In 1933, at the age of 18, with an allownce of a pound a week, the young Englishman Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on a marathon journey, much of it on foot, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul.)
He travelled, as he later wrote, "south-east through the snow into Germany, then up the Rhine and eastwards down the Danube ... in Hungary I borrowed a horse, then plunged into Transylvania; from Romania, on into Bulgaria."
He witnessed the Nazis on the rise in Munich, boorishly drinking in a beerkellar. He slept in barns, monasteries and castles, and sampled old European opulence, through a network of obliging aristocratic contacts. He slept in makeshift shelters, sometimes in company, sometimes alone, and was glad of lodgings in the humblest of peasant abodes.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s benevolent, unsnobby curiosity and openess to experience made for an adventure, that happilly, he deemed worth recording. He made some firm friends on the journey, some of whom he looked up decades later on return visits.
In 1977, 44 years after that first trip through Europe, A Time of Gifts, the first of his accounts of that European peregrination was published. He had taken a little over a year to reach his destination but his account ends in the Bulgarian town of Burgas, not quite Constantinople. As one reviewer perceptively noted, getting his readers - rather than himself - to that destination proved the greater challenge, given the extraordinary delay between the initial pen to paper and publication.
In 1986, Between the Woods and the Water appeared, which ended with the message, "To be continued." Leigh Fermor was a notoriously slow writer, tormented by inability to write and bedevilled by an unexpected lack of confidence. Yet the persona of his books is ebullient, resilient, purposeful. He is thinking out loud, as it were, sharing his companionable reflections with his readers, as though we are walking the canal paths and mountain path-ways with him. But he also brings the reader down some very esoteric roads, in terms of architctural detail, genealogy and history, be it church, political or war-related – he is particularly keen on the Thirty Years War.
Now comes – well, sort of - the long-awaited sequel, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos. The travel account portion of the book remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 2011, at the age of 96. But a book, nevertheless, has been fashioned with great ingenuity by his literary executors, his biographer Artemis Cooper and veteran travel writer, Colin Thubron. The book is based on two texts left behind, the author’s account of the last stages of his European journey, written relatively early in the 1960s, a journey which almost brings him to Constantinople.
The reader finally meets his lover Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, 12 years his senior, with whom he would live subsequently on the family’s Moldavan estate until the outbreak of the Second World War. The couple met in Athens, and the affair is central to the Leigh Fermor legend, although he would marry Joan Eyres Monsell, who predeceased him.
A second section in The Broken Road draws from his only surviving diary, based on his time at the monastery of Mount Athos in Greece, to where he repaired immediately after his European journey had ended. Vibrant yet poised too when required, Leigh Fermor painted brilliant pictures in prose. Indeed he was an artist too on that great adventure, sketching portraits of friends from a long vanished era, which comes to life every time a new reader opens A Time of Gifts.