As a young man, Patrick Leigh Fermor couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to do with his life. He’d left school, peace-time soldiering had proven unsuitable, and his attempt to take lodgings and become a writer was more difficult than he imagined. So he decided he needed to try something different:
To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp—or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth! All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!
Fermor’s plan was to walk across Europe, from the Netherlands to Constantinople. The year was 1933, but Fermor did not write this account of the journey until 1977. This book, the first volume, covers his travels from the Netherlands to Hungary.
Although Fermor did not make a lot of plans for his journey before he began, the few plans he made did not exactly come to fruition. He did travel mostly on foot, with a few train rides when it seemed appropriate. And he did consort with some peasants, but he also stayed in castles when offered the chance. He “tacit principle,” he writes, is “to flinch at nothing on this journey.” Fermor is open to whatever type of experience that comes his way, and that openness, which helps him throughout the journey, also makes him an engaging writer.
As Fermor journeys across Europe, he finds again and again that people are willing to help him, whether by providing a simple meal and a bed in a barn or offering a luxurious dinner and room in a fine home and writing to friends along the way who will offer the same. The journey is very much a time of gifts, enabling Fermor to get by on little money and few firm plans. One humorous incident occurs when Fermor arrives at the home of a friend of a previous host and senses that these new hosts are uneasy at his arrival. Uneasy as they are, they do not fail to be hospitable. Only later to the letters of introduction arrive, alleviating everyone’s concern but not quite erasing the awkwardness.
Of course, not everyone Fermor encounters is kind and helpful. His bag gets stolen, and he meets a few Nazis but doesn’t spend time among them. He arrives in Vienna during a battle, an incident that reminds readers that the sort of journey he’s taking soon won’t be possible at all.
The book is not merely a travelogue in which Fermor tells what he did and when he did it. He uses his travels as a springboard to muse on art, culture, history, language, and whatever else crosses his mind. Like his unplanned journey, Fermor’s narrative winds around, taking readers on detours that are unexpected but hardly ever out of place.