At the age of 18, Leigh Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople He set off on 8 December 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power in Germany, with a few clothes, several letters of introduction and a few books. He slept in barns and shepherds' huts, but also was invited by landed gentry and aristocracy into the country houses of Central Europe. He experienced hospitality in many monasteries along the way. Two of his later travel books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), were about this journey. The final part of his journey was unfinished at the time of Leigh Fermor's death, but was published as The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos in September 2013 The book draws on Leigh Fermor's diary at the time and on an early draft he wrote in the 1960s
There are fewer schlosses in this book. The explanation is that after using a good many introductions to nobility across Austria, Hungary and then Transylvania, he had entered Bulgaria. Barons with Germanic titles and estates didn’t feature in this land of peasant villages and Orthodox monasteries, which had only recently emerged from centuries ‘under the Turkish yoke’. And Leigh Fermor was now crossing formidable mountain barriers – the Balkan and Rhodope ranges – as winter approached. To survive, he had to rely on the food and shelter offered to him along the way. He is in no way condescending about his hosts. This strange, penniless English boy walking to Constantinople had nothing to offer them but his curiosity, and they were as interested by him as he was by them.
‘Paddy’s travel writing is often brilliant and moving, always humane. And yet its sheer descriptiveness, its concentration on things and people exotically “other” when contrasted to some assumed English norm, does put it in a category.’ The guide here is Vesna Goldsworthy’s Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (1998). As she shows, writing imaginative or purely fictional work about the Balkans has been an overwhelmingly British habit. Byron can be said to have set it off. But the genre reached its zenith in the late 19th century and early 20th. Anthony Hope’s Ruritania seems to be located in Germanic territory rather than further south-east, but other writers – ‘Sydney Grier’ (Hilda Gregg), Dorothea Gerard, Bram Stoker etc – floated their dreamlands far down the Danube and into the ‘bloodthirsty’ Balkans. Later, John Buchan, Lawrence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Bradbury were among those who tried their hand at brutal, gaudy Balkan Ruritanias.