In November 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor was eighteen years old. His scholastic career having been disrupted by being expelled from school, he was studying privately in the hope of being admitted to Royal Military College Sandhurst when he realised that being a peacetime soldier held no attraction. So, in need of a change of scenery, Leigh Fermor decided to “abandon London and set out across Europe like a tramp”, or as he expressed it to himself, “like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth”. Within a month, Leigh Fermor had put his idea into action. He left London for Rotterdam and from there travelled – mostly on foot – to Constantinople. This is an account of the first part of that journey, from London to Hungary, during the winter and early spring of 1933 and 1934.
First published in 1977, the book begins with an introductory letter to Xan Fielding, whom Leigh Fermor met when they were both SOE officers organising the resistance in German-occupied Crete during World War II. While together they talked about their lives before the war. The book has its genesis in those discussions with Fielding, and is coloured by Leigh Fermor’s subsequent visits to the places he had visited on his journey as a young man as well as his experiences during the war. The effect of this is to layer the narrative. It’s not just the tale of a precocious and enthusiastic teenager with more romantic notions than may have been good for him, it’s also the story of the man who went on to live a life of adventure in his 20s and of the older man who looks back on that life.
Leigh Fermor slept in barns and in inns, as well as in manor houses and castles. He mixed with labourers, priests, soldiers and aristocrats. He saw and described gothic churches, abbeys, coffee houses, small villages and great cities. In Germany, he witnessed the early days of Hitler’s rule. In Vienna he came to understand the significance of the breaking-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leigh Fermor's narrative chronicles an adventure in a setting which still exists, but in a society that is long gone.
The book is not a light read. It covers geography, history, politics, literature, linguistics and architecture, sometimes in a broad sweep and sometimes in minute detail. If a detailed description of a ceiling in Melk Abbey sounds unappealing, then this may not be the book for you. Some parts of Leigh Fermor’s journey I found more interesting than others, but overall this was a very worthwhile read.
As I read, I thought that Leigh Fermor may have been the most precocious eighteen year old in history. The three pages he spends detailing all of the poetry he knew well enough to recite aloud while he walked made me roll my eyes. However, the older Leigh Fermor was aware of his deficiencies. At one point he ponders how he may have struck an older, cultured, aristocratic man in whose house he had spent a few days: “precocious, immature, restless, voluble, prone to show off, unreliably bookish perhaps …..”. In truth, Leigh Fermor was probably all of those things, but he was also curious, resilient and adventurous. I’m very glad to have read about the first part of his big adventure. I look forward to reading the second instalment, Between the Woods and the Water, and the third instalment, as yet unnamed, which is apparently to be published in 2013. Although Leigh Fermor died in June 2011, the final instalment is to be complied from a draft and from his diaries.