Day 367: Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Cover for Between the Woods and the WaterBest Book of the Week!

In December 1933, 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk from Amsterdam to Constantinople. He wrote about the first leg of this journey years later in A Time of Gifts, ending the book as he crossed a bridge from Czechoslovakia into Hungary. In 1986, he finished this memoir of the second leg of the journey, which begins on that same bridge in Esztergom the evening of Easter Sunday and ends in the early autumn of 1934.

In the second part of the journey, Leigh Fermor breaks his rule of making the entire trip by foot and also spends much of the time in more luxurious surroundings than he did in the first part. As he makes his way through Hungary and the Romanian border, as it was then, into Transylvania, he is passed by his growing list of acquaintances and friends from one kastély to another, spending days with a learned professor discussing languages and history, borrowing a marvelous horse from a count for part of the journey across the Hungarian plain, staying for weeks with a new friend named István in Romania, and dallying with a young married woman on a motor trip with István to Prague.

Leigh Fermor does not spend all his time in such exalted circles, though. He happily camps out with gypsies, spends the night outside a shepherd’s cottage, is hosted by a Jewish family after an afternoon spent discussing the Hebrew language, sleeps in a cave, and camps on an island in the Danube near a village inhabited by resettled Turks. On his way, he describes the scenery in lyrical terms, explains the ancient history of each area he passes through, and tells us about the people he meets and the sights he sees. His chronicle is supported by the notebooks he kept and a nearly photographic memory of a remarkable journey. In addition, he tells us that he revisited some of the areas 20 years later.

This memoir is beautifully written. Although relatively unacquainted with formal learning, having abandoned military school at that early age, Leigh Fermor has an astonishing range of interests, and he tells us all about them. He is constantly plunging into dusty tomes in his hosts’ libraries but is just as ready to dance and drink the night away. This is a delightful series of books, still full of the youthful joy and enthusiasm Leigh Fermor must have felt when he was 19 and 20 years old.

In the Appendix to this book, Leigh Fermor reflects on how many of the sights he writes about in this book are now under water, for the Danube valley that he traversed and the torrents and currents that once rushed along it as well as the Iron Gates themselves have been subsumed by a huge concrete dam and hydro-electric power plant. And of course there have been other causes of destruction since 1934.

Unfortunately, The Broken Road, the unfinished manuscript of the final portion of the journey, is being republished but is not available from Amazon until March of next year! (It may be available used from some other site.) I am so disappointed to find the book never gets us all the way to Turkey but stops in Greece.

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