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In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn
In 1933, the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out in a pair of hobnailed boots to chance and charm his way across Europe, like a tramp, a pilgrim or a wandering scholar . The books he later wrote about this walk, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and the posthumous The Broken Road are a half-remembered, half-reimagined journey through cultures now extinct, landscapes irrevocably altered by the traumas of the twentieth century.
Aged eighteen, Nick Hunt read A Time of Gift and dreamed of following in Fermor s footsteps. In 2011 he began his own great trudge - on foot all the way to Istanbul. He walked across Europe through eight countries, following two major rivers and crossing three mountain ranges. Using Fermor’s books as his only travel guide, he trekked some 2,500 miles through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. His aim? To have an old-fashioned adventure. To slow down and linger in a world where we pass by so much, so fast. To discover for himself what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, adventure, the mysterious, the unknown, the deeper currents of myth and story that still flow beneath Europe’s surface.
Patrick Leigh Fermor started his celebrated walk from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn in 1934, at the age of 20, wrote down his account of it in middle age and was still tinkering with the final volume when he died three years ago. The first two volumes, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, had beenpublished three or more decades before. PLF struggled to complete the trilogy, as well he might. The walk was a distant event and each time he got out the story it was as a different writer and, to an extent, another person.
The editors of The Broken Road hesitated before publishing a book that its author had never seen. There were only a few notes on the time in Istanbul, and nothing at all on Turkish Thrace. The one surviving diary covered almost the last stretch (Bulgaria and Romania), but it had never been collated with the account set down later, which it contradicted at various points. “The present volume is not the polished and reworked book that he would have desired,” the editors admit, “…but by the time of his death he had expended so much labour and thought on the texts that their relegation to an archive would have seemed sad and wrong.”
Unquestionably. Despite the occasionally awkward insertions made at later dates, The Broken Road is a magnificent book, brimful of wonderful descriptions of people and places and peppered withintriguing insights about the Slavs, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Gypsies, the Sarakatsani, the Orthodox Church and all the vestiges of the rich tangle of Balkan culture.
The boy-hero of the tale, as remembered by the man he became, is a charming companion – adventurous, brave, infinitely curious, yet modest and often inconspicuous. He attempts communication with everybody, in French or German or Bulgarian or Romanian, which he scarcely knows, and even Greek, based on a schoolboy’s knowledge of the classics. We find him in conversation with Moldovan merchants, Macedonian fishermen, Romanian whores and Greek abbots. In Bulgaria he falls in love with Nadejda, a laughing, mischievous, liberty- loving girl whom any student traveller then or now would love to love – and later keeps company with Rosa, the 40-year-old manageress of an empty hotel, who launders his filthy gear and plumps his pillow before he sleeps. These friendships are related with feeling and discretion. There’s a generosity of spirit in him that cannot be missed, and it must have been this that earned him a welcome in so many different homes, from hovels to mansions.
In Bucharest he is fêted by the rich and famous, even after appearing at their grand residences muddy, travel-stained and shod in battered boots which become a character in their own right. Those boots! What could they have been made of; were they really as extraordinary as they appear? At some point along the way they are whisked off for repair by a friendly cobbler and come back newly soled and studded, but it’s not long before they are once again an object of shame, when setting out for the opera in Bucharest. A lost bootlace is replaced by a shepherd, who fashions a new one from a strip of sheep gut scarcely dry.
The Bucharest chapter throngs with important personages familiar only to students of Balkan history, and perhaps not even to them. There’s a strain of snobbism – conspicuous in an account where the great majority of favoured characters belong to the tribes of the common man – but PLF is not unaware of it. After a list of Cantacuzenes and Mavrocordatos, Callimachis and Mavroyenis – names with “a resonance of splendour and remoteness” – he fears the reader “might jump to the conclusion that I was suffering from an acute access of class feeling”. “So might I,” he concludes disarmingly. “There’s probably worse to come.”
There isn’t. As soon as we’re on the road again, PLF’s ineffable landscapes are back, with the sense that it is not only the walker who is on the move but the whole countryside, with its great forests and rolling scarps and turbulent streams and booming trees. A ploughed hillside “uncoils” its furrows, the track “sinks into a deep combe”, valleys “twist upward”. On the Black Sea shore, “at the end of plunging tunnels of trunks and branches… the European continent fell to fragments in spikes and small tufted islets far below, standing in translucent, pale green water, which darkened as it receded from the rocks… and fled away to the skyline. The almost still water was stirred by incoming creases as slight as a breath on silk, just enough to hem the join of rock and water with a thin bracelet of white.”
This incessant movement of the land – often embracing the aeonian unfolding of geological ages – is the distinctive feature of PLF’s hymns to the elusive loveliness of the natural world. Even towns may share in this sense of perpetual motion. At Plovdiv, built among steep hills, “down their flanks the roofs poured, with houses hazardously perched on ledges and the rock projecting in blades and spikes: round and through them rose and fell a ravelled skein of cobbled alleyways… crisscrossed by buckled and twisted tiger- stripes of sunlight.” Now 300 words are required to describe the passage of a stork over the tabletops: “an emblematic bird on a sail… dipping along the lane like a sigh of wonder”. “There is much to wonder at!” he exclaims elsewhere. The words might serve as a motto for his works, or for his life. Architecture, costumes, trades, politics, faiths, greetings and all the idiosyncrasies of peoples are grist to the mill of his mind.
Readers may find themselves wondering what in The Broken Road was written in the 1960s and what was added later. Which passages belong to the period in his nineties, when tunnel vision forced him to work with a microscope, at the rate of a few lines at a time? Occasionally additions are signalled. “I am almost irresistibly tempted to slip in one or two balloons from a later date in the pages that lie ahead,” he writes in the chapter on the Wallachian Plain, “… I shall see how it goes.” It is risky. Neither the tentative mood nor the detachment from the text suits this impulsive, passionate writer.
The final chapter of the book, relating a fortnight spent in the monasteries of Mount Athos, is taken from his diary of the time. The editors must have considered before including a footnote to the body of the book that does not directly follow, geographically or chronologically, what went before. Here are simply the impressions of the young traveller sojourning among the monks, without help, intellectual or stylistic, from his older self.
There are clumsy passages that the mature writer might have struck out. There are moments of juvenilia and of sudden homesickness, the admission after all that two years of much solitude and discomfort and sheer foreignness were sometimes hard to bear. The characters – even the wise Father Basil, who takes the young man under his episcopal wing – do not spring alive in the manner we have learnt to expect. The descriptions of the monasteries fail to sparkle and surprise. Yet the signs of an unusual intelligence and the skill to express it are already present. Under the “huge white mass” of Mount Athos he sees “splashes of fretted sunlight falling on the flagged and stepped pathway”. A portrait of Patriarch Joachim III shows “an energetic old man with a streaky beard, his bosom hung with ribbons, crosses and archiepiscopal insignia the size of jam tarts, and his black frock crusted with stars and orders”. The size of jam tarts.
It is the forlorn ambience of the remote community of Konstamonitou, oddly, that stays in the mind. A handful of aged monks, cut off from the world, religiously keeping to The Rule, give the young traveller a cool welcome. They dine on “vegetables and sardines, raw and swimming in yellow oil, with stone hard loaves”. But afterwards out comes the tsipouro and a merry time is had, with everyone crammed into the visitor’s little room. The next day the monks are at the gates, urging him not to leave.
Nobody – not the lovely Nadejda nor the appealing Rosa nor the magnates of Wallachia nor the students of Varna – wants him to leave. You can see why. He picks up the basics of whatever language in a trice, sings along in Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek and even Russian, dances with the best and, when unoccupied, reads Byron in English and Balzac and Dostoevsky in French or scribbles in his diaries for hours. Helped on the road by a charcoal burner, he makes the man a gift of his precious Bulgarian dagger.
The glorious Black Sea cave scene cannot be avoided. He has lost his way at night in a storm and falls into the sea among the rocks of the Bulgarian coastline, cutting his leg and losing his torch. Hemmed in by unfathomable pools and unclimbable cliffs, he wonders whether the end has come. At the last gasp there is firm sand underfoot, an inlet and a cave lit from within. Inside he finds a group of Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen, sheltering together amid the seamen’s clutter and a flock of sheep. They build up their fire, pour liquor down his throat and wrap him in fleeces. A meal of fresh mackerel and a few rounds of wine are followed by one of the most remarkable performances of dance in the pages of literature, starting with a pseudo- erotic hasapiko (bumpkin fun) and ending with a tzeibekiko of astonishing gravity, athleticism and grace.
“The downward gaze, the absorption, the precise placing of the feet, the sudden twirl of the body, the sinking on alternate knees, the sweep of an outstretched leg… with the arms all at once outflung in two radii as the dancer rose again in another slow circle, gathering pace till he spun for a few seconds at high speed and then slowed down in defiance of all the laws of momentum – these steps and passes and above all the downward scrutiny were as though the dancer were proving, on the fish scales and goats’ droppings underfoot, some lost theorem about tangents and circles, or retracing the conclusions of Pythagoras.”
The climax comes when the dancer picks up a circular wooden table in his teeth, whirling it around with perfect control before setting it down with cups and platters still in place. The account of this episode, among the fish scales and goats’ droppings, leads into a lengthy enquiry about the origins of the rebetiko style, to which both the hasapiko (butcher’s dance) and the zeibekiko (Turkish zeybek) belong. To PLF it represents “that amalgam of Greece and the Orient which is covered by the word ‘Byzantine’, appertaining to the city which was the heart and soul of the Greek world for a thousand years… For me these dances epitomize the last two hundred years of Byzantium, when the Empire, pillaged and dismembered by the Crusades, survived with the certainty of catastrophe looming at the end. The steps seem to symbolize all the artifice, the passion for complexity, the hair-splitting, the sophistication, the dejection, the sudden renaissances, the flaunting challenge, the resignation, the feeling of the enemy closing in, the abandonment by all who should have been friends, the ineluctability of the approaching doom and the determination to perish, when the time came, with style.”
Penniless wayfarer, war hero, champion drinker and songster – these are configurations of the man in his time. Beyond them lies a unique capacity for the delicate transcription of imaginative thought and passionate attention into images and ideas that astonish and delight.
If it was a risk for an old man to revise the work of a younger self, it was a risk, too, for Nick Hunt, author of Walking the Woods and the Water, to follow in the footsteps of a man whose walks and words had become legendary. As a walker Nick Hunt did just fine: two-and-a-half thousand miles, two hundred and twenty days, with two pairs of trousers – one of them left in shreds on the summit of Romania’s Mount Retezat – and a pair of boots that fell apart as he reached the Bosphorus.
He had more ugliness to endure than PLF – not from bullies or brickbats, but from the peri-urban wastes, the detritus of building sites and the industrial sprawls. He had to walk too often on tarmac, and his ankles and shins blew up, as well they might. All he saw of Stuttgart was “a pile of rubble” and “a demolition zone enclosed by a chain-link fence”. Munich looms in “a mass of towers bristling on a grey horizon”.
Yet: “Europe’s wilder edge seldom felt far away. Even in the most urban and industrialized countries of my walk, it took only a touch of snow to revive a sense of fairytale magic”. Boars and bears still roamed the forests, and beavers were busy on the rivers. In every country he encountered “kindness and generosity that Paddy would have recognized”. There weren’t many picturesque little inns for a bob a night and no invitations to grand mansions, but a handy website provided him with a string of addresses where a free bed was available to foot travellers, “a modern expression of… an ancient tradition of hospitality”.
In place of PLF’s charcoal burners, cobblers and counts, Nick Hunt meets the folk of our late-capitalist age, with the links to the old cultures snapped by the experience of Soviet rule and the sudden, intense commodification of life that followed. “Everything is going tovanish!” PLF had written, and itwasn’t far from the truth. The people offering beds by website are amiable and cheerful souls, looking to enliven their existence with unexpected visits. But the struggles of the post-communist Balkans to find their way in a Europe that elevates the avaricious have thrown up some unsavoury phenomena. In Bulgaria, “everyone is selfish here, obsessed by money”, he is told. The mutri (“the nouveau-riche gangsters… the shock troops of free-market capitalism”) ruled the roost in the 1990s and set the trend forwhat came later.
The most memorable section of the book is the passage through the Romanian mountains. Lost in deep snow, sodden by violent thunderstorms, mapless and trackless, the man battles admirably on. A tiny woodland couple give him a bed and a proper meal, but the next day the rain continues inexorably. Coincidentally, or not, the account of this adventure features the most Fermorian of his writing. “Cloud still clogged the valleys and the watercolour mountain peaks diminished in grey gradations… the swollen river funnelled between cracked and fissured cliffs, brightly veined with small cascades, and defiles led to mysterious ravines I felt a sudden sadness to think I would die without ever exploring. The world felt incomprehensibly large, full of unknowable secrets.”
Perhaps it is for such insights that people undertake these formidable journeys, and perhaps Nick Hunt arrived at the Golden Horn knowing a closer kinship with his hero. PLF had seemingly run out of inspiration when he reached Istanbul, leaving nothing but a few bland notes. “It was up to me,” Hunt reflected, “to fill in the gaps that Paddy had left.” This he does with panache, finishing: “The mosques lit up like gentle grubs as the sun went down over Europe… the cry of the gulls was joined by the cry of minarets, the sound welling hugely over the city, merging the continents.”
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