I’ve been intending to read A Time of Gifts: On Foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople for quite a few years now but have never got round to it. Perhaps it’s the beginning of spring which has turned my mind to travel but also reading about new books about Patrick Leigh Fermor also made me think that now was the time to catch up with this renowned travel writer.
In 1933 at the age of 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on an epic walk across Europe. Adolf Hitler had just come to power in Germany and the continent would soon be ravaged by war. Leigh Fermor set of at the end of December with only a small amount of money and carrying a rucksack containing a few possessions.
Although he kept extensive notes about his journey, he didn’t start writing this book until the 1970s and it was first published in 1977, over 40 years after the events described. In the intervening period, Leigh Fermor had become a war hero (kidnapping a German Commander in Crete) and an established travel-writer. A Time of Gifts has none of the signs of immaturity one might expect of a teen-aged traveller although I suspect that even at 18 he already showed many of the qualities that would be evident in his later work.
Not many people would choose to set off on such an epic journey in the middle of winter, but Leigh Fermor embarked on a Dutch steamer sailing from Tower Bridge to the Hook of Holland in mid-December. Wearing an ex-army great-coat and hob-nail boots, he disembarked in Rotterdam and began his trudge across Europe in the flat lands of Holland, walking along the polders and canals in a bitterly cold east wind.
He entered Germany a few days later with some trepidation. Years of anti-German propaganda dating from the First World War had conditioned Patrick to expect a certain image of the German people; “the bristling paterfamilias, his tightly buttoned wife, the priggish spectacled children and the odious dachshund reciting the Hymn of Hate among the sausages and the beer-mugs – nothing relieved the alien strangeness of these visions”. Experience soon convinced him otherwise however and he writes, “I very soon found myself liking them. There is an old tradition in Germany of benevolence to the wandering young: the very humility of my status acted as an Open Sesame to kindness and hospitality”.
In Cologne, after looking around the famous twin-spired Cathedral, Patrick met up in a pub with a group of barge-men and with the thought of hitching a life on a barge on his journey down the Rhine, ended up being offered a free berth all the way down to Coblenz. His account of the river voyage is magical, the bargees singing Christmas songs accompanied on a mouth-organ while the little towns along the bank slip past, appropriately illuminated for the season.
The German hospitality offered to this poor student traveller is consistently good throughout his journey. Even on Christmas Day in an un-named village near Coblenz, Patrick stopped at an inn for lunch only to be swept up in a huge family party, waking up the next morning on somebody’s sofa with a huge hangover.
Some travel books today major on the humorous aspects of the journey. There is humour in A Time of Gifts, but a large part of Patrick’s diaries seem to consist of detailed commentaries on the architecture and culture of the places he visits. For an 18-year-old he seems a remarkably knowledgeable commentator on ecclesiastical architecture: , “Curves like the slits in a violin began to complicate and soften the zigzags of the gables, and, from the burgeoning crow-steps, florid finials and elaborated obelisks were soon shooting up. Structurally, the new arcades were mediaeval cloisters still, but the detail that proliferated all over them turned them into elaborately sheltered loggias for a prosperous laity”. I don’t know whether this sort of thing was inserted by the 60-year-old Leigh Fermor as he crafted this book from his old diaries, but throughout the book, there seems to be descriptions written by a far more mature person.
As Patrick made his way through Germany he noticed increasing number of Nazi enthusiasts. Generally speaking, the people he met were disdainful about the Nazis and had no love of Hitler. In Munich however he found that . . .
. . . the proportion of Storm Troopers and S.S. in the streets was unusually high and still mounting and the Nazi salute flickered about the pavement like a tic douloureux. Outside the Feldherrnhalle, with its memorial to the sixteen Nazis killed in a 1923 street fight nearby, two S.S. sentries with fixed bayonets and black helmets mounted guard like figures of cast-iron and the right arms of all passers-by shot up as though in reflex to an electric beam. It was perilous to withhold this homage.
The German people generally had a high regard for Britain, not least because of our Empire and our Navy, which seemed to attract admiring words wherever he went. No doubt a few years later it would have been a different story.
Also in Munich Patrick encountered the German love of huge meals as is shown in this glorious description of a beer-hall,
Huge oval dishes, laden with schweinebraten, potatoes, sauerkraut, red cabbage and dumplings were laid in front of each diner. They were followed by colossal joints of meat – unclassifiable helpings which, when they were picked clean, shone on the scoured chargers like calves’ pelvises or the bones of elephants. Waitresses with the build of weight-lifters and all-in wrestlers whirled this provender along and features dripped and glittered like faces at an ogre’s banquet. But all too soon the table was an empty bone-yard once more, sound faltered, a look of bereavement clouded those small eyes and there was a brief hint of sorrow in the air. But succour was always at hand; beldames barged to the rescue at full gallop with new clutches of mugs and fresh plate-loads of consumer goods; and the damp Laestrygonian brows unpuckered again in a happy renewal of clamour and intake.
Patrick travelled with very little money in his pockets. Every so often he was able to pick up £4 from a British Consulate, presumably mailed to him by his parents, but usually he relied on very cheap lodging houses and the hospitality of some contacts made in Britain and contacts picked up along the way. Occasionally he was able to find casual work chopping wood or helping out with other mundane tasks, but in Vienna, a new friend called Konrad suggested that he offered his services door-to-door as a sketcher of portraits. At first Patrick was very unsure about this, but egged on by Konrad he found a ready market and found that fifteen minutes with pencil and paper could earn him enough for his evening meal and accommodation. This chapter gives some lovely cameos of German domestic interiors and the people who lived in them.
Overall, this is serious travel-writing, offering a snap-shot of a Europe about to be ravaged by war and enjoying a brief respite of relative prosperity and peace. Readers can only admire Leigh Fermor’s courage in setting out on a journey spanning a continent with so little in the way of resources. His trust in good fortune has been an inspiration to many other young travellers and for someone like me who likes to tie up all the loose ends before he departs on a journey, it represents a very different but much-admired approach.
The book ends with the author in the mid-Danube region of Czechoslovakia. A second volume, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), takes us through to Romania. Leigh Fermor never wrote the third volume which would have described the route to Constantinople. However, a third volume has now been produced by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper based on Leigh Fermor’s diaries and was published in September of last year (2013) as The Broken Road,
Readers may also be interested in Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, and also Nick Hunt’s recreation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey documented in his book Walking the Woods & the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn (published 20 March 2014 and which I will soon be reviewing).