A long time ago, a friend introduced me to the story of the British writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor. At the age of 18 in 1933, being both charming and restless, he decided to walk alone overland from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. He planned, if that is the word for it, on sleeping in barns and haystacks and living on weekly £1 notes that constituted his allowance. The money was to be sent in monthly allotments to British consulates along the way. A friend also undertook to write letters of introduction to people along his route up the Rhine and down the Danube.
Of course, Paddy, as he was called, impulsively left London for Holland in early December and in the first part of his trip, faced the winter rigors of Germany and Austria. He managed to charm people along the way into putting him up as well as depending on the generosity of farm folk for a meal and use of their barn. Three hundred and eighty-seven days later, some of them spent driving around the Transylvanian countryside with local aristocrats, including a married lady-love, Fermor arrived at the Golden Horn in Constantinople (He never called it Istanbul.)
Fermor lost the journals he kept on his travels, though one of them was found and returned to him in the late 1960s, when he was in his 50s. It was enough to set him to write the first of two books about his trip. Needless to say, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were more than just travel stories told by an 18-year-old.
They are accounts of what he could remember of his encounters as well as beautiful, literary descriptions of places, personal feelings and historical minutiae of places few in Western Europe or North America had ever heard of.
He gives a feeling for the gradual tightening of the totalitarian state being devised by Hitler, a post-mortem on what was left of the landed aristocracy in Eastern Europe following World War I and the antagonisms between the welter of peoples in the successor states to the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
When he died at age 96 in 2011, he left enough notes for others to construct a third book of his travels through Bulgaria and the monasteries of Mt. Athos, called The Broken Road. I won’t bother you with other, later details of his life, except to say that a good friend of his was Ian Fleming and you can’t avoid seeing someone named James Bond emerge from Paddy Fermor’s style and exploits.
Six months after Fermor died, a 30-year-old British professional writer, Nicholas Hunt, left London to retrace, as best he could, the steps Paddy took 78 years earlier. He wanted to see what was left of the world of 1933-4 and what wasn’t.
Hunt is a man of his time. Instead of letters of introduction to local aristocrats, he accessed a website whose members were willing to grant a free overnight stay and meals in hopes that they, in turn, would get the same reception when and where they might travel. They were artists, farmers, students, and generally friendly people. He lined them up and kept in touch with a cellphone. Money was available from a debit card and support came via a crowdfunding campaign. Right away, we can see how the world had changed.
Hunt’s walk took 221 days. He started on the December anniversary of Fermor’s trip and he encountered the same nasty winter weather as his predecessor. Since he was travelling through the EU, he encountered none of the border formalities that Fermor had, until he reached Turkey. Hunt saw the results of Hitler’s ambitions in rebuilt cities, a concentration camp memorial site and busy autobahns he had to avoid. He also noted the results of a lot of ethnic cleansing and deportations of communities where Paddy had once found friends and shelter.
As well, some of the geography had changed, especially in terms of the hydro dams along the Danube that had drowned places and towns described by Paddy. Even so, there was still a lot that hadn’t changed. The gypsies were still disliked by their citizen neighbors; the Hungarians and the Romanians still remembered old grudges, country folk were still friendly, especially to one who tried to learn a bit of the local tongue, the forests were still there, though they seemed almost cultivated in the West, and it was easy to avoid getting lost if one had a GPS.
Occasionally, Hunt is struck by the beauty, or the horror or the oddity of a situation and his style approaches Paddy’s, but his is more a rendering of the road and how the scene compares with that of nearly 80 years ago. His journalist’s training shows through when he seems to be interviewing people. The distance between the Hook of Holland and Istanbul remains the same and walking it took a toll on Hunt.
The weather made a lot of it turn into work; Hunt is not looking for sympathy, I feel, but trying to be honest that this was not a joyride, but often hard, and painful walking, turning down rides from friendly drivers. Dieters faced with a laden table at a friend’s house would understand his emotions. Finally, Hunt went on this trip, not to find his Hellenistic vocation, as had Paddy, but to commemorate the work of a travel writer whose style most approached literary distinction. Sometimes Chatwin or Theroux could hit that level, but not as consistently as Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Curl up with A Time of Gifts and let Paddy do the walking while you do the marveling. Read Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water if you want to see what happened to his route 80 years on. Read Artemis Cooper’s biography if you want to know who kidnapped a Nazi General in WWII Crete and smuggled him safely to Cairo. Finally, there is a Patrick Leigh Fermor blog.