Thursday 14 December 2017

Book review: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

The last guide from the greatest travel writer of them all – Leigh Fermor

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos Patrick Leigh Fermor Murray, £25, hbk, 384 pages, Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

After 25 years of silence, with the exception of a volume of miscellaneous pieces (Words of Mercury, edited by his eventual biographer Artemis Cooper) 10 years ago, the long-awaited third book chronicling the legendary walk across Europe by the 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor has finally appeared.

Although this superb stylist of travel writing did not set down an account of his pilgrimage until 40 years after the event, a draft of this final section was found to predate the now renowned previous titles, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which came out in the 1970s and 1980s and cemented his reputation.

Leigh Fermor seemed unable to finish this third volume, now titled The Broken Road, to his satisfaction and thus conclude the account of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, and beyond, in 1933-35. He had put aside an eight-inch pile of manuscript only partly revised at his death in 2011 at the age of 96.

Leigh Fermor's youthful journey proved so rich in experiences that long after the World War II years – he was a genuine hero in Crete – and books on the Greek islands and Caribbean, he finally sat down to describe it.

He proved to be a master at mixing with different strands of people, being as much at home around a camp fire of Roma gypsies as in the library of a great mansion. "There is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster," he wrote. "And back again!" And he described it all in detail.

The teenager had left London on a Dutch ship with a rucksack containing pencils, notebooks and poetry books. With a family allowance of £1 a week, picked up at postal drops, he lived as best he could wherever he found himself, spending nights in dosshouses, barns and monasteries – as well as castles to where he might have had an introductory note.

He once told the writer William Dalrymple, who visited him in later years at his home in the Greek Peloponnese, that his youthful travels taught him history, literature and languages.

"I didn't go to university, I went travelling instead," he said.

He thought to keep a diary and turn it into a book and The Broken Road is from the surviving part of what he called his "green diary", saved by a Romanian girlfriend who handed it to him when he located her again in the 1960s when Eastern Europe began to open up again.

These remembrances take the reader as far as the monastery of Mount Athos, the ghostly peak of the Holy Mountain. Although the Constantinople excerpts are sparse, as if he had wished to hurriedly move on, or as if the great city was a disappointment, the preceding narrative is full of enthusiasm for people and languages, history – a great canvas of a lost world set down in glorious descriptive prose.

We travel with him from the Iron Gates to the Danube, the Wallachian plain, Bucharest and Varna and go dancing by the Black Sea. It is all vintage 'Paddy', great wine decanted.

This completion of the trilogy was eventually bound together by Cooper and Leigh Fermor's literary executor, the acclaimed travel author Colin Thubron, but, always the perfectionist, the author laboured over the typescript and was still making corrections up to a few months before his death.

The Broken Road contains the shape and scent of his labours and confirms Leigh Fermor's place as the foremost travel writer of his era and marks a final halting place in a life of exhilarating adventure.

Joe Kennedy

Irish Independent

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