- Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/ National Library of Scotland
- Patrick Leigh Fermor in Bulgaria, 1934
In 1933, expelled from school and having nothing better to do, Patrick Leigh Fermor, an 18-year-old Englishman, set off from London determined to walk across Europe from “the hook of Holland” to Istanbul, which, romantically, he always referred to as Constantinople. He wore a pair of hobnailed boots and carried with him a change of clothes, a pocket knife, a flashlight, a notebook, and the Oxford Book of English Verse and Horace’s Odes. He had a travel allowance from his parents of one pound a week.
Nearly 30 years later, Leigh Fermor had become famous as a war hero (one of his exploits, the capture of the German commander of Crete, was made into a movie) and as a travel writer, and Holiday magazine asked him to write an essay on the joys of walking. Leigh Fermor thought back on his youthful journey and began writing. And writing. And writing. After another 15 years, in 1977, he finally produced a book, A Time of Gifts, the first in a projected trilogy, that chronicled the journey as far as Hungary. The second book, Between the Woods and the Water, appeared in 1986 and left Leigh Fermor at the Iron Gates, a gorge on the Danube River between Romania and Bulgaria. And there he remained. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, the trilogy incomplete (though it’s inspired a generation of British travel writers).
- New York Review Books
- At last!
But wait! Not so fast! In 2008, Artemis Cooper, Leigh Fermor’s biographer, discovered in the office of his British publisher a manuscript that covered the last stretch of the journey, mostly across Bulgaria (with a detour to Bucharest). Leigh Fermor set to work editing it. As you might have been able to guess based on how slowly he produced the first two volumes, he was something of a perfectionist. After his death, Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron took over and pulled together The Broken Road.
The Broken Road picks up exactly where Between the Woods and the Water ends, at the Iron Gates. But though Leigh Fermor did eventually make it to Constantinople, the book doesn’t. Instead it ends, abruptly and weirdly, mid-sentence, in Burgas, a Bulgarian town on the Black Sea 50 miles from the Turkish border. Cooper and Thubron pad the ending a bit by printing the contents of Leigh Fermor’s travel journal, which contains a few notes about Constantinople (much partying and a romance with a girl named Maria) and a more detailed account of a hike around the monasteries of Mount Athos, the Greek island known as the “holy mountain.”
(The story of the journal is more interesting than its contents. A year after his epic walk, Leigh Fermor returned to Romania and fell in love with a princess named Balasha Cantacuzene and lived with her for several years. When World War II broke out, he went back to England to enlist. Cantacuzene somehow held onto his journal through the war and the rise of communism when she and her family, like all aristocrats, had to vacate their estate with just a few minutes’ warning; she managed to return it during a clandestine meeting in 1965.)
Both A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water are basically perfect, a mixture of history and descriptions of places that no longer exist interspersed with adventures of the sort you would expect from a man who would have a romance with a princess and go on to capture an enemy general (and bond with him by reciting Greek poetry). Leigh Fermor comes off as the luckiest bastard on Earth. Wherever he goes, someone always finds a spare bed and produces an extra plate at the table. He has a gift for languages and an abundant curiosity, which help him get along with both peasants and aristocrats. He’s equally happy staying in small huts or enormous country houses where he has the full run of the library. He makes some wonderful, high-spirited friends. There’s even a glorious pageant when he crosses into Hungary! (It’s Easter and the Archbishop is visiting, but still.) This would all come off as deeply annoying and Elizabeth Gilbert-like (please, please admire my charm and good fortune!) except that Leigh Fermor is old-school and not prone to analyzing his own personal growth, and his prose is so rich and beautiful. It demands to be read slowly, sometimes twice in order to absorb it all (and to look up unfamiliar words, like “pargetted” and “dados,” and phrases in Latin and French that you would know if you were a properly educated person, at least by the standards of an upper-class Englishman in 1933).
The Broken Road shows its seams a bit more. In their introduction, Cooper and Thubron write that Leigh Fermor originally intended to call the book “Parallax”, “a word (familiar to astronomy) that defines the transformation that an object undergoes when viewed from different angles. It was a measure of how acutely he felt the change in perspective between his younger and older selves.” The most obvious is that the older Leigh Fermor had way more time to spend in libraries studying the history and civilizations and architecture of eastern Europe, which leads to pauses in the narrative for scholarly digressions.
More importantly, the older Leigh Fermor knew that World War II and communism would destroy the world he was exploring, and, in many cases, the people who lived in it. “Many of the people in this book, as it turned out,” he writes, “were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning, to explode during the next decade and a half, in unhappy endings.”
- Eamonnb McCabe
- Leigh Fermor in 2008
For Leigh Fermor, though, his long walk was the beginning of many things that would resonate throughout the rest of his life. In the town of Plovdiv in Bulgaria, for instance, a friend takes him to see the old Byzantine churches in the countryside. It would turn out to be the start of a lifelong obsession. But was he remembering right?
These peculiar and delible frescoes performed their quiet task of introduction and discreetly withdrew. For that matter, were the domes tiled or were they sheeted in steel or lead—or both, as I boldly set down a moment ago? Or is it the intervening years that have tiled and leaded and metaled them so arbitrarily? Doubt springs. It doesn’t matter, but it is odd that memory should be so evasive about the faces and the scene of this momentous interview and so crystalline about irrelevances: the green shade of the overhead vine outside, for instance, and, on the slabs beneath, the random stars and diamonds of light; and, a bit later, sitting under a huge plane tree talking about Les Fleurs du mal. One is only sometimes warned, when these processes begin, of their crucial importance: that certain poems, paintings, kinds of music, books, or ideas are going to change everything, or that one is going to fall in love or become friends for life; the many lengthening strands, in fact, which plaited together, compose a lifetime. One should be able to detect the muffled bang of the starter’s gun. This journey was punctuated with these inaudible reports: daysprings veiled and epiphanies in plain clothes.
(How could someone who wrote this exquisitely in a draft consider his work not ready for publication?)
Another question: how could he remember at all? At various points, his logbooks were stolen or disappeared. His letters home to his mother were neglected in a vault for decades before they were destroyed, unseen since their deposit. At some points, he writes, the only contemporary documents of his journey are his passport and the map on which he marked where he slept every night. But neither of these things would help him recall, in such precise detail after several decades, the sight of storks migrating south across the Tunja River.
“All these dispersed fragments,” he writes, “cohere in a jigsaw puzzle which is far from complete; but, by driving my memory back, by coercing and focussing it on one particular gap, I find that the missing pieces often slide to the surface and dovetail.”
Nearly eighty years after his original journey, Patrick Leigh Fermor was still a lucky bastard.
But he’s delightful company, and generous about sharing his adventures. In The Broken Road, there’s the aforementioned stork migration, and a wonderful scene when, after a long day and most of an evening hiking along the coast of the Black Sea, Leigh Fermor stumbles into a cave where a group of Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen are spending the night. They share their food with him, he shares a bottle of raki, and then the Greeks begin to dance. I won’t even attempt to paraphrase Leigh Fermor’s description of what happens next. You really need to read it for yourself.
A sidenote: In The Broken Road, Leigh Fermor writes about the beginning of his lifelong fascination with Greece. He served there in the war, wrote two travel books about it, and eventually lived half the year in a house in the southern Peloponnese with his wife Joan, who died in 2003.
The southern Peloponnese happens to be the setting of Before Midnight, the final installment of another great trilogy. In the early dinner party scene, one of the guests is an elderly widowed Englishman named Patrick. It struck me in the moment as a strange coincidence (although Leigh Fermor was known to his friends as Paddy), and then I forgot about it in the middle of the horrible marital fight that makes up the second half of the movie. But afterwards, I was too devastated to go back into daylight, so I sat for a little while longer in the dark watching the credits, and I saw listed as one of the filming locations, “Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house, Kardamyli, Messinia, Greece.” This was deeply pleasing to me. Ever since I first read A Time of Gifts about ten years ago, I have always thought it would be one of the most delightful things in the world to have dinner with Patrick Leigh Fermor.