A couple of years ago I saw a remarkable documentary about a remarkable man, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who during the Second World War, led and daring raid on the German forces in occupied Crete, capturing the General stationed on the island and taking him into Allied custody. Then over ninety, he could still tell a good story about his travels, and I made a note to read his books.
To my shame it has taken a while to get around to this, but I am now enjoying his account of a walk from London to Constantinople, a tale so rich in detail that it sprawls over two volumes. A Time of Gifts is the first, chronicling how in the winter of 1933, at the age of eighteen, he set off from Britain with little more than a rucksack, a walking stick and a sturdy pair of boots.
The trek gets off to a good start: in Hook of Holland he stops for a coffee after getting off the boat. As he’s leaving, the landlord wants to know where he’s headed:
I put on my greatcoat, slung the rucksack, grasped my stick and headed for the door. The landlord asked where I was going: I said: “Constantinople”. His brows went up and he signalled for me to wait: then he set out two small glasses and filled them with transparent liquid from a long stone bottle. We clinked them; he emptied his at one gulp and I did the same. With his wishes for godspeed in my ears and an internal bonfire of Bols and a hand smarting from his valedictory shake, I set off. It was the formal start of my journey.
After following the Rhine upstream through the Netherlands and Germany, stopping in beer cellars and wine houses – “It is impossible, drinking by the glass in those charmingly named inns and wine-cellars, not to drink too much.” – he reaches Austria. In less than five years time the country would be annexed in the 1938 Anchluss, succumbing to the horrors of Nazism that he had already seen in his walk through Germany. In the early months of 1934, the old order of the Habsburgs lives on in the castles that line the Danube, and armed with letters of introduction, Fermor is invited to stay with the lower nobility from an Empire that disintegrated a mere fifteen years before.
They certainly have a lot to talk about, and Fermor soaks up stories about the old kaiserlich und königlich:
As I listened, the white gloved hand of the Lincoln green footman poured out coffee and placed little silver vermeil-lined goblets beside the Count’s cup and mine. Then he filled them with what I thought was schnapps. I’d learnt what to do with that in recent weeks – or so I thought – and I was picking it up to tilt it into the coffee when the Count broke off his narrative with a quavering cry as though an arrow from some hidden archer had transfixed him: “NEIN! NEIN!”, he faltered. A pleading, ringed and almost transparent hand was stretched out and the stress of the moment drove him into English: “No! No! Nononono – !” I didn’t know what had happened. Nor did the others. There was a moment of perplexity. Then, following the Count’s troubled glance, all our eyes alighted simultaneously on the little poised silver goblet in my hand. Then both the Countesses, looking from the torment on the Count’s face to the astonishment on mine, dissolved in saving laughter, which, as I put the goblet back on the table, spread to me and finally cleared the distress from the Count’s features too, and replaced it with a worried smile. His anxiety had been for my sake, he said apologetically. The liquid wasn’t schnapps at all, but incomparable nectar – the last of a bottle of liqueur distilled from Tokay grapes and an elixir of fabulous rarity and age.
As much as it is a cliché to say that Fermor writes exquisitely about a world that’s now gone forever, it happens to be true in this case. He also links us to the world of Jaroslav Hašek and Joseph Roth, and for that I will always be grateful.