As a young man fresh out of high school, I tramped around much of British Columbia and Alberta before landing my first newspaper job. I rode in the coal tender of a CPR train (with permission of the engineer) and often slept out rough, one time in an abandoned cabin and another on the floor of a railway station in a tiny mountain village. None of these adventures, however, compare with the life that Patrick Leigh Fermor led as he walked across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, in the 1930s.
Fermor lived to the age of 96, dying in 2011, but not before he’d written three books on his epic trek, along with eight others covering various acts of derring do during a charmed life. It was a life that could not be lived today, and his books transport us into another world – the Europe of the interwar years when deposed nobility still lived in castles across Hungary and Transylvania, peasants led lives almost unchanged from feudal days, and the spectre of fascism was only beginning to rear its head.
Fermer begins his trans-European trilogy with A Time of Gifts. He is eighteen and he has shipped out from London for the continent. The book takes him up the Rhine and down the Danube to Hungary. The next, Between the Woods and the Water, sees Fermer enjoying the hospitality of counts and barons as he’s passed from hand to hand into Bulgaria. The third, The Broken Road, was published after his death, and takes the reader to Mount Athos, in Greece, where another chapter of this unlikely life would soon unfold.
These and other books by Fermor have now earned him acclaim as the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century, ahead even of such stalwarts as Jan Morris or Paul Theroux.
Fermor grew up with relatives, his father being an official in British India and his mother too busy to rear her son. His early years involved him in one scrape after another, although probably none as serious as he pretends them to have been. An affair with a tradesman’s daughter led to him being asked to leave King’s School, Canterbury. When he decided to wander Europe and needed a passport, a helpful clerk suggested he list his occupation as student.
The books were written a half century after the sojourn. It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether his observations are those of a whippingly smart young man or the reflections of an old hand on the road who has seen it all. His keenness for detail, be it the clothes of the women he admires in Vienna and Budapest or the church architecture he encounters in the back reaches of Rumania, almost tire the eye and mind of the reader.
Fermor is keen to pass on the history of the lands through which he traveled. He’s fascinated by the waves of humanity that have swept in from the Asian steppes and tells us a lot about how eastern European became what it is today. There’s also sadness for the fates of the people in the ruling castes who befriended him. Many, he learns later, either die in the Holocaust, fall in battle, or have their possessions taken from them when the Iron Curtain entraps the lands through which he had passed.
A mountain trek is described in lyrical terms:
Cliffs and bands of rock jutted from the trees and sometimes the woods opened to make way for landslides and tumbled boulders and fans of scree. There was the scent of pine-needles and decay. Old trunks had rotted and fallen and the pale leaves of the saplings which replaced them scattered the underworld with various light and broke it into hundreds of sunbeams.
Tattered maps and old notes guide Fermor through his accounts, along with a prodigious memory that recalls the smell of cigar smoke in the library of a mountain estate and the taste of fresh fish cooked over a shepherd’s fire.
Fermor loved Rumania and a Rumanian countess, and lived there before the Second World War. He served in the British Army and led a secret mission that kidnapped the German commanding officer of the Greek island of Crete. He settled in Greece after the war and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
Paddy Fermor (as he was known to friends) visited “faraway lands and people of which we know little” (the phrase used by Neville Chamberlain to justify the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich). Today, the world comes to Canada in the form of refugees and other immigrants. We cannot expect them to be like us; Fermor would have been disappointed – and had little to write about – if he had found mere clones of Englishmen in the valley of the Danube.