Tag Archives: Romania

Cantacuzino Family Tomb in Baleni, Romania

Of the old estate of the Cantacuzino’s, all that remains is a tomb—and even that has been left to the elements—“The memorial has value, but the monument isn’t part of our database,” maintains the Director of Culture.

Chris Bartholomew got in touch with me, all the way from Salt Lake City, to pass on his translation of an article he found in a Romanian newspaper about the family tomb of Balasha Cantacuzene, who was Paddy’s lover before the war.

Thank you so much for your Patrick Leigh Fermor Blog. I have been a daily reader for about a year now, and have a difficult time thinking of life without my connection to this community you have brought together.

Last night I came across three newspaper articles about Baleni, Romania where Paddy spent time with Balasa Cantacuzino (the romanian spelling of Cantacuzene). The newspaper is Viata Libera, I believe from the city of Galati.

I’ve translated one article about the family tomb in Baleni, and thought it might be of interest to you and your readers as it provides excellent details about this mostly unpublished chapter of Paddy’s life.

Regards,

Chris

Salt Lake City, Utah

by Cristna S. Carp

First published in Viata Libera 17 March 2009

Generations of Cantacuzinos, the famous Byzantine noble family who contributed crowned heads to Romanian principalities, sleep forever in the locality of Baleni, almost forgotten.

Of the manor house and their vast estate in the former Covurlui County, all that remains is a tomb, left crumbling and surrounded by decrepitude.

The Last Male Descendant

Stories of princes and princesses always have happy endings. This only happens in fairy tales.

In reality, the princesses buried at Baleni are crying and sobbing, and Leon [Balasa & Elena’s father], the final Cantacuzino male descendant from the south of Moldova, is turning in his grave. Artifact hunters have even broken into the tomb through the roof.

But not even recent historical times have been among the most favorable. The last inhabitants of the manor, the daughters of Leon, Balasa and Elena, as well as Constantin Donici, the husband of the latter, were deported by the Communists to Pucioasa. Of the descendants of the Cantacuzinos of Baleni, it seems that no one is left alive.

The Transformation of a Library

One night in March of 1949, the fate of the owners and of the estate was sealed. The solid and imposing manor was doomed to dust.

An existing remnant of a reddish wall vaguely reminds us of the one time benefactors of the local communities, of country celebrations filled with good friends, and the many hunting expeditions. This is where in 1927 Nicolae Iorga, after a conference in Galati, came to admire the “splendid library, with artistic and rare editions.” This is also where Prince Sutu once dropped in, in his personal airplane.

The precious library from Baleni, consisting of books in English, French, Russian, Greek, German and Romanian, was scattered in all directions, beginning on the night of its masters’ eviction. Some volumes came to an end burning in the bottom of a decommissioned root cellar, others were thrown into a nearby river.

As not to muddy themselves during the early months of spring, activists used the books, gathered by the Cantacuzinos from the ends of the earth, to pave their walkways. Peasants fashioned shoes out of the luxurious covers of the books. Only a few hundred have found their way to the ‘V.A. Urechia” library, deposited by the Party or from other donations.

Ten Souls

Constructed, most likely, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the tomb situated in the old village cemetery, is “crammed” between graves whose ordinary souls also ask for the right to rest in peace. The funerary monument includes a chapel, constructed above the tomb. The crypt is open to anyone who would like to light a candle above the heads of these ten souls.

The first of the resting places belongs to the brother of Leon. Next are buried the paternal grandmother and the parents of Leon. His father, Prince George Matei, died in Egypt, but was brought to Baleni, where he was given a very ceremonious funeral.

Ana Vacarescu [Balasa’s mother] faded from life in 1923, followed that same year by her husband, Leon Cantacuzino. Balasa died in 1976, in Pucioasa. Elena brought her to Baleni and a few years later, also had the privilege of placing the incinerated remains of her dead husband in the crypt.

In her turn, Elena was placed, in 1983, in her final resting place, by her former students. The final person buried in the Cantacuzino tomb is Georghe Farcas, a descendant of the noble estate. As the founders of the new village church, the Cantacuzino descendants are often mentioned, but only during religious services.

“The Memorial is Proposed for Designation”

The county cultural representative, councilman Marius Mitrof, told us that, concerning the value of the funeral monument, all circumstances point to the memorial receiving historical designation. A precedent exists, in the tomb of the Serfioti Family, from Filesti, and of the Crissovelon family, from Ghidigeni, found on the list of historical monuments. However, specialists still must take into account other parameters, such as its architectural value and the conditions of the construction.

The former mayor, professor Nicolae Nita, admits, not without regret, that the princes, who might bring recognition to the village, are unjustly forgotten. Not even the current mayor, Lica Oprea, knows how this civic treasure might be given recognition without financial help from the county counsel.

A first step would be, as Marius told us, to solicit historical designation for the tomb, from the Directorate of Culture. “We do not have this funeral monument in our database, but it follows for us to visit the site to collect information and to hold public discussion with the local administration,” he also said.

On the other hand, even with an official place in the register of historical monuments, the tomb in Baleni has no guarantee that it will remain intact. Neither is it assured that, if the manor, once visited by Nicolae Iorga, had survived the Communists, it would have been maintained and promoted any better by our contemporaries. Here as well, sadly, we have precedents. Proof that our mentality must also be changed.

Related article:

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear by Colin Thubron 

Lost in Transylvania

Campaigners are hoping tourism will play a role in protecting the vast Carpathian forest

by Clive Aslet

First published in the Financial Times, 5 November 2011

I am sitting in a wooden hut in a forest clearing near Tusnad, aware of a distinct tingling in a delicate area – the part of my body that touches the plank forming a seat. It’s the effect of the sulphur. Outside there are hot springs and mud baths that gently bubble but the purpose of the hut is to take the gas neat. Lean down and, sulphur being heavier than air, it feels as if too much wasabi has gone up your nose. Stay down and you might not get up again. Don’t the EU health and safety regulators have something to say about this? Heavens, no. This is Transylvania, a world that seems to share more with the lyrical novels of Thomas Hardy than modern Europe.

And it is beautiful. Raise your eyes to the hills and you’ll see an openness that is barely credible to someone from a crowded, industrialised country. Look down and you’ll find a deliciously scented pasture that is a tangle of wildflowers and herbs. No habitation is visible beyond the huts where the gypsy shepherds live and milk their goats. A man forks hay on to a ­rum baba-shaped stack. Otherwise there’s nobody to be seen – hardly surprising when you discover the road in this valley is so bad that it’s touch and go whether you’ll get over the bridge.

In this arcadia you wake to the sound of cowbells. The breakfast honey comes from bees that know nothing about the varroa mite that afflicts their cousins in more intensively farmed landscapes. The grapes clustering by the wall of the wooden church are warm from the sun. Geese cackle among the vegetables growing in the yards of the village houses. You might have one of them for dinner. Food is local here. It has to be – the nearest supermarket is hours away.

Most wonderful of all are the forests. Generally, visitors get only a distant glimpse of them but I’m lucky: I am here with Paul Lister, who founded the European Nature Trust to preserve wild spaces such as the Carpathian Mountains, which are covered in forest. The Carpathians form an arc through many central European countries but the Romanian part is the most biodiverse. There are, for example, more brown bears here than anywhere else in Europe. Lister believes this area should be regarded as Europe’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park.

The son of one of the co-founders of MFI, the once-ubiquitous British furniture retailer that ceased trading in 2008, Lister first came to Romania in the 1980s, buying product for the stores. That was during the Communist era, when the forests were managed to textbook standards, not least because the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu loved to hunt in them.

Since his fall, in 1989, the state forestry service has been in decline. Large areas of woodland have been returned to the families who originally owned them but now might live far away. As the price of timber rises, so does the temptation to clear-fell the trees and take the cash. While light regulation might be charming in a sulphur hut, it also allows illegal logging. Corruption is rife. There’s no middle class to get hot under the collar about nefarious activities. Little by little, the forest is being nibbled away. Lister is devoting his considerable energy to saving it.

Lister had already turned 40 before he discovered his purpose in life. The turning point came when his father, Noel, suffered a serious illness 10 years ago. “I realised that it was pointless trying to compete with him any more. I could never be a better businessman than him, so I decided to devote my life to something that I’m passionate about: conservation.”

Initially, he bought the 23,000 acre estate – now called “reserve” – of Alladale in the Scotland Highlands, with the intention of “rewilding” it by flooding peatbogs that had been drained and reintroducing the wildlife that would have been there in the heyday of the Caledonian Forest. The great Carpathian Forest, half of which lies in Romania, is the other side of the coin. The Highlands might have lost its biodiversity but Transylvania is teeming with it.

Last month, the documentary Wild Carpathia had its world premiere in Bucharest. Lister financed the project in order to show urban Romania the wonder that lies on its doorstep. “Which other western country has such a charming rural life?” he says. “If only Romania would follow the example of Costa Rica, where a third of the forests are now protected. The future lies in eco-tourism.”

That industry is just beginning to appear in a number of lodges and guest houses, not generally de luxe but comfortable enough and set in heavenly surroundings. Having arrived at Targu Mures airport (Wizz Air flies direct from several European cities), located in the middle of an empty savannah, I set out with Lister to sample a few of them.

From the airport we drive to the Valea Verde Retreat at Cund: a journey of 40 minutes if, in this land of few signposts, you don’t get lost. It is owned by Jonas Schäfer, a German whose idealistic parents sold their house in Hamburg to come and help after the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. He is typical of the outsiders who forsee what Romania will lose if it goes down the wrong path. Accommodation is in a variety of rustic apartments formed from converted farmhouses. Before breakfast we hear the gypsy shepherd wheeling the milk churn up to the goats that are kept on the hillside; when we walk that way later, ­taking care to avoid some ferocious sheepdogs, the air is soft with the scent of the herbs that grow in the pasture. In the barn, which has been converted into a restaurant, we eat eggs from the hens roaming outside with shavings of truffle from the surrounding woods.

Next is Zabola, a yellow-walled chateau in Zabala, owned by the Chowdhury family, who returned to reclaim their estate, which had been expropriated by the Ceausescu regime. The 16th-century chateau sits in 34 hectares of parkland at the foot of the Carpathians. Guests stay in a recently renovated 18th-century outbuilding; a hunting lodge in the forest can also be rented for self-catering. Much of the food is from the two-acre kitchen garden. At dinner the dumb waiter rises, with theatrical effect, through the floor of the dining room, from the kitchen below.

Crocuses bloom in the fields along the bumpy road that leads to the tiny village of Zalanpatak. The charming guesthouse here is owned by Prince Charles, who through several charities works to conserve traditional buildings in the area. It has five bedrooms and a large wooden verandah overlooking the surrounding meadows.

I am tempted to say you might want to come and see this world before it disappears, but Lister believes that is defeatist. Visitors, he believes, will create a market for the felt slippers, home-made preserves and slipware pottery, perhaps helping the area to survive – along with the wolves and bears that live in the Carpathian forest.

Trophy hunters still go after the bears but other attitudes are beginning to prevail. Near Equus Silvania, a centre for riding in the wild Carpathian foothills west of Brasov, I spend an evening in a shaky wooden hide watching some of these fascinating animals. The shooting licence for this area has been bought by a local businessman who prefers to study bears, rather than kill them.

As dusk falls the bears sinuously slope up to food that has been left for them – the cubs gambolling, the mothers on the qui vive. You would not want to get between a mother and her cubs; the power of these animals is illustrated by the hide’s floor, part of which has been ripped away by a bear looking for food.

Equus Silvania is run by Christoph Promberger, a wolf biologist, and his wife, Barbara, a specialist in lynx. Both are campaigners for the forest and they arrange a helicopter to show me the extent of it. It is a warm day but rain is soon flecking the bubble of the machine as we swing towards the Piatra Craiului ridge. Roastingly hot in the summer but also damp, the conditions are ideal for trees. Below us, the hillsides are covered in a seemingly endless bristling mat of green pines, interspersed with the softer beech. There are few roads here and no sign of a dwelling, except for the occasional shepherd’s hut. Then into the headphones comes Barbara’s voice, pointing out an area – as bare as a badly shaved chin – where the trees have been felled.

Part of the problem is that forestry has little perceived value; according to Erika Stanciu, head of forestry for the Danube Carpathian programme at the World Wildlife Fund, it isn’t worth enough in exports for the government to make it a priority.

Over a plate of goulash on a terrace beside the charming Piata Sfatului square in Brasov, Lister unfolds two strategies for saving the forests. One solution is to unlock the carbon credits granted to countries such as Romania under the Kyoto Protocol, intended as a financial reward for not creating emissions that would otherwise have occurred. The other is rural development, a major plank of which must be tourism.

Little tourist infrastructure exists in rural Transylvania but that is part of its essence. You might not quite be in the position of Adam and Eve seeing a newly created world but you will certainly find it easy to be alone. At Equus Silvania I have breakfast with a woman from Switzerland, a country with grand mountains of its own, but who comes here to ride for a week or two at a time. She tells me, “Switzerland is like a garden compared to this.”

Clive Aslet is editor-at-large of Country Life

Images of Iasi

Many of you will have read the article written by Ryan Eyre recalling his meeting with Paddy in 2009.

Ryan is now traveling through Europe on his way to take up a teaching position in  (Republic of) Georgia. I think he is in Kiev at the moment but he sent me these images from Iasi in north-eastern Romania. As we know Paddy spent a few happy years in Moldova with Balasha before the war and may well have visited Iasi.

Related article:

The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo: Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

It is all too easy get overly romantic about Romania, which is said to have come second only to Greece in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s affections. Whilst I can agree wholeheartedly with William Blacker when he describes the Romanian people as some of the most charming and civilised he has ever met, his story of his many years living in Transylvania is likely to polarise opinion about the necessity and pace of development in the Romanian countryside, but it is unlikely to disappoint as a tremendous read. 

By Tom Sawford

What can be more evocative to us than hearing the word Transylvania, and stories about a land that is still populated by wolves and bears that live in huge beech forests? Where many of the farmers still practice a form of agriculture that has changed little since the Middle Ages? A land where true Gypsies live chaotic lives dominated by music, dancing and the many local variants of clear sprit distilled from plums or pears? This is a frontier land where the kings of Hungary gave land to German Saxons in return for their promise to defend Hungary, and indeed Christendom, from the Tartars and the Ottomans, where even now the churches in the high Carpathian villages of Transylvania are also fortresses and places of refuge from deadly warbands and villains.

It was this world that William Blacker stumbled into in 1989 just at the time of the Romanian revolution, which, of all those dramatic events in that cold dark winter, was the bloodiest, ending with the summary execution of Ceausescu and his wife by firing squad after a quick trial. No drawn out Hague justice here.

After his first two relatively short visits Blacker made a decision in 1993 to move to Romania for an extended period and lived there pretty continuously until the late 2000’s. In that time he lived with a proud and hardworking peasant couple called Mihai and Maria in the fertile valleys of the Maramureş, a land that is 80% forest and is in the north of Transylvania near the border with Ukraine. It seems he was like the son they never had.

Willam Blacker demonstrates his scything skills

It was there that William bought his first scythe and learned to cut grass to make hay, stopping frequently during long working days to sharpen the scythe with a whetstone. Maria would carry lunch out to the fields and he enjoyed the opportunity of leisurely talk as they ate in the shade of a tree or a hayrick whilst they drank the local fiery spirit called horinca. A short nap always seemed to follow lunch and then it was back to work until sunset.

This pattern to his daily life in the Maramureş was only interrupted by the onset of the bitter cold, and the snow and ice of winter, which was a time when little work could be done, and was dominated by evening visits to neighbours, the downing of innumerable tots of horinca, and engaging somewhat self-consciously and half-heartedly in the formal courting processes of the countryside.

Natalia

In the end Blacker did not find a wife in the Maramureş but further south in the Saxon lands of Transylvania. He had walked through those vast and dark forests many years before and met a young Gypsy girl called Marishka. Some years later he returned to the village and encountered Marishka again, now a young woman, and her beautiful but flirtatious sister Natalia. Blacker fell in love with, or at least was under the spell of, Natalia and eventually they lived together for a brief but chaotic period. But it was the brave , uncompromising, and superstitious  Marishka that he later ‘married’. She bore him a son called Constantin who still runs with the Gypsy children chasing chickens and cuddling lambs in the village of Halma where he has a home.

This book cannot be described as a biography. Indeed, its subtitle ‘A Romanian Story  states clearly what Blacker is trying to achieve: to tell a tale. This he does convincingly with great charm and simplicity. However, we learn little about William’s other activities beyond farming and his somewhat turbulent love-life during his time in Romania.

We do know that he was concerned about the state of the buildings in the old Saxon villages following what can only be described as a mass migration of the Saxon people when Germany offered them citizenship in 1990. After 800 years of caring for their homes, village halls and churches, many wanted to seek what they thought may be a better life for themselves in the Fatherland. The twentieth century had not been kind to them as in turn they were forced to fight for the Germans, were taken away as forced labour by the Russians, and then continued to suffer under the Communist regime. The plaster on the walls of their homes crumbled; the roofs of their fortress churches leaked; and many Gypsy families occupied these buildings but in general failed to maintain them.

In Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes this Saxon village architecture as ‘… made to last and adorned here and there with a discreet and rather daring frill of baroque.’ The churches as ‘ sturdy … squat … with a tough defensive look’. In 1996 William Blacker published a pamphlet to highlight the plight of this unique heritage. This led eventually to the creation of a charity focused on the preservation and renovation of Saxon buildings. The pamphlet attracted the attention of HRH Prince Charles who is now Patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust which  supports the maintenance of this heritage.

Viscri church

Prince Charles has since purchased two properties which have been renovated, which when not being used by the Prince on his annual visits to Transylvania, are available for rent as holiday homes. Whilst Blacker makes some mention of his campaign, and tells us about one or two specific projects that he undertook in the village of Halma, he could have mentioned more about his work in this field.  Clearly Blacker was leading a double life at the time; living and working amongst the country people, but also writing regularly to friends in England about this issue and most probably traveling backwards and forwards. However, he fails to tell us about this in any detail, and perhaps gives a slightly false impression of the Romanian focused continuity of his life at that time.  It was and remains an important part of his life and the story.

Prince Charles’s guesthouse in Zalánpatak, Transylvania

What Blacker does not shy away from is some aspects of the darker side of life in Romania. Whilst his time in the village of Breb in the Maramureş was perhaps the most idyllic, village life was frequently punctuated by tragedy. Death was not far away, whether by lightning strike, freezing to death in the long winter or drowning; tragedies that were often attributed by the deeply religious but also superstitious local people to magic and curses.

The rapid change in the lives of these villagers as economic development advanced is viewed negatively by Blacker. In his opinion they exchanged the hard work and seasonal cycles of their simple but ‘happy’ lives on the land for the unceasing demands and bondage of paid employment, and new forms of tragedy as tarmacked roads brought their own forms of death to the village.

Is it quite as simple as that? He fails to mention the crude outside toilets, the domestic abuse which is common in Romania, and the inability of the people to access medical facilities quickly in an emergency. He mentions a visit to a local vet where he obtains some penicillin for Mihai citing that the absence of a doctor, but the availability of a vet, demonstrated the priorities of the local people. Was that really the case?

His descriptions of the outright racism, exploitation, crude violence and corruption of the ex-communist police towards the Gypsies dominates the last period of his life in Halma (a name he has created to preserve the anonymity of his Transylvanian village). This is not unlike Miklos Bánffy’s descriptions of how some educated Romanian magistrates, tax collectors, and estate managers exploited the Romanian peasantry in his Transylvanian Trilogy. In the end Blacker is forced to make a stand resorting to the courts and a new generation of Romanian lawyers who fought for better rights and equality for peasants and Gypsies.

A Romanian Story  is a love story: of Blacker’s own loves, his love of Romania, and, with the exception of the corrupt, its people. It is full of romance and beautifully woven images of a way of life that is quite unknown to us in the West: one that has enormous attractions for us as many seek a simpler way of life. However, he also describes a country that is undergoing huge and increasingly rapid change.

Blacker is convinced this is to the detriment of the people of the Romanian countryside. My own limited experience makes me unsure. What I do know is that even those of my friends who are highly educated, and have what we might describe as good if still lowly paid jobs by Western standards, look upon their own country with enormous disdain and frustration as they experience widespread corruption, and poor standards in the delivery of public services. My answer to them is always that it is their generation that must remain in Romania and work for change. This may not come as rapidly as they would like, but they may be able to gift a better country to the next generation.

William Blacker has lived, loved and worked for change in Romania. ‘Along the Enchanted Way is a hugely enjoyable book that I highly recommend. In that I am in good company; Paddy described it as ‘a book close to my heart’. He was very supportive of William’s work which helps us to understand some of the many attractions of Romania and the challenges that remain. Read the book but remain aware that this is one man’s view, and that of someone who was able to make the choice to leave in the end.

For all that has changed the fact is that many of the agricultural practices that Blacker describes are still utilised; bears, wolves and lynx still roam in the vast forests; and the people are indeed charming, cultured and civilised. Perhaps we can all help Romania by visiting the country to marvel at its beautiful countryside, the unique flora and fauna, the mix of Baroque and Saxon architecture in Transylvania, and the famous painted monasteries? By supporting these rural communities we may enable enough people to remain in the countryside in improved circumstances to help preserve what remains of one truly unique part of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Related articles:

Paddy Reviews – Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

Prince Charles in Transylvania

Images of Cluj by Alin Niculescu

There is one respect in which I have a definite advantage over Paddy in terms of the places he visited. I have been lucky enough to get to know well the city of Cluj-Napoca due to my regular visits. Paddy had but one night there with Angéla, but it was one of one of love and passion!

Last week I visited Bucharest for the first time. If this had been my first introduction to Romania I doubt that I would have been keen to return. To be fair it was literally a flying visit, and I did not make it right into the centre, however, it cannot compare with the genuine attractions of Cluj: its compact size; the Baroque architecture; the lively bars and restaurants in the old centre; the intimate cultural life; and its position in a valley surrounded by gently rolling hills. I have also made some good friends in this capital of Transylvania.

I have often written about Cluj, but to many of you the city probably remains a mystery. To help you get more of a feel for a place that I have come to feel strongly about, I wanted to showcase the work of  Alin Niculescu, a professional cameraman from Cluj. He has made a number of short films about the city, highlighting it over the seasons. They are just a few minutes long and if you are curious to know more about the city, they will give you a feel for its size, architecture, and position. In some scenes he also captures the relaxed and friendly mood of its citizens.

This first film is entitled Snowy Night at Cluj. This is broadly how the city looks at the moment.

Snowy Night at Cluj Full HD from Alin Niculescu on Vimeo.

This second movie shows a panorama over the city in the summer.

Cluj-Napoca from Alin Niculescu on Vimeo.

You can see more of Alin’s work on his website here

Related category:

Articles about Cluj and Transylvania

Paddy Reviews “Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story “

Paddy reviews  William Blacker’s book about his eight years living in rural Romania and is so inspired he let’s himself go “sends (my) thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions.”

First published in the Sunday Telegraph 30 August 2009

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

By William Blacker

‘Transylvania, the Banat of Temesvar, the Tatra mountains, Bukovina, Moravia, Bohemia, Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, the Carpathian range, the Maramures …’ these were the place-names in East Europe where William Blacker, a young, civilised and erudite traveller, hoped to settle and take root. The last of the names (pronounced Maramooresh) is a precipitous and ravishing Romanian region, where Blacker made his life-determining plunge into Europe, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The moment it fell, he headed for Dresden and then Prague, then further east still; he was in search of an older and wilder Europe. Soon he was hobnobbing with the descendants of Saxon families, brought there eight centuries earlier by Bela of Hungary to guard his eastern frontier from the Tartars, a transplanting which had changed everything. Seven western medieval cities had sprung up, monasteries and churches had followed, and the whole apparatus of the Middle Ages had come into being in the Carpathians.

An elderly Saxon couple took Blacker under their wing on sight, so did many others. The story teems with odd characters. One of them is an engaging, dissolute descendant of a Hungarian family who is the father of two fascinatingly beautiful girls, with a Romanian gipsy mother, with both of whom in succession William fell in love. Apart from their spirits and fine looks, these girls brought with them the whole geist of the gipsy world – its dialects, its manifold skills, its amazing singing and dancing and magic and, of course, as a tribe, its challenging knack of being forever at odds with the civic authorities. The wandering of their ancestors had brought the gipsies all the way from north-west India, through Persia and Egypt and the Levant, and scattered them over the West.

It was not just the Saxons and the gipsies that fascinated the new arrival. The Romanian influence proved equally strong. With the Magyar language to the west and Slavonic to the north and the south, and the Black Sea to the east, the Romanians speak the only Latin language in Eastern Europe, and they are proud of this linguistic heirloom. In AD 103 Trajan led his legions over his great Danube bridge, defeated King Decebalus and added the Dacian kingdom to the Roman Empire and the bas-relief of his victory was sent spiralling above his Forum in Rome and stands there still.

Romania is an extraordinary country. I remember it with great clarity, when I was 19, trudging from Holland to the Bosporus, those unending beech forests where the brooks fell from ledge to ledge, gathered in pools, or tumbled in waterfalls, where one could sleep in clearings among hollowed tree-trunks or ‘swing wells’ and scores of lambs, and be woken up by an old shepherd blowing down a bronze horn three yards long, a half-muffled and half- echo sound, like the trumpets of Tibetan shepherds. It was a world of icicles, birds calling, hayricks and scythes.

Perhaps to balance the complexities of his two love affairs, Blacker threw himself into raising funds for the upkeep and repair of the ancient buildings he had settled among. Like his friends, he was outfitted in rough white homespun and the padded and cross- gartered cowhide moccasins – opinci – which the upland shepherds wear all year.

William, who grew up on the South Downs and the north country and Ireland, brings all the skills of his unfettered upbringing to bear on Romania – horse-breaking, tree felling, haymaking and rick building – which, with a passion for the classics and literature and history, seem to have been a perfect run-in to this strange chapter of his life.

The rigours of snow covered the whole of his first winter. It was a time of rugging up soon after the early sunset and diving straight under the blankets and into The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina by lamplight; in a later season the day would end with rowdy evenings at the Krcma – drinking tavern – of amazing dancing and song. I wonder if some of the evenings revolved, as in my young days, around a klaka of a hundred crones in a barn, all with spindles and distaffs and an endless gift for storytelling? One had to look out for the prints of wolves and bears on the way home.

This is a wild and captivating story, ending in great thanks to his neighbours in Maramures and Sighisoara – we are spared Vlad the Impaler – and also to his parents, who gave him such free reign in childhood. William Blacker has written a book close to this reviewer’s heart, and sends thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions. With a change of pace these are followed by the author and his swarm of friends in a cantering troop of near-Lippizaners through the autumn beech woods. Nowadays it looks as though he might branch out much further south – down, down into Italy where, historically speaking, his nearest apposite neighbour might be Lars Porsenna of Clusium.

Prince Charles in Transylvania

By William Blacker.
First published in the Financial Times 27 August 2010.

When in early 1990 I first went to Transylvania, leaving behind the bright lights of western Europe and adjusting my eyes to the more sober tones of its eastern reaches, I could hardly believe that such a place still existed. In deep winter I crossed the northern Carpathian Mountains and came down, through misty forests and snow-covered roads, into the Middle Ages – or something astonishingly like it. Horses or oxen pulling sleighs occupied the roads, and cows and geese wandered freely. The villagers were dressed in smocks, sheepskin coats and fur hats, and had rough leather strapped to their feet, with woollen cloth wrapped around their calves held in place by thongs; footwear truly from another age, as worn by peasants depicted in ­medieval illustrated manuscripts.

I was just a few hours east of Vienna, but crossing the border into Romania was a journey back in time. I settled there, and for more than 10 years I was fortunate enough to be able to live a rural life that previously I had known only through the pages of a Hardy or Tolstoy novel.

I was astonished by the visual purity of the new environment in which I found myself. It was a country still commercially chaste, and innocent of the garish trappings of the capitalist world. There was no advertising, no neon lights, no plastic, no brash petrol stations (just a few simple pumps), very few cars – and all of the same make – that chugged and jolted over rough roads marked by the occasional rusting road sign. There were horses pulling carts, with foals trotting along beside them, outnumbering motor vehicles by 50 to one. In the villages, the houses were either of wood with carved and fretted verandas, or of brick or stone and lime-washed in soft blues, greens and ochres. All around there were huge and echoing forests, hay meadows so filled with flowers that they seemed to be part of some endless garden, and almost always, in the background, loomed the glittering Carpathian Mountains.

It was a land vividly described by Patrick Leigh Fermor in one of the great travel books of the 20th century, Between the Woods and the Water, and by Gregor Von Rezzori, whose beautiful autobiography The Snows of Yesteryear is set in Moldavia and Transylvania, and captures in dream-like prose this dream-like world. The landscape still has this ethereal quality; it stretches for miles in every direction, all unfenced just as in England in the 18th century before the land enclosures. There is nothing else like it left in Europe.

On my early journeys through this antique land, travelling was not always straightforward. There were almost no restaurants, shops, hotels, or guest houses. When walking over the hills, often guided by the steeples of village churches, I had to rely upon the kindness of strangers. Sometimes I might share a room with snoozing lambs, and discover a hen and her chicks under my bed. At other times I slept in hay barns, and my supper was milked directly from the udder of a goat that had wandered into a smoky cottage kitchen.

Now, however, life is a bit easier. There are comfortable hotels in the medieval town of Sighisoara, and excellent pensions in the beautiful Saxon villages of Viscri, Malancrav and Cund (at the end of a spectacular, winding road leading north from the town of Dumbraveni), or in the ethnically Hungarian Zabola, and Miclosoara. These villages provide locally-grown food, and sometimes, as at Cund and Zabola, of the highest quality.

Prince Charles and companions at the medieval village of Viscri, Transylvania
The Prince (left) visiting the village of Viscri

English travellers might be surprised to discover that some of these guesthouses are owned by HRH the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles first visited Transylvania in 1998, saw the wild beauty of the country, and came under a similar spell to that which captivated Leigh Fermor and others before him. He realised that this pristine central European landscape of forests, hay meadows and historic villages, until then barely touched by the brute hand of the modern world, was of international importance, and must somehow be preserved. Since then he has done much to draw attention to the predicament of what the ecologist Dr Andrew Jones calls “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe”.

Through such charities as the Mihai Eminescu Trust, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (Intbau) and the Transylvania Trust, the prince has helped in saving hundreds of houses all over Romania, and in training multitudes of villagers in traditional building techniques. It is hoped that by preserving the villages and the countryside around them, and by encouraging traditional craftsmanship and small-scale farming, the economies of the villages can recover and thrive.

As part of this approach Prince Charles has bought several endangered properties in Transylvania and turned them into comfortable guesthouses. The buildings are restored using traditional materials, with lime renders and locally-produced hand-made bricks and terracotta tiles. One of them, which the prince has owned for some years, is in the village of Viscri. The latest purchase is in the remote village of Zalánpatak in the ethnically Hungarian part of Transylvania, and opens to paying guests next month. I recently paid a visit.

Prince Charles’s guesthouse in Zalánpatak, Transylvania
Prince Charles’s guesthouse in Zalánpatak, Transylvania opens next month

As I drove further and further from civilisation, the road became narrower, rougher and leafier, and I seriously began to wonder whether I was on the right track. But then, at last, a tiny village appeared, by the side of which ran a sparkling brook shaded by tall poplars. The Prince’s house, with its simple wooden verandah and outbuildings also of wood, or lime-washed in blue, is by no means grand, but the serenity of the view from the verandah on that still summer’s evening was about as perfect as one could hope to find. It was somewhere that one can describe, without wildly exaggerating, as a heavenly place.

With his guesthouses the prince hopes to persuade discerning travellers to come to admire the old village architecture; to walk or ride from one village to another through the breathtaking but only half-tamed countryside of meadows, wooded hills, and trickling streams; to see evidence of wolves and bears, and all the other wildlife that survives here in abundance, but which in other parts of Europe is either extinct or on the edge of extinction; and to understand why Romania is such a special country.

But, in spite of Prince Charles’s influence on conservation in Romania, most parts of the historic landscape of Transylvania are being devastated by a rash of uncontrolled modern development, which worsens by the year, and is now reaching a critical point.

Many might have thought that Romania’s rural architecture had been “saved” when the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed on Christmas Day 1989, and that his deranged plan to bulldoze the villages and move their inhabitants into purpose-built blocks had been put to rest. But in reality it was only after Ceausescu’s death that the real destruction of the villages began.

Now, in the construction free-for-all of modern Romania, the country’s historic architecture is being rubbed out at a frightening pace, and the sad irony is that its destruction is being made greatly worse by European Union money pouring into the country in the form of agricultural subsidies. Those receiving these grants (often vast sums by local standards) are demolishing their old village houses and using the money to replace them with hideous and incongruous modern buildings, painted in garish orange, luminous yellow or vivid purple, often with windows of mirrored glass and stainless steel railings. It is a kitsch that is infecting the whole country. Even as I write, in a beautiful village that has until now escaped the ravages of the modern world, I can hear the demolition of a huge oak-beamed and terracotta-tiled barn in order to make way for someone’s dream villa. The 18th-century house next to it is apparently soon to follow. It is like living in southern Ireland in the 1960s, when rows of proud Georgian houses were demolished to make way for modern developments. It is almost beyond belief that the Romanian government can allow villages like those in the Saxon area of Transylvania, or in Oltenia near Campulung Muscetel, which are as picturesque as the hill towns of Tuscany or England’s Cotswold villages, to be destroyed in this way. The country’s tourist industry is bound to suffer as a result.

The modern world and EU money are doing Ceausescu’s architectural destruction for him. And, because only richer farmers are eligible for EU grants, the subsidies are squeezing out the smaller, self-sufficient farmers whose harmless methods of caring for the land naturally preserve the biodiversity of the region, and its historic appearance. Botanists will tell you that once the unique medieval wildflower meadows are gone, which now exist only in Romania, they can never be recreated.

So the message is this: Romania is a deeply fascinating country, but if you want to see and feel something of this fascination, go there soon. If the Romanian government and the EU do not speedily put their heads together to do something quickly and seriously to protect what remains of the country’s all too fragile beauty, within a few years there will be little left to see: the fascination will be gone, and the spell broken.

William Blacker’s book about his life in a rural Transylvanian village is ‘Along the Enchanted Way’ (John Murray)

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Details

Prince Charles’s guesthouse at Zalánpatak opens next month, with five double rooms costing £86 including breakfast. His other guesthouse, at Viscri, has already accepted occasional guests, but opens fully from spring 2011, with three doubles available at the same price. All profits go to building conservation work in the area. For details of both see www.transylvaniancastle.com. The closest airport in Romania is Cluj-Napoca, which has direct flights from the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany

The Dark Memories of Cluj from 1989

The Hotel Continental in Cluj (or as we know it The New York) was not only the location for a great cocktail, but outside its doors in December 1989 a massacre occurred during the Romanian Revolution.

For those of you who have followed my stories about Cluj it was a pleasant city in Paddy’s time and remains so to this day. However, like so many towns and cities in Romania, it experienced its fair share of discontent during the last days of Ceauşescu. I can’t be sure of the figures but around a dozen people were killed, mostly by the Army, and these events took place virtually on the steps of the Continental. The video below shows some of the traumatic scenes that took place twenty-one years ago this week.

On the main road out of Cluj to the south is a very interesting cemetery. Its inhabitants include not only the citizens of Cluj, but generations of soldiers from Europe’s great wars and revolutions of the twentieth century. There are Austro-Hungarian soldiers with names that seem to indicate that they came from all over that once great Empire. Romanian soldiers from the Second World War and around three hundred Russians from the struggles of the dying days of that conflict. But in a quiet corner stand some graves of those that died in the revolution of 1989, amongst them one or two young women.

As we prepare to celebrate the great gift of Christmas, let us take a moment to reflect on these momentous events, and those that continue to this day. Maybe we can give thanks for those that were prepared to lay down their lives for their friends, and for those that do so today.

This video appears to have a full Roll of Honour for those who came from Cluj and its environs who died not only in Cluj but elsewhere. It is very moving.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked

 

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

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

 

By William Dalrymple

First published in the Telegraph 06 Sep 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings' Canterbury

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

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

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

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

Balasha Cantacuzene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddy at home in the Mani

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

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

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

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

Nice weather for young ducks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Winter Afternoon in Cluj

Between the Woods and the Water

I am very fortunate to be able to visit Cluj quite often. We all know a little about the city from Paddy’s visit here during his brief love affair with Angéla in the summer of 1934. Today I find myself here again after a busy week in my company office. It is a cold overcast day, and the low cloud seems to make the sounds of the city travel a long way; the squeals of children playing, dogs barking and the famous Cluj crows cawing as they weave their way between the apartment blocks and the spires and domes of Cluj’s many churches.

Romania is not a country that many people visit on holiday, and Cluj is almost certainly not on many lists. I fail to understand why this is. You only have to visit the (open to public) Facebook page of Visit Romania and look at some of the incredible photographs to see that this country has varied and stunning scenery, and enough history on offer, from the Roman site at Parolissum, the artistic beauty of the painted monasteries of Bukovina or the wooden churches of Maramureş, and the castle of Hunyadi that Paddy visited during his walk south in the area of the Retezat on towards the Danube and the end of his journey as described in Between the Woods and the Water.

At its heart Cluj has wonderful Baroque architecture which dates from its heyday under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of these buildings have fading, crumbling facades. The absence of western chain stores means that the streets are not despoiled by those so familiar signs. I may be wrong, but this general absence of branded outlets means that many Romanians (but to be fair probably only those that can afford it) still have a very individual sense of style.

The statue of Matthias Corvinus

When one wanders just a few yards from the main roads in Cluj one enters a maze of smaller streets, many cobbled, with a myriad of bars, cafes and restaurants which all offer excellent value. Today I walked from the newly restored and very splendid statue of King Matthias Corvinus, past St Michael’s Church, towards Corvinus’ house. It is only a one minute walk. Paddy and Angéla stayed somewhere in those back streets within the sound of the bells of the church; quite where we shall probably never know. I too heard them ringing this evening as I walked to dinner.

Cluj is a very sociable place, possibly because there are something like 100,000 plus students here (an incredible number but that is what I have been told). It is also somewhere that makes you feel quite safe. I am sure it has its moments, but I have never encountered any problems and one feels safer here than in many places in England, particularly late at night.

What started out as just a short article about Cluj today, seems to have ended up as copy for the Romanian Tourist Board, and that is fine. In these difficult financial times, Romania offers a tremendous holiday alternative, and it remains low cost. So when making your plans for 2011 you could do worse than visiting this country, and possibly walking in some of Paddy’s footsteps. Romania could also do with the income. I call that a win win outcome.

Related articles:

Angéla, Paddy, István and Tom in Cluj-Napoca

Angéla and Paddy’s visit to Cluj-Napoca with pdf describing his visit

Links:

Facebook – Visit Romania



The forgotten Saxon world that is part of Europe’s modern heritage

The careful conservation of pre-industrial villages in Transylvania is Europe at its best, guarding the relics of its diversity

by Simon Jenkins

First published in The Guardian Thursday 1 October 2009

Between the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989 and the spring of 1990, half a million indigenous so-called “Saxons” fled Romania for West Germany. It was the most astonishing, and little reported, ethnic migration in modern Europe. In the seven towns and 250 villages of Saxon Land in southern Transylvania, no less than 90% of the German-speaking population packed its bags and committed eight centuries of history to memory. They drove west to a country few of them knew, enticed by the notorious “return to the fatherland” speech of the German politician, Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

The exodus left behind a deserted landscape the size of Wales, hundreds of square miles of rolling beech woods, bears, lush pastures and wild flowers, once home to the Dracula legend. Across it are dotted medieval grid-planned villages, with Lutheran churches, schools, dignified houses, barns and smallholdings, their customs and exclusivity reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Dutch. For 800 years since being invited by the Magyar kings to form a bulwark against the infidel, the Transylvania Saxons guarded their Germanic tradition. They spoke a High German said to be similar to ancient Luxembourgish. They embraced the Reformation and resisted Ceausescu’s concrete communism. All this ended abruptly in 1990.

While the people have almost all gone, the villages remain, colonised mostly by Romania’sbooming Gypsies. It is estimated that as many as a million may now occupy this part of Transylvania, possibly rendering it one day the only majority-Gypsy province. The result is the most exciting and daunting cultural challenge in Europe.

The village of Archita is lost in a Carpathian valley near the 17th-century town of Sighisoara, whose medieval walls and nine towers lie at the heart of Dracula country. The village’s fortified church stands like a castle in its midst, encircled by not one but two high walls, with musket holes and archers’ galleries intact. It was built to protect the citizens against Tartar raids and still has its ham loft with hooks numbered for each house, an insurance against sudden siege. The interior displays its galleries, Protestant pulpit and baroque canopy. The churchyard is overgrown with unpicked plum and apple trees. From the rickety church tower the geometrical village plan reaches out into the surrounding woods. Wide streets and lime-washed, two-storeyed houses reflect the equal plots allotted to each Saxon family in the middle ages. Records show continuous family tenure from the 13th century to 1990. Just three Saxons remain.

The 18th-century town hall and school of Archita have fallen into dereliction. Since the families employed few servants there are no poor houses or suburbs. There is no water or sewerage and no tarmac roads. The village well and a few desultory horses and carts are attended by attractive Gypsy youths.

To the new inhabitants of these villages, the vanished Saxons represent an alien culture. But their ghosts flit round buildings that in most cases are unaltered since being converted from wood to stone in the 17th century. They are like the hill-station residences of British India, holding its genius loci in absentia.Ghosts linger too in the countryside round about, ironically preserved by Ceausescu’s order forbidding development beyond the confines of existing settlement. This yielded one of the most effective green policies in Europe, protecting miles of meadow and forest, now vulnerable to exploitation. The roads are already littered with loggers carting away loads of walnut, beech and oak.

Unesco has designated some of the Saxon churches as world heritage sites, as has the Romanian government, but not the villages. With no money for repairs and no enforcement, such designation carries little weight. There is thus a race to save the most endangered pre-industrial landscape in Europe from poverty-stricken newcomers understandably eager for modernity. One day these villages will be as treasured as those of the Cotswolds, Provence or Umbria, but until then they must pass through the valley of the shadow of possible death.

The response of the outside world to Saxon Land’s plight is uncertain. Money is seeping back. Some departed families have returned, some unhappy in exile, some as so-called “summer Saxons”, holidaying in their former homeland and hoping to capitalise on rising property prices.

I encountered one dedicated young German, Sebastian Bethge, in the dramatic hill village of Apold, labouring alone to restore the church interior with money raised in Berlin and elsewhere. A visiting pastor had just held a Lutheran service for a congregation of nine – four Romanians, three Hungarians and two Germans.

The EU is bringing infrastructure to some villages, even as it devastates their markets for milk and hops. Unesco has its designations. The Transylvania Trust has restored the castle home of the novelist, Miklos Banffy, whose Transylvanian Trilogy is so evocative of this region’s other, Hungarian, past. Britain’s Prince of Wales has bought and restored two Saxon village houses. But most international effort goes on hands-clean “awareness-raising”, on drawing up lists, holding conferences and restoring an occasional showcase palace. The most impressive venture is the London-based Mihai Eminescu Trust (Met), chiefly supported by the American Packard foundation. Its “whole village” concept is tailored to Saxon Land, yielding more than 600 projects in the past decade. A leading citizen is engaged in each village to glean what locals – now mostly Romanians and Gypsies – would like restored if money and expertise were available.

This is exemplary conservation practice. Work is carried out by local contractors, with some 130 craftsmen trained to restore Lutheran and Orthodox churches, schools, houses and barns. Nothing is too small, from patched barn roofs and re-plastered street facades to empty properties converted to guesthouses. Plastic bus shelters and concrete bridges have been replaced in wood.

A truly minimalist venture had a Gypsy in the village of Floresti asking for, and getting, a tiled roof over an appalling hovel shared with his wife, two horses and a mountain of manure. Virtually next door is a restored Evangelical church, its sun-bathed interior one of the most serene of any church I know.

In the 13th-century village of Viscri, the Met has undertaken 160 restorations led by its local leader, Caroline Fernolend, winning it the EU’s premier conservation award. Sewers were installed and a new kiln built to supply handmade tiles, operated by a local craftsman. The trust is even reinstating apple orchards and relaying a local narrow-gauge railway.

No such conservation can work against the grain of local consent or in the absence of local skills. Imported from outside, it will stir resentment and obstruction. The root cause of the Saxons’ exodus was starvation of the modern benefits of civilisation. These cannot be denied their successors.

Yet the conservation of town and village cultures across the sweep of Europe proves that ancient and modern can co-exist to the advantage of both. Such is the disregard of the past by other world continents that these survivors will one day be respected, valued and celebrated.

The Transylvanian Saxons ranked with the Mennonite Amish, the Patagonia Welsh and the Volga Germans among the dislocated tribes of Europe. They lasted a phenomenal eight centuries, leaving intact monuments of a culture distinct and yet integral to European history. If modern European union cannot guard such relics of its diversity it is not worth the name.

Angéla and Paddy’s visit to Cluj-Napoca

Balasha Cantacuzene

In response to requests from many of the citizens of Cluj who inhabit the pages of I Love Cluj on Facebook, I have scanned the pages which recount the story of Paddy and Angéla’s 1934 visit to Cluj in full.

This is taken from “Between the Woods and the Water”, the second volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey from London to Constantinople which commenced in December 1933 and ended with his arrival in Constantinople on New Year’s Day 1935. His time in Romania captures the beauty of the landscape, and the friendliness of the people be they aristocrat or peasant. It describes a time that would be lost forever due to the Second World War, which Paddy later described in an article for the Daily Telegraph as “Travels in a Land before Darkness Fell”.

His own extended sojourn in Romania was at Belani in Moldavia with the first love of his life, a young painter and Byzantine princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, whose family Paddy describes as part of an “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world. They were intensely civilised people.”

You can find pdfs of the story of the Cluj visit as follows (Cluj part starts page 143 but 142 gives you an introduction):

p142, p143, p144, p145, p146, p147 ………………. enjoy!

Related article:

Angéla, Paddy, István and Tom in Cluj-Napoca

Related category:

‘Between the Woods and the Water’

Walking towards Byzantium

A Review of Artemis Cooper’s “Words of Mercury” by William Dalrymple published in the Guardian.

First published in the Guardian 13 December 2003

William Dalrymple relishes Words of Mercury, a selection from the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Britain’s greatest living travel writer.

Skill with the sword usually precludes much competence with the pen. For all that Sir Philip Sidney could write sequences of Petrarchan sonnets as well as lead buccaneering raids on the Spanish Netherlands, or Siegfried Sassoon write his anti-war memoirs while also winning the Military Cross, bookishness and military machismo are rarely found roosting together (after all, it’s no secret, as the old joke goes, that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms).

The great exception to this rule in our own time is Patrick Leigh Fermor. For though he is one of our finest prose stylists and – since the death this summer of his only possible rival, Norman Lewis – without question our greatest living travel writer, he was also responsible for one of the most audacious special operations coups of the second world war.

Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander of the Nazi occupation forces in Crete, is published for the first time in Artemis Cooper’s wonderful new anthology of Leigh Fermor’s work, Words of Mercury. The story is a famous one, and in the film version, entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, Paddy was played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde. But in Leigh Fermor’s own account, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE party dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the Cretan highlands and thence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida”: “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said: ‘ Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Socrate’. It was the opening lines of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off … The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

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

For as well as being a war hero, one of the world’s great long-distance walkers, and as tough a traveller as you could find, Leigh Fermor has always been a writer of great intelligence, sensitivity and profundity. Here he is, for example, describing a French Cistercian monastery, where he says he discovered “the capacity for solitude and the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life. For in the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”

Words of Mercury is a cornucopia, full of the rarest gems, but it is also a rather odd book: part collected journalism, part greatest hits anthology, with a few other surprising odds and ends thrown in, such as a memoir about the eccentric Scottish genealogist Sir Ian Moncrieffe of that Ilk. This tells of Moncrieffe’s huge pleasure in discovering that he was directly descended from “The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, Monster of Csejthe [who] was convicted in 1610 of the slow murder – in order that their blood might magically preserve her beauty – of more than six hundred girls.” In a similar mood, there is also a letter from Paddy to the editor’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, and a footnote directing the reader towards the “strongly recommended” work of the military historian Antony Beevor, who just happens to be the editor’s husband (though in fairness, it appears that this warm endorsement comes from Leigh Fermor rather than Cooper).
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Life by the scenic route: Max Hastings reviews ‘Words of Mercury’

First publushed in the Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 2003

Paddy Leigh Fermor has lived one of the great picaresque lives of the 20th century. He left a minor public school under heavy clouds with no money and a penchant for wandering. From 1934, for five years, he sustained a lotus existence in eastern Europe and the Balkans, by charm, genteel begging and Byronic good looks. His parents must have despaired of him during this longest gap year in history.

Words of Mercury by Artemis Cooper

One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters observed in 1939: “It’s going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it with friends.” Leigh Fermor pursued this policy with notable success. His 18 months as a British agent in Crete made him a legend, not least for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe, theme of the later film Ill Met By Moonlight.

After the war, Paddy resumed his leisurely course. One can no more imagine him occupying an office desk, queueing for the weekly envelope, than some marvellous beast of the African bush taking up employment as a security guard. He wandered the world until, in 1950, he suddenly produced a small literary masterpiece about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree.

Thereafter, at irregular intervals, he has written travel books and fragments of autobiography. On his visits to England, rural grandees and metropolitan hostesses fight for the privilege of his society. The home he created with his wife Joan on the south shore of the Peloponnese at Kardamyli is a small work of art in its own right, owing much to their pets, or – as he writes here – to four-footed “downholsterers and interior desecrators”. How he loves language and words!

What is charm? In Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people. He treats Bulgarian peasants and English dukes exactly alike. John Betjeman once spoke of Paddy “sitting there listening to you, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he waited to hear what you might say next”. Generosity of spirit is among his notable qualities.

Read more here!