"In the winter of 1933 eighteen-year-old Patrick ("Paddy") Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople, a trip that took him the better part of a year. Decades later, when he was well over fifty, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two works now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, delightful, and beautifully-written travel books of all time. The Broken Road is the long and avidly awaited account of the final leg of his youthful adventure that Leigh Fermor promised but was unable to finish before his death in 2011. Assembled from Leigh Fermor's manuscripts by his prize-winning biographer Artemis Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, this is perhaps the most personal of all Leigh Fermor's books, catching up with young Paddy in the fall of 1934 and following him through Bulgaria and Romania to the coast of the Black Sea. Days and nights on the road, spectacular landscapes and uncanny cities, friendships lost and found, leading the high life in Bucharest or camping out with fishermen and shepherds: in the The Broken Road such incidents and escapades are described with all the linguistic bravura, odd and astonishing learning, and overflowing exuberance that Leigh Fermor is famous for, but also with a melancholy awareness of the passage of time, especially when he meditates on the scarred history of the Balkans or on his troubled relations with his father. The book ends, perfectly, with Paddy's diary from the winter of 1934, when he had reached Greece, the country he would fall in love with and fight for. Across the space of three quarters of century we can still hear the ringing voice of an irrepressible young man embarking on a life of adventure"--
To recap: Patrick Leigh Fermor set out, at the age of eighteen in 1933, to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as he continued to call Istanbul), having dropped out of boarding school. The first two volumes of his account brought him to the Iron Gates, the gorge on the Danube where Bulgaria meets Romania. This book set out to be the account of the last 500 miles of his journey; but his account of reaching Contantinople is missing, save for a few fragments. He arrived there shortly before New Year 1935; his account suddenly takes up again, this time in full detail, as he leaves Constantinople for Greece, where he has resolved to visit Mount Athos, the ecclesiastical semi-autonomous state that was then and still is a centre for Eastern Orthodoxy, with twenty monasteries which have been continuously occupied for some 1,800 years. Why he chose to do this is not recorded, though it seems to have been part of the process which cemented his love of the Balkans and their peoples in him. The last 80 pages of the book is his day-by-day account of his visit to each of the monasteries, the monks he met and the physical aspects of the Athosian peninsula. He seems to have treated his four weeks on the peninsula as a sort of literary retreat, reading Byron and working at his writing.
The account of his visit is of particular interest because in many ways Mount Athos is a closed society. No women live on the peninsula, and indeed access is barred to women. Furthermore, any male visitors have to secure permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to visit in advance; numbers are strictly limited and visits are time-limited. PLF's account therefore makes an interesting pendant to his European odyssey and prepares readers for his later accounts of other travels around Greece, 'Mani' and 'Roumeli'.
In his second book, 'Between the Woods and the Water', PLF began to apply some retrospective reflections to his travels. This is much more pronounced in 'The Broken Road'. It is the perspective of an older man looking back on the exploits of his youth. This is added to by Thubron and Cooper, who fill in some of the gaps in their introduction and in some of the footnotes. We find out, for example, the identity of 'Angela', with whom he shared a brief relationship in Transylvania; and we find out how it was that he was able to recover his last lost notebook, the "Green Diary", some thirty years after writing it. It is connected with the fate of the woman with whom he lived in Romania before the war; and without dwelling on events outside the scope of the book, we get an idea of how the divisions of Europe affected people in all walks of life and of all backgrounds for so many years.
Before Mount Athos, though, there was Bulgaria and another excursion into Romania. Bulgaria was a revelation to PLF, as it was a step into the former Ottoman Empire; and the influence of Islam was completely new to PLF. Throughout, he exercised his ability with languages and made connections between the opposed worlds of East and West; in particular, his account of the prejudice shown by Bulgarians to Romanians and vice versa is recounted with humour. His final stretch of his walk along the Black Sea coast seems to have perhaps been the hardest part; it is an area little appreciated even now, and it is possible that he gave up writing his notes out of sheer exhaustion.
This might be seen as an unsatisfying end to the story started in 'A Time of Gifts' - we barely get the merest glimpse of Constantinople, which for three books we have shared as a goal with PLF. It might be said that the reader is denied the closure of the completion of that journey, and the Mount Athos account, because it is inserted without any justification or motive, could be seen as scant compensation. But this would be unfair. PLF's 'Great Trudge' across Europe was just the beginning of his story, and the concluding volume of his account is aptly named 'The Broken Road' (a name selected by Cooper and Thubron). But the man's story continued; the road may have been broken, but it was not shattered. In later life, PLF counted people like Ian Fleming and Lawrence Durrell as friends, as well as many in Greece, where he and his wife lived for part of each year. 'The Broken Road' may not be the perfect travel book, but in setting the scene for the continuing tale of Patrick Leigh Fermor, it is a vibrant and worthwhile account.
An odd disappointment is the final section on Mount Athos, the text here apparently as he wrote it at the time. The style is flat, insight is lacking, the scholarship missing, though the actions are similar, namely wandering through exotic history-laden terrain and being made welcome by the high and low. Characteristic here is his description of one monk after another as "a nice chap". The Paddy L-F qualities are evidently kneaded into his texts painstakingly over many years, in part the product of the process of recall. What we read when we read Leigh Fermor is something quite remote from his actual experience.
The text also has gaps where he doesn't remember what happened.
(the pre-WWI world). Not quite as good as the first too but still a great read.
What a start to a well travelled, curious and effictive life with an influence on so many including Robert Kaplan of Balkan Ghosts fame. Looking forward to reading more of PLF.
The Europe of the 1930’s was very different to what we find today, northern Europe had been shattered by the first world war, but very little had changed in southern Europe when Fermor walked through it. By the end of the decade, this land would also be affected by the next war that would sweep across Europe.
I don’t know if it is his youth, bonhomie or gift for languages, but what comes across is his natural ability to get along with people from all levels of society, moving from palaces to shepherds huts, hovels to seedy hotels he observes the people and the places with a fresh and untainted eye. His engagement with the people and not just be an observer is what makes this book special too. He is the recipient of the local’s generosity too, from shelter and food and invitations to the parties and celebrations, or just the time spent smoking in others company. He also manages to survive on the budget of £1 a week too, an amount today that wouldn’t even get you change from an item out of a vending machine.
The final section is taken from his notes on his visit to Mount Athos. It is a Greek peninsula which is home to a number of orthodox monasteries. It is a time for reflection, and the monks are generous with their time, food and conversation with him.
Cooper and Thubron claim that the draft that they picked up and edited for publication has ‘scarcely a phrase that is not his’. That may or may not be the case, as it has the heart of a Fermor book, but compared to the first two volumes, it doesn’t quite have the soul. This is not entirely their fault as they are both fine authors; Thubron is one of my favourite travel writers. But the long process that Fermor took, along with the time gap between the events and the writing may not have helped.
That said, I am glad that they have made the effort to bring this to publication, because any book by Fermor is worth reading, and this is a worthwhile conclusion to his ‘great trudge’ across Europe.