in a multi-authored play about the life of More – the kind of stage “biopic” common in the Elizabethan theatre. In the second act, when he faces down the racist rioters of London, the play’s language suddenly leaps into life. More’s great speech makes the case against anti-immigrant agitation with a moral force that still sings out today.

“Grant them removed,” says More about the detested foreigners. “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,/ Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,/ Plodding to the ports and costs for transportation.” “What had you got?” he asks the mob. “I’ll tell you. You had taught/ How insolence and strong hand should prevail.” In other words, mob rule – of the kind that, these days, tries to smash international treaties and tear up EU agreements. And what if the lawless migrant-bashers had to move abroad themselves, “to anywhere that not adheres to England”? In exile, “Would you be pleased/ To find a nation of such barbarous temper,/ That, breaking out in hideous violence,/ Would not afford you an abode on earth?” Just put yourselves in the foreigner’s shoes, More counsels: “What would you think/ To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;/ And this your mountainish inhumanity.”

There used to be almost as much heated argument around the authorship of this passage (in a script known as “Hand D”) as about the imminent levels of migration from “A2” states. Now, a kind of scholarly consensus prevails. That scene was most probably written by William Shakespeare. Across the political mountains of inhumanity, let’s hope that the latest torrent, or quite possibly, trickle of “strangers” can locate and enjoy Shakespeare’s country.

Culture aside, a well-sourced report released this week by the Centre for Economic and Business Research argues that Britain will over the coming years overtake Germany as the strongest economy in Europe. And which ace do we hold up our sleeve as the Old Continent grows even older, less productive and more state-dependent? Why, “positive demographics with continuing immigration”. On which note, we should wish even the frostiest of Europhobes Chestita Nova Godina and Un An Nou Fericit!

The 80th anniversary of the Great Trudge – Paddy’s Romania tour?

Something like the opening line to Sergeant Pepper, it was eighty years ago today, that Paddy Leigh Fermor was on his way, setting out on the journey that more than anything else was to define his life.

I have written about this once or twice before – Nice weather for young ducks – but this time it is different. This is the start of a number of major anniversaries, including the 70th, next year, of the abduction of General Kreipe.

For some time I have had an idea to arrange a tour, In The Steps if you like, of Paddy’s Romania. Much of Between the Woods and the Water, and the recent Broken Road are taken up with a country that Paddy once said was second only to Greece in his heart.

The idea is to get together a party of around twenty people for an 8-10 day tour of Romania next September, 2014. I am planning this with an experienced tour company. The general idea is to meet in Bucharest, then follow Paddy’s Transylvanian route, including stops in Cluj, Sighisoara, Sibiu, and Hunedoara. If possible I would like to include a visit to Baia Herculene and the Danube at the Iron Gates. It would also be great to include a visit to Baleni where he lived with Balasha. It is a little out of the way but may be possible once we look in detail at the itinerary.

Romania is a beautiful country, and Transylvania is very special. We will include visits to the Saxon villages with their fortified churches. Accommodation and food will be good, as will the company.

In order to proceed all I need at the moment are expressions of interest. There is no commitment beyond that. Costs are likely to be around £,1500 per person excluding flights to and from Romania. But this may change. If you are interested all you have to do is drop me a line at tsawford[at]btinternet.com .

The following slideshow gives you an idea of some of the things we night see. These are my own personal pictures and some are of an area to the north of Romania called the Maramures which will probably not be included (the wooden churches in the main).

Patrick Leigh Fermor: his final journey

Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron on PLF walkColin Thubron introduces an exclusive extract from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’, the concluding part of his account of his teenage walk across Europe.

By Colin Thubron with Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in the Telegraph 1 September 2013.

Patrick Leigh Fermor never quite completed the long-awaited third volume of his youthful journey across Europe. He was 18 when he set out to walk from Holland to Turkey in 1933, but the first two magnificent books recording this epic – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published only in 1977 and 1986 respectively. The second ended with the implacable words “To be Concluded”, and for years expectations ran high that a final book would follow, carrying its hero from the Iron Gates, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, to Constantinople.

But for Paddy (as friends and fans called him) a long ice age set in: a writer’s block that dogged him for the rest of his life. On completion of the second volume he was already in his seventies, and the pressure of expectation, the demands of his highly wrought style and his own perfectionism were overwhelming.

Yet ironically a near-complete draft of the third volume – written in pen on stiff sheets of paper – had been lying for years on a shelf in his study, in three black ring binders, all but forgotten. It had been composed following a request from Holiday magazine in 1962 that he record his whole trek in a 5,000-word essay. Paddy abandoned this essay when it reached the Iron Gates, but then launched into a full-scale retrieval of his trek’s last stretch: a work he eventually gave the stopgap title of A Youthful Journey. Then this, in turn, was abandoned, with the realisation that he must start all over again, and describe his walk from its beginning.

The initial two volumes were written virtually from memory: a prodigious feat of recall coupled with a rich imagination. His first diary of the journey was stolen in a Munich youth hostel in 1934. His later diaries went missing during the Second World War. But a final one, covering the last stretch of his trek, was preserved by his first great love, the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzène, who hurled it into her suitcase in the few minutes allowed her by communist officials when she was ejected from her estate in 1949.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria, autumn 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria, autumn 1934

Yet this diary, recovered from Balasha in Romania during a clandestine visit by Paddy in 1965, did nothing to cure his writer’s block.

Perhaps its callow text conflicted with the more mature writing of A Youthful Journey; or perhaps the factual discrepancies in the two versions troubled him. Only in 2008, when already in his nineties, did he seriously begin, painfully and intermittently, to revise the Great Trudge, as he called it. But by now he was suffering from tunnel vision, and his stamina was failing. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, still working on the narrative in a fragile hand.

So it fell to two of his three literary executors, his biographer Artemis Cooper and myself, to prepare the text for publication.

A Youthful Journey was largely written between 1963 and 1964, in prolix bursts of enthusiasm, and its grammar, punctuation and even its style were far from what Paddy considered finished. In our revision we laboured to preserve his inimitable style, while clarifying and refining the text in a process as close as we could get to his exacting practice. There is not a sentence that is not his.

But The Broken Road is our own title. It acknowledges not only that Paddy never, in the end, continued his written journey to Constantinople – it stops 50 miles short of the Turkish frontier – but also that this is not the exuberantly polished volume that he would have most desired. Yet it includes passages perhaps as fine as any he wrote. Its editing was aided by our sense of Paddy’s previous work, of course, by our knowledge of the man himself, and by his few hints and tentative suggestions. And here his journey must rest.

Map accompanying The Broken Road

Map accompanying The Broken Road

Extracts from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’

“The party went with a bhang”

The lights of Tirnovo were beginning to twinkle in every window, the sun had set, and the prospect of my St Jerome-like hermitage loomed rather bleakly, especially compared to the gleaming interior of the grocer’s: the barrels of anchovies, the hanging flitches, the lamplight refracting a battery of bottles, the dried figs impaled on skewers of bamboo, the kegs and crates and jars and the pyramids of wares from Germany and Austria, the scarlet bacon slicer with its flashing disc of blade, the huge cheeses and the cubistic mounds of halva. It glowed like Aladdin’s cave.

But the shop was empty. A boy of about my own age who had been sitting reading a book on the doorstep got up and followed me in. Where was I from? Whither bound?

Cheerful alacrity and a friendly glance accompanied these questions. We were soon perched on the edge of barrels, clinking slivo glasses and exchanging autobiographies. Gatcho was the grocer’s son, and he was looking after the shop while his father was at some ex-officers’ anniversary celebration, a reunion of old comrades from the Balkan wars.

This particular season, once more, seemed to be crowded with holidays and parties and religious feasts, which kept us up late and beset the mornings with headaches. Gatcho demonstrated a way of finding out if the next day was going to be a feast day, by a method about as reliable as predicting a stranger’s arrival by tea leaves. He found my sheepskin kalpack among the heaped-up chattels on my bed. He pounced on it with glee, crying, “Let’s see whether tomorrow is a prazdnik” – a feast – then lifted it above his head and flung it on the floor, which it struck with a dull thud. His brows knitted with vexation. He repeated it several times. If the hat hit the boards fair and square, he explained, it would give a loud report like the explosion of a paper bag. “There we are,” he said. “All’s well. Prazdnik tomorrow.” And so it was.

In the small hours of one of these celebrations, we found ourselves with half a dozen of the blades of Tirnovo in a hut on the outskirts of the town, smoking hashish. The dried and powdered leaves were packed into the tube of a cigarette paper from which deft fingers had laboriously prodded the tobacco. Lit, and then solemnly passed from hand to hand until the clouds of smoke enveloped us with a sweetish vegetable reek, it brought on a faint dizziness and a gregarious onslaught of helpless laughter.

Bulgaria, it appeared, was one of the richest natural hashish gardens in the world. Cannabis indica thrives in embarrassing abundance. Its cultivation, which is scarcely necessary, and its smoking, my companions explained between puffs, were strictly forbidden: “Mnogo zabraneno. Ha! Ha! Ha!” But the ban seemed about as effective as legislation against cow parsley or nettles. I longed for the opportunity to say “the party went with a bhang!” The lack of opportunity to say so, however, didn’t stop me saying it, and dissolving in transports of hilarity at my own wit.

“A soul in hell”

The following days were raining off and on the whole time, soaking the lowlands and an ever-thickening crop of villages. I stuck to the main road, watching occasional cars pass, and, more temptingly, buses, with PYCCE plastered across the front – Russe, the Bulgarian name for [the city of] Rustchuk. On one of these drizzly stretches, I fell in with a fellow wayfarer heading north like me, a young barber from Pazardjik called Ivancho, threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s. Where was I from? Anglitchanin? Tchudesno! – “Wonderful!” This revelation was followed by a burst of talk that needed no answer. It was uttered at such speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear­piercing, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.

It continued for mile after mile till my head began to swim and ache. I tried to detach myself and draw on inner resources, merely muttering Da or Nè when a pause occurred. But these were not always the right answers and my companion would begin again, catching me by the elbow and prodding me with his forefinger with redoubled urgency and a crablike veer of his fast and tripping gait that always edged me across the road and nearly into the field, till I darted round the other side and into the middle again, only to be seized once more and harangued off the road on the other side with the same smiling urgency and with eyes peering mesmerically so that it seemed impossible to deflect them. Sometimes he was walking backwards in front, almost dancing along the road in reverse, the unstaunchable flow gushing unbroken from his smiling and gabbling lips. Once I turned round in a circle and he danced briskly round in a wider circle still talking faster and faster.

I tried to counter-attack by resolutely bawling Stormy Weather, but it was too slow. He dived in between the bars, so I shifted to The Lincolnshire Poacher, Lillibulero, On a Friday Morn When we Set Sail, and Maurice Chevalier’s Valentine, over and over again. My head was splitting and I sighed for the tomb and the silence of eternity. People had often teased me for gasbag tendencies, especially when a bit drunk. If only they could see this retribution!

There was only one hope. Ivancho belonged to some kind of pan-Bulgarian barbers’ guild – he had showed me a dog-eared card with a snapshot glued to it – and in two nearby villages that we had passed before I realised how it worked, he had entered a barber’s shop, displayed his card and emerged with a handful of leva. In the next village we came to, I took discreetly to my heels and ran full tilt along the road. Looking back, I saw him emerge, catch sight of my diminishing figure, and set off in pursuit. But I had a good start and the distance widened. I pounded on like a stag with a lightening heart and finally, when the road stretched bare behind me, slowed down, free at last. But a few minutes later a northward-bound car slowed down and Ivancho, with a forefinger wagging in playful admonition, leapt from the running-board.

There was nothing for it. All the evening, and all through dinner, the torment continued till at last I lurched to bed, but not to sleep for any time. Fortunately, though, owing to lack of room, different roofs were sheltering us. After a few nightmare-ridden hours, I got up in the dark, paid, and slipped out before breakfast, and away. But I had not gone a furlong before a waiting shadow detached itself from a tree. A cheerful voice, refreshed by sleep, wished me good morning, and a friendly hand fluttered to my shoulder. Day broke slowly.

Stunned and battered, I saw my chance early in the afternoon. We were sheltering from the rain, drinking Russian tea an inch deep in sugar in the kretchma of a large village. A battered bus was drawn up outside, and the driver-­conductor was drinking with some cronies at another table. I left the table with the excuse of the lavatory, and, outside, made a pleading gesture towards the conductor through the glass top of a door. He joined me, and I haltingly explained my case. He had heard and seen the social amenities rattling about my table; perhaps he could tell from my eyes that he was talking to a soul in hell.

Back in the main room I made the treacherous suggestion to Ivancho that we should take the bus to Rustchuk and get out of the rain: I would pay for the journey. Would he please buy the tickets, I said, handing over the money, as my Bulgarian was so bad? He assented eagerly and volubly. There was a hitch at the bus door: he insisted I should get in first. We struggled and the driver shouted impatiently. I managed to shove him in and the driver pulled the lever that slammed the door, and moved off. I could see Ivancho gesticulating and shouting but all in vain. He shot me a harrowing glance from his hare-eyes, I waved, and the rain swallowed them up. In a few minutes, I took a side-path through a field of damp sunflowers. Taking no chances, I followed a wide loop far from the dangers of the main road. The guilt implanted by Ivancho’s reproachful glance almost managed to mar the ensuing feelings of relief and liberation, but not quite. Not even the bitter wind from the east, as steady as an express train, could do that.

The Broken Road book cover

The Broken Road book cover

The book is available to pre-order from Amazon, just click here The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Travel along the enchanted way with William Blacker

GHF TourJoin William Blacker, author of Along the Enchanted Way, and Global Heritage Fund (GHF) for a visit to the villages of Saxon Transylvania. Scattered along the valleys and hills of the southern range of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania,the villages represent a unique and diverse landscape of Romanian, Saxon, and Gypsy cultural heritage.

The nearly 100 villages and their patterns of settlement, which date from the 12th century, are among the last vestiges of European mediaeval planning and culture. This vast cultural landscape exhibits an uncommon equilibrium between villages, fields, meadows, forests, and mountains. Now under threat, GHF, William Blacker and the Romanian heritage organization Monumentum, are working to save this vanishing landscape.

This tour running from 9th-12th September follows on from the Transylvanian Book Festival, 5th – 9th of September. See the Festival website for further details.

The GHF flyer here has some more information about this and 2013 tours to Turkey and Cambodia as well.

For further information please contact:

Brian Curran

Global Heritage Fund

9th Floor 1 Knightsbridge Green

London SW1X 7QA

bcurran[at]globalheritagefund.org

t +44 (0) 787-648-1847

http://www.globalheritagefund.org

The work of Max Milligan – Hello Romania

Last week I attended the premiere of Wild Carpathia 2 at BAFTA in Piccadilly in aid of the European Nature Trust. There was a good crowd and we rubbed shoulders with Crown Princess Margarita of Romania, Mrs Maria Grapini, Romanian Minister for Tourism, four times Olympic Gold medal-winning canoeist, Ivan Patzaichin, and Romanian folksinger, Grigore Lese. The drinks sponsors appeared to be the Corcova winery from the south-west corner of Romania, and I am delighted to say that they took their duties very seriously, for the enjoyment of all!

But the highlight for me was Grigore Lese playing and singing, very emotionally and powerfully, to a backdrop of some great images of Romania by the Scottish photographer Max Milligan who is working on his next book about Romania in 2014. See Romania a Portrait on Facebook.

There are some really wonderful videos on Milligan’s website showing him at work in Romania, probably one of the last places on earth where you can experience such unique landscape and wildlife, plus see amazing architecture and meet remarkably friendly people, and do this more or less on your own without crowds of tourists. The Romanian tourist ministry has a lot of work to do, but of course at the moment it is good for those of us who want a quieter and more authentic experience .

You can enjoy more of Milligans’s videos  here.

The first Wild Carpathia movie is found here.

Please visit the European Nature Trust website to find out more about their work preserving the wild spaces of Scotland and Romania and maybe get involved.

Wild Carpathia 2 Exclusive Screening at BAFTA

Those of you who enjoyed the movie Wild Carpathia, may like to know that the European Nature Trust is hosting an exclusive screening of the sequel, Wild Carpathia 2, at BAFTA in London’s Piccadilly on 5 June 2013.

The evening will include a drinks and canape reception before the screening, and further drinks afterwards.

You can order tickets here. I shall see you on the night!

Enjoy this taster.

You can watch the whole of the first film by clicking here.

A postcard from Cluj

The Hotel New York in the 1920's

The Hotel New York in the early part of the 20th Century

Thank you to my friend and colleague in Cluj, Stefi Timofte, for finding this picture for me. Of course it shows the Hotel New York (now the sad and decaying Continental) that Paddy visited with Angéla and István in the summer of 1934.

This story has been debunked in Artemis’ biography but I am not entirely convinced by the explanation in her book. Paddy says he got the details from a book in German, but the level of detail (see my story about the internal decor) implies that this book had very good photographs in colour or Paddy at least visited during one of his later visits to Romania.

For me, Paddy’s description of the romance of those days on the road, and the nighttime trysts with Angéla can never be diminished.

Related articles:

An eye for detail and the memory of the Hotel New York in Cluj

Angéla, Paddy, István and Tom in Cluj-Napoca

£1 a week – Rendezvous in Cluj

Transylvanian Book Festival Facebook page

FB pageThe new year has started off with a lot of activity for the team behind the very first Transylvanian Book Festival which will take place between 5-9 September 2013. The location is a great attraction, and those beautiful villages of the Saxon Lands in the Carpathian Mountains offer a unique location. More news coming soon.

The team hope that as many of you as possible can join themthere, but in the meantime, come on over and join the Transylvanian Book Festival page, by ‘Liking’ it on Facebook so you can keep up with the news and join in yourself.

Read more about the Festival here.

The European Nature Trust is currently seeking a Chief Executive/fundraiser

TENT logoThe European Nature Trust (TENT) is currently seeking a Chief Executive/fundraiser with a focus on fundraising to take the foundation forward with exciting projects based in Romania and Scotland.

We have mentioned TENT a few times on the blog for the work it does in trying to preserve the unique forests and wildlife of the Carpathians and Scotland. Most notably they produced the highly successful film Wild Carpathia. The current Chief Executive has announced his intention to depart and they are seeking someone new for what would be a very rewarding role.

If you are interested in pursuing the role please contact Juliet on by email: juliet[at]theeuropeannaturetrust.com with a covering letter and a copy of your curriculum vitae.

Click here for job specification.

They wish to receive all replies by Friday 1st March 2013. Visit the TENT website here.

Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian trilogy to be published in new edition by Everyman’s Library

Count Miklós Bánffy

Count Miklós Bánffy

Many of the longer term readers will know that I am a true fan of the work of the great Hungarian-Transylvanian writer and statesman Miklós Bánffy. His Transylvanian trilogy is a masterpiece, and the autobiography, The Phoenix Land, re-published last year offers an insight to the character and soul of this intelligent, hardworking, and resourceful man.

Read more about Miklós Bánffy in the articles on the blog which you can find at this link.

I was recently contacted by blog reader Scott Walters from San Francisco who informed me about a new version coming out in 2013.

As you seem to be the go-to resource for all things Patrick Leigh Fermor, I thought you might be interested to know – assuming you haven’t heard already – that the English translation of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvania trilogy (They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided), for which Paddy wrote an introduction and which you’ve blogged about on occasion – is going to be reissued this summer in hardcover by Everyman’s Library. Publication date is in July.

I’m thrilled about this – I’m a great fan of the trilogy and have long bemoaned the price of the existing paperback editions, which despite being reissued in 2010 still seem difficult to obtain at a reasonable price (though a Kindle edition is now available). That Everyman’s Library has opted for the work suggests that it’s finally attained the recognition it deserves. I posted an announcement on my blog, but should you put one on your Fermor blog I expect word will get out to more people who may be interested. All best, and a very happy new year.

I am grateful to Scott for getting in touch. Not so sure about the price issue as it affects UK readers. You can buy good copies of his work on eBay for around £8-£10. The Everyman versions appear to be coming out in July 2013 with a website price tag of $26 for a hardback edition.

All I can say is it is great that more people will read Bánffy, and that prices of books vary enormously depending upon where you are. Moral of the story is look around for bargains and read some Bánffy now!

Flying to the moon

Inside the Hotel New York (Continental), Cluj

As many of you will know by now, I travel to Romania pretty frequently and I am fortunate enough to stay and work in the beautiful city of Cluj which Paddy says he visited during his road trip tryst with Angéla in the summer of 1934.

Paddy’s descriptions in Between the Woods and the Water are very accurate and detailed, and the one of the Hotel New York was the most impressive which I highlighted in this article last year with accompanying photographs.

Nick and Tom outside the Hotel New York (Continental), Cluj

During Nick Hunt’s recent walk across Europe we were able to meet up outside of the hotel and I was desperate for us to drink a cocktail there just like Paddy, Istvan and Angéla. The fact that the hotel is closed should not have been a barrier to this; all I had to do was find the recipe and a willing local barman and all would be OK. Unfortunately following an ‘occupy’ protest security at the hotel was heavy and we were firmly told we could not enter. It must have been Nick’s road weary look and dusty attire which was the blocker!

I had done some research, and whilst I could not find the recipe of the Cluj cocktail which was described by Paddy thus in Between the Woods and the Water …

An hotel at the end of the main square, called the New York – a great meeting place in the winter season – drew my companions like a magnet. István said the barman had invented an amazing cocktail – only surpassed by the one called ‘Flying’ in the Vier Jahreszeiten bar in Munich – which would be criminal to miss

… I contacted the Bar Manager of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski in München to find out the recipe for Flying. Florian Fischer kindly replied as follows, so maybe this autumn, to celebrate the publication of the biography, you may order one or even make it at home.

Dear Mr. Sawford,

thank you very much for your request. These are the things which are creating culture!

I am really interested in cocktails of this period. I was thinking about the recipe and I am quite sure, that it must be the following :

Flying Cocktail

2 parts of Gin
1 part of curacao Triple sec ( Cointreau preferred )
1 part of freshly squezzed lemon juice

fill up with champagne
served in a champagne flute

Actually it is the famous “White Lady” with champagne and this drink was really popular in these times.

Greetings from Munich and enjoy your “Flying Cocktail”

Cheers

Florian Fischer

Barmanager

Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski München

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An eye for detail and the memory of the Hotel New York in Cluj

Ada Kaleh: the lost island of the Danube

Ada Kaleh island postcard

Towards the end of Between the Woods and the Water, Paddy is exploring the Danube which he described as wild, with ‘many scourges to contend with’ including the Kossovar winds which in the spring could ‘reach a speed of fifty or sixty miles an hour and turn the river into a convulsed inferno.’ A long, long, way from the tamed beast that the once great river is now.

In the midst of this occasional inferno lay an island with a Turkish name, Ada Kaleh, which means ‘island fortress’. Paddy tell us that he had read all that he could find about the island, and was very keen to explore this lagoon of Turkish descendants which was quite probably abandoned by the retreating Ottomans as their empire shrank. Although placed under control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Berlin Conference in 1878, very little changed and it was ceded to Romania at Versailles. The Romanians too had better things to do with their time and left the inhabitants undisturbed.

It was into this cultural, religious, and demographic time capsule that Paddy stepped in August 1934 and immediately joined a group of men at a rustic coffee-shop, who were armed with ‘sickles and adzes and pruning knives’. Paddy describes the moment as if he had suddenly been ‘seated on a magic carpet.’

Ada Kaleh – “as if seated on a magic carpet”

Paddy spent a night on the island, and slept out by the Danube, under the stars, watching meteors, and listening to the sounds of owls and barking dogs, interrupted by the occasional sound of a cart wheel or the splash of a fish in the now calm and lazy river. He dreamt of crusaders under King Sigismund of Hungary attempting to turn back the Turkish tide in 1396. They crossed the river almost at this point, and what excited Paddy most was the thought that ‘the last pikeman or sutler had probably reached the southern bank this very evening, five hundred and thirty-eight years ago.’ Sigismund’s allied army of Hungarians, Wallachians, French, Germans and Burgundians, with a few Englishman, was shattered by Sultan Bayazid at the battle of Nicopolis further down the Danube, with the captured dying in ‘a shambles of beheading lasting from dawn to Vespers’.

Like the storks he saw the next day, who were preparing to fly off to “Afrik! Afrik!”, as an old Turkish man gestured, Paddy departed after breakfast to Orsova. Ever one for losing things he discovered that he had left behind an antler which he had been carrying as a trophy. Paddy writes that ‘perhaps some future palaeontologist might think that the island had once teemed with deer’.  This cannot be as the river was dammed and Ada Kaleh submerged by the rising Danube. Its population was evacuated and its mosque removed to a new, safe location. Such mitigation measures did not satisfy Paddy as he states in the Appendix to BTWW. The second of the two attached presentations is also a heartfelt, but belated cry of protest in Romanian.

Please take a look at these presentations. If you have PowerPoint you will find there is appropriate musical accompaniment (slide show one has a song called Ada Kaleh). The images show the place and its people almost exactly as Paddy would have seen it, something that we can truly say will be seen no more. The pdf copy is for those who do not have access to PowerPoint. I do hope that you enjoy them.

Tom

PowerPoint 1

PDF of PowerPoint 1

PowerPoint 2

PDF of PowerPoint 2

There are lots more great pictures to be found on Google images.

Literary and Historical References – Between the Woods and the Water

The last in the series which presents the work of members of the Royal Geographical Society which analyses chapter by chapter, literary and historical references from some of Paddy’s key works.

This was presented at the RGS in the afternoon talk on 12 December 2012,”Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Appreciation by Alexander Maitland, FRGS”.

My thanks to the Royal Geographic Society for permission to present this.

Download a pdf of this document here.

Related article:

Literary and Historical References – The Traveller’s Tree

£1 a week – Rendezvous in Cluj

My visits to Cluj are always a pleasure, notwithstanding the need to get up at five o’clock in the morning to catch an early Wizz Air flight. However, as I prepared for my last visit, there was an extra dimension to my anticipation.

If you have been following Nick Hunt’s journey on his blog and the occasional updates here, you will know that he arrived in Romania in early April and was making good but steady progress in the Mures valley visiting some of the houses that Paddy had stayed in, including Istvan’s kastely. As I prepared for my visit it became clear that there was a chance that Nick and I might meet up in Cluj as he, like Paddy, had decided to complete the ‘Transylvanian Loop’ by motor; getting lifts from people he had met or just hitch-hiking.

As the last week of April arrived Nick was staying at the house of a Romanian philanthropist in Turgu Mures. We corresponded and Nick told me that he would be getting a lift to Cluj on the Monday, the day of my arrival. I was able to arrange some accommodation for him through a colleague at work and suggested that we meet at the Hotel Continental (aka the New York) in the main square in Cluj after I had finished work.

This, therefore, is how we managed to meet after five months and, for Nick, over 1,300 miles of walking. He arrived at the Continental looking slightly bemused, carrying his quite small rucksack, sporting a well-developed beard, and wearing the most battered pair of walking boots I have seen for a long time (they are his original pair and a recently ‘serviced’ by a cobbler in Turgu Mures). Despite our pleading the security guard at the locked hotel would not let us in, and any thought of having a cocktail diminished.

Later we had a few beers and some food whilst talking about his journey. He is clearly enjoying it all and making daily discoveries. Whilst he is following Paddy’s route, and this provides an inspiration and an anchor, it is clearly very much his own expedition which he will tell in his own words in the book which will be published by Arcadia, possibly in 2013. Whilst Nick has as yet no definitive structure for the book he is making comprehensive notes every day and being very careful to guard his notebooks!  From what he told me I think it will be enjoyable, and having read some of the longer pieces on his blog it will be well written and easy to read.

I asked Nick if he was missing home. Only his girlfriend, he replied, and they keep in regular contact via email. Perhaps the biggest difference between his journey and that of Paddy is the ability to keep in touch using modern communications including the essential mobile phone. A striking comment that Nick made was that whilst the first part of the journey through Germany was to a degree well planned, the further east he has gone he has had to make arrangements for accommodation as he has gone along bringing a higher degree of spontaneity. “It is as if there are dark places on the map ahead of me that gradually illuminate the further I proceed, becoming brighter and more defined as each day passes.”

Nick is now somewhere in the heart of the Carpathians on his way to Baie Herculaneum and the Danube. We joked that he must take care to avoid the bears and wolves in the mountains and he promised he would keep a good look out. In two to three months his journey will end and I asked him how he will return home. He answered, after a long pause, that he does not know, but he is sure that he cannot just jump on a plane and return to London in one day, even mentioning the possibility of walking around the Black Sea. There was a certain wistfulness in his eyes as he answered, and it struck me that this may be the hardest part of the journey; giving it up and returning to what we call reality.

Related article:

An eye for detail and the memory of the Hotel New York in Cluj

Transylvanian hay-day – An afternoon’s diversion on the way to Constantinople, 78 years ago.

Between the Woods and the Water

As Nick Hunt is currently in the vicinity of the Hungarian-Romanian border on his walk in Paddy’s footsteps to Constantinople, I thought that it might be an appropriate time to publish this extract. It is one of the most memorable pieces of Paddy’s writing. What a way to spend a hot summer’s afternoon!

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in The Spectator in 1986. This version 18 June 2011.

One day when we were invited to luncheon by some neighbours, István said, ‘Let’s take the horse’ and we followed a roundabout uphill track to look at a remaining piece of forest. ‘Plenty of common oak, thank God,’ he said, turning back in the saddle as we climbed a path through the slanting sunbeams, ‘you can use it for everything.’ The next most plentiful was Turkey oak, very good firewood when dry, also for stable floors and barrel staves. Beech came next, ‘it leaves scarcely any embers’; then yoke elm and common elm, ‘useful for furniture and coffins’. There was plenty of ash, too — handy for tools, axe-helves, hammers, sickles, scythes, spades and hay rakes. Except for a few by the brooks, there were no poplars up there but plenty by the Maros: useless, though, except for troughs and wooden spoons and the like. Gypsies made these. They settled in the garden and courtyard of the kastély with their wives and their children and whittled away until they had finished. ‘There is no money involved,’ István said. ‘We’re supposed to go halves, but, if it’s an honest tribe, we’re lucky to get a third. We do better with some Rumanians from out-of-the-way villages in the mountains, very poor and primitive chaps, but very honest.’

In a clearing we exchanged greetings with a white-haired shepherd leaning on a staff with a steel hook. The heavily embroidered homespun cloak flung across his shoulders and reaching to the ground was a brilliant green. His flock tore at the grass among the tree-stumps all round him. Then a path led steeply downhill through hazel woods with old shells and acorns crunching under the horses’ hooves.

It was a boiling hot day. On the way back from a cheerful feast, we went down to the river to look at some wheat. Overcome by the sight of the cool and limpid flood, we unsaddled in a shady field about the size of a paddock, took off all our clothes, climbed down through the reeds and watercress and dived in. Swimming downstream with lazy breaststroke or merely drifting in the shade of the poplars and the willows, we talked and laughed about our recent fellow guests. The water was dappled with leafy shade near the bank and scattered with thistle-down, and a heron made off down a vista of shadows. Fleets of moorhens doubled their speed and burst noisily out of the river, and wheat, maize and tiers of vineyard were gliding past us when all at once we heard some singing. Two girls were reaping the end of a narrow strip of barley; going by the colours of their skirts and their embroidered tops, braid sashes and kerchiefs, they had come for the harvest from a valley some way off. They stopped as we swam into their ken, and, when we drew level, burst out laughing. Apparently the river was less of a covering than we had thought. They were about 19 or 20, with sunburnt and rosy cheeks and thick dark plaits, and not at all shy. One of them shouted something, and we stopped and trod water in mid-Maros. István interpreted. ‘They say we ought to be ashamed of ourselves,’ he said, ‘and they threaten to find our clothes and run off with them.’

Then he shouted back, ‘You mustn’t be unkind to strangers! You look out, or we’ll come and catch you.’

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ came the answer. ‘Not like that, naked as frogs.’

What are these for?’ István pointed to the branches by the shore. ‘We could be as smartly dressed as Adam.’

‘You’d never catch us! What about your tender white feet in the stubble? Anyway, you’re too respectable. Look at your hair, going bald in front.’

‘It’s not!’ István shouted back.

‘And that young one,’ cried the second girl, ‘he wouldn’t dare.’

István’s blue eye was alight as he translated the last bit. Then without exchanging another word we struck out for the shore as fast as crocodiles and, tearing at poplar twigs and clumps of willow-herb, bounded up the bank. Gathering armfuls of sheaves, the girls ran into the next field, then halted at the illusory bastion of a hay-rick and waved their sickles in mock defiance. The leafy disguise and our mincing gait as we danced across the stubble unloosed more hilarity. They dropped their sickles when we were almost on them and showered us with the sheaves; then ran to the back of the rick. But, one-armed though we were, we caught them there and all four collapsed in a turmoil of hay and barley and laughter.

‘Herrgott!’ I heard István suddenly exclaim — much later on, and a few yards round the curve of the rick — smiting his brow with his hand. ‘Oh God! The bishop! The Gräfin! They’re coming to dinner, and look at the sun!’

It was well down the sky and evening was gathering. The ricks and the poplars and the serried rows of sheaves and haycocks were laying bars of shadow over the mown field and a party of birds was flying home across the forest. István’s hay-entangled hair was comically at variance with his look of consternation and we all laughed. Extracting strands of hay and the clinging barley, we tidied Safta and Ileana’s plaits, disordered by all this rough and tumble, and set off hand in hand with them for the river, István and I on tiptoe. ‘Poor feet,’ they murmured. After goodbyes we dived in and started the long swim back, turning many times to wave and call to those marvellous girls and they waved and answered until they were out of earshot and then, after a bend in the river, out of sight as well.

This piece first appeared in The Spectator in 1986; it forms part of Between the Woods and the Water (John Murray, £8.99). © Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1986.

A Year of Memory: the top ten posts on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog

As the year comes to a close it is time to reflect upon what has passed and to look forward to 2012. I make no predictions for the coming year. There are some things which are almost certain such as the continuing Euro crisis and the much anticipated publication of Artemis Cooper’s authorised biography about Paddy, but forecasts tend to be overtaken by events and are quickly forgotten.

What we can do is to look back on this year in the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The major event of course was Paddy’s death on 10 June at the age of ninety-six. A sad event for his family and close friends, but also for those of us who admired him for his writing and the life he lived. As the year closed it was time to celebrate his life at his Memorial Service held on 15 December in London.

As I hoped the blog has become a significant source of material about his life including rarely seen video. There have been over 228,000 visits over the last year and you have made it a much more interactive experience by using the comment facility to exchange information, provide your own memories of Paddy, and to express your admiration for him. At the time of his death I opened a page where you could express your thoughts about Paddy which has run to over 120 comments.

Paddy would probably have been somewhat bemused by the whole idea of the blog, but perhaps even more so by the interaction we now have with social networking sites with nearly 4,500 visitors finding the site from Facebook, and 850 via Twitter.

To conclude the year, and as the 365th post on the blog, let us take a look at some of the most popular articles over the last twelve months. Perhaps I can make one promise to you all which is that there is much more to come on the blog in 2012 which includes a lot of material submitted by you the readers of the blog.

The Funeral Service of Patrick Leigh Fermor, 16 June 2011 

Paddy’s funeral service was held on a typical English summer’s day at his home in Dumbleton. He returned to England just one day before his death and is buried beside his beloved Joan.

Obituary from The Independent by Paddy Leigh Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper 

Perhaps the definitive obituary.

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life 

The amazing video from the Greek TV programme which reunited the participants of the Ill Met by Moonlight kidnap including Paddy, many of the Andartes, and General Kreipe and his wife.

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

One of the most comprehensive profiles of Paddy which is now freely available to all. (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)

Intimate portraits from Kardamyli by Miles Fenton 

A series of personal photographs sent to me by Miles Fenton who is Paddy’s nephew and who now lives in Canada where he works as an artist.

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video 

The ever popular video where Paddy talks in some detail about the Kreipe kidnap. (press play on Battle of Crete 7).

Colonel David Smiley 

David Smiley was a fellow occupant of Tara in Cairo with Paddy and Billy Moss et al who continued his military career with some distinction after the war and even led Japanese soldiers in a charge against VietMinh rebels!

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger 

It is probably the James Bond/Ian Fleming association which maintains the popularity of this article.

If food be the music of love … Bánffy’s lover in Cluj (Kolozsvár) 

No list of popular posts can be complete without the compelling combination of my passions for Paddy, Romania, Miklós Bánffy, and Cluj.

Patrick Leigh Fermor Memorial Order of Service 

The order of service from the joyful occasion that was Paddy’s Memorial Service.

Finally I would like to thank so many of you for your encouragement and support during 2011, and wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Tom Sawford

Final volume from Patrick Leigh Fermor

The latest snippet about Vol 3 from The Bookseller.

John Murray is to publish a posthumous book by travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in June [Edit – the article says July – good research!!].

by Benedicte Page

First published in The Bookseller, 16 December 2011

The book will complete the story of the journey Leigh Fermor made on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople at the age of 18, as told in his previous works A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The currently untitled volume will be published in September 2013.

Artemis Cooper, whose biography of Leigh Fermor will be published in September 2012, said: “By the end of the second volume, he was about to cross the Danube from Romania and plunge into Bulgaria; and his devoted readership have been stuck midstream, as it were, for over 20 years. A painstaking perfectionist, Leigh Fermor never did finish the final volume though he was working on it up to his death in June 2011.”

Based on the original diary he kept at the time and an early draft of the book written in the 1960s, this book takes up the story, and carries the reader to Constantinople and beyond.

John Murray m.d. Roland Philipps said: “I was told of the existence of a manuscript on the day that Sir Patrick died in June of this year, and read it shortly afterwards. It is a treat to be back, immersed once again in this great pre-War walk across Europe and wonderful for his many admirers that this book will be published.”

The publisher describes Leigh Fermor as “one of the outstanding prose stylists of modern time”.

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.

Wild Carpathia

Sorry I just can’t help myself. Romania is so magical and beautiful; Paddy is reported to have said that after Greece he loved Romania the most. I have to share this video with you. It was funded by The European Nature Trust (TENT) which is based in Marlow, Berkshire. It’s mission is ” the protection and restoration of threatened wilderness, wild habitats and the wildlife living within them.” and it is focused upon Romania and Scotland.

This is a high quality version in English. Watch it and maybe support the work of TENT.

The all star cast includes lots of bears, even more mountains, and huge (but endangered) forests. Presented by Charlie Ottley, with Count Kálnoky, and HRH Prince Charles who thinks because he has some ancestral links to Vlad Dracul he has a ‘stake’ in the country.

Related article:

Lost in Transylvania