I have been luxuriating in the final installment of fabled travel writer (and war hero) Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic journey from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. The 18-year-old set off in 1934 to walk across Europe. He slept in haystacks, stables, inns and castles, befriended (really, he obviously enchanted and charmed almost everyone he met, so interested was he in them, their histories, myths, languages) gypsies, peasants, aristocrats – many of whom were to disappear in the conflagration that enveloped these lands just a few years later.
In 1977 he published A Time of Gifts, one of the most famous travel writing books, describing setting off from Britain and walking across western Europe, to the gates of Budapest. He loves being free, being young, exploring his esoteric interests. In 1986 Between the Woods and the Water was published to great acclaim, detailing his adventures in Hungary and finishing at the Iron Gates in Rumania. Then there was silence, writers block appeared to have settled, and he worked away at the final book, creating and destroying over and over. Leigh Fermor died in 2011 at the age of 96, revising his last book on his incredible journey until a few months before he died.
The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos has just been published, it is as exquisite, elegiac and moving as the others, stuffed full of fascinating cultural lore and fantastical characters and happenings. Edited by two of his literary executors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, this new volume takes him through Rumania, following the Danube down through Bulgaria to Turkey and the gates of Constantinople. Where he stops. Sadly, we don’t get the Leigh Fermor view of Constantinople, although the editors have included a short but utterly perfectly formed piece on his trip to Mount Athos – filled with holy men, Eastern Orthodox monasteries, and vile weather.
Once again, there is the sense of a rich glowing world and its people about to disappear. The idea of his isolation is hard to credit in these days of constant umbilical technological connection. The lands, their people and various histories are fascinating and the characters he meets up with and shares time and meals with are vital and charming. Interestingly and rather movingly, Leigh Fermor often breaks the thread of the narrative to discuss his trouble with remembering people and events contrasted with his very vivid memories of the meal he that there, the boots he bought here and the girl who smiled at him 60 years before…