The Broken Road. From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos – Patrick Leigh-Fermor.
I’ve found another book to add to my list of Desert Island Books. I would go to great lengths to pack this Travel classic, it’s a gem. It’s the long-awaited final book in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s trilogy, and compiled posthumously by his Literary Executors and editors, Colin Thubron (another brilliant travel writer) and Artemis Cooper (PLF’s biographer).
As a very young man, in his late teens/early twenties PLF walked through many of the Balkan countries aiming for Constantinople/Istanbul; he always referred to the fabled city as Constantinople.
The walk takes place starts in Rumania, then moves south into Bulgaria, and he lands up at the shores of the Black Sea, at the end of December 1934; almost in Constantinople, but not quite. This is where his travel diary ends. Thereafter he moved on to a pilgrimage for over a month at Mount Athos , in Greece. I didn’t read this section, because the Library was hounding me to return the book.
Can you believe that in the mid-1930s he could walk at will in the mountains and through valleys in the rural Balkans, sleeping outdoors, or occasionally with friendly rural folk in farm cottages, subsisting on about two shillings per day? And, please know, he drank and smoked with gusto, and ate well. Granted, there were days when he ate frugally on a hunk of stale bread and some raw onion. Probably a good thing he was walking in remote areas! But this said, he often remarks on the smells he encounters: human sweat, wood smoke, animal dung – we’re very precious about smells these days. Europe in the 1930s either poured on vast quantities of cologne, or else, simply didn’t notice the background odours.
His diaries, anecdotes and reflections are fascinating. They’re crammed with detail about the different ethnic groups he meets; snippets of centuries old historical background, Turkish conquests, long-forgotten wars, countries that vanished off the map post-WWII when Europe was divided by the Allied victors.
The overall picture is a brilliantly coloured tapestry of folk dress, fezzes, embroidered waistcoats, Turkish turbans, horse riders, village taverns and squares, simple home grown food and wine; communicating sometimes in broken Bulgarian, or fluent French or limping German, or seriously limited Bulgarian ( no spika da Eenglish in 1930’s Bulgaria) he mixed with British diplomats as he moved around. He visited the haute mond of Bulgarian society, via introductory letters and social contacts, and the even more elevated haute mond of French-speaking ,cultured, intellectual, Bridge playing Rumanian society, and by complete contrast, with traveling Gypsies, shepherds, fishermen and ordinary folk.
There’s a wonderful description of him being chauffer driven in his hosts’ Packard limo, swathed in a fur rug, to explore the town where he goes drinking in a humble tavern and later, homeward bound in the Packard, passes a drover herding his cattle who recognizes PLF as his drinking companion of a scant hour previous!
The world was a wonderful melting pot in those days, before it became homogenized under the deadening hand of Post-War Communism and Coca Cola, and Capitalism on the other. I wish I’d been there and seen it for myself, but at least PLF wrote down his vivid verbal snapshots, which is better than faded sepia photos.
He writes marvelously and at length about his precious travel notebooks and enumerates their invaluable contents, upon which the book is based. And oh! the drama, when a madman steals his rucksack containing the vital notebooks! Fortunately the missing rucksack is tracked down, but the saga played out over long, tense hours.
If you enjoy travel books and superb writing, then make sure you read this book!