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Winter Reading: The Broken Road

January 9, 2014

It’s 1933. You’re an 18-year-old English school leaver. You haven’t a clue what you want to do with your life. So you decide to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. You persuade your parents to give you an allowance of £1 a week, and off you go. You communicate by letter every month or so, and wait anxiously for every consignment of funds at postes restantes in obscure towns.

We British think of the gap year as a chance to see the world for the first time. To strike out on your own, to take a few risks – aided by air tickets from Mum and Dad and Skype conversations at cyber cafes along the route. Thus hardened, you go on to University, and thence to your career.

Not Patrick Leigh Fermor. His journey took him via Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and though Turkey to Constantinople. From there he went to Greece, to the monasteries of Mount Athos and onwards into an idyllic relationship with a Romanian Princess several years his senior.

Six years after the journey began, he left the princess in Moldavia to join the army on the outbreak of the Second World War. He found fame when he led a mission by the British Special Operations Executive (fore-runner of the SAS) to kidnap a German commander in occupied Crete. Together with a team of British operatives and a number of Cretan partisans, he abducted General Heinrich Kriepe. After a hair-raising journey in which he and his comrades  evaded 22 German checkpoints, he finally deposited the general in a motor launch bound for Egypt.

After the war, Leigh Fermor’s exploits were celebrated in the film Ill Met By Moonlight, in which he was played by Dirk Bogarde.

The Broken Road is an account of the last leg of his transcontinental trek – through Bulgaria, into Romania and finally into Turkey. It’s unfinished – he was working on it at the time of his death. His literary executors stitched the manuscripts together, and added his diarised account of his visits to the monasteries of Mount Athos.

The author’s journey contained all the elements of the traditional backpacker experience. Walking across mountain ranges and through passes, staying at cheap lodgings, the occasional boat trip. Yet at various points along the way he drops in on aristocrats and diplomats to whom he has been introduced through family connections and his own charm in securing onward introductions. So one week he sleeps in a cowshed, and the next in the apartment of a German diplomat in Bucharest, or at the British Embassy in Sofia.

Why do I bother to review a book that will never reach a mainstream audience?

First, because it was my introduction to a character reckoned by his many admirers – including an acquaintance, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, whose books I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog – as one of the finest travel writers of the 20th Century.

Also – and the timing on my part is accidental – he provides a fascinating portrait of two countries very much in the news in Britain as we debate the wisdom of unfettered movement of labour within the European Union.

Bulgaria and Romania, the countries we are most concerned about today, were themselves on an uncertain journey in the 1930s. In true Balkan fashion, they had been part of one empire or another for most of recorded history, and their component peoples frequently at each other’s throats. The Bulgarians twice ruled over substantial empires, before first the Byzantines and later the Ottomans brought them to heel. Most recently the region had emerged from the collapse of Habsburg Empire, which itself had supplanted the Ottomans as the principal power in the region.

By arrangement of neighbouring powers, they, along with neighbouring Serbia, found themselves with foreign monarchs – or at least members of the great network of interrelated dynasties that also produced a Danish/German member of the Greek royal family who eventually became the consort of our own dear Queen Elizabeth – a lady whose bloodline is testament to the enthusiasm with which the apex of the establishment pyramid has always welcomed foreigners, provided they have the requisite pedigrees.

The Romania and Bulgaria Leigh Fermor visited were countries with many ethnic groups – Roma, Byzantine Greeks,  Jews, Germans, Russians, and Turks to name a few. His encounters with these groups, who would occupy quarters of towns and cities, he documented vividly. The closer he moved towards Turkey, the stronger the Ottoman influence. He visited mosques as well as churches gleaming with centuries-old icons – a testament not only to the ancient rivalry between Christianity and Islam, but of the struggle between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople that eventually produced the Orthodox and Catholic faiths.

Before long the diversity of these ancient countries was to be submerged by the tides of fascism, and upon the defeat of Germany, communism. It would be nearly seventy years before a person could once more walk from Holland to Turkey.

The Broken Road is the work of a man who spent much of his life travelling. He was endlessly curious. He delighted in the minutiae of the cultures in which he immersed himself. He spoke many languages, and his ability to sing folk songs from Greece and Bulgaria amazed his hosts in those countries. His descriptive powers stayed with him to the end of his life.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from Leigh Fermor’s account of a drunken evening with a group of Greek fishermen and Bulgarian shepherds in a cave on the Black Sea coast:

On a rock near where I sat was the heavy, low round table that I had eaten from. Revolving past it, Costa leant forward: suddenly the table levitated into the air, sailed past us and pivoted at right angles to his head in a sequence of wide loops, the edge clamped firmly in his mouth and held there by nothing but his teeth buried in the wood. It rotated like a flying carpet, slicing crescents out of the haze of woodsmoke, so fast at some moments that the four glasses on it, the chap-fallen bagpipe with its perforated cow’s horn dangling, the raki flask, the knives and spoons, the earthenware saucepan that held the lentils and the backbones of the two mackerels with their heads and tails dangling over the edge of the tin plate, all dissolved for a few swift revolutions into a circular blur, then redefined themselves, as the pace dwindled, into a still life travelling in wide rings along the cave. As Costa sank gyrating to floor level, firelight lit the table from above, then he soared into the dark so that only the underside glowed. Simultaneously he quickened his pace and reduced the circumference of the circle by rotating faster and faster on the spot, his revolutions striking sparks of astonished applause through the grotto, which quickly rose to an uproar. His head was flung back and his streaming features corrugated with veins and muscles, his balancing arms outflung like those of a dervish until the flying table itself seemed to melt into a vast disc twice its own diameter spinning in the cave’s centre at a speed, which should have scattered its whirling still life into the nether shadows. Slowly the speed slackened. The table was once more a table, looping through the smoke five feet from the floor, sliding out of its own orbit, rotating back to its launching-rock and unhurriedly alighting there with all its impedimenta undisturbed. Not once had the dancer’s hands touched it; but, the moment before it resettled in its place, he retrieved the stub of the cigarette he had left burning on the rock, and danced slowly back to the centre with no hint of haste or vertigo, tapping away the long ash with the fourth finger of his upraised left hand. He replaced it in his mouth, gyrated, sank, and unwound into his sober initial steps – the planned anti-climax again! – then having regained his motionless starting point, straight as an arrow and on tip toe, he broke off, sauntered smoking to the re-established table, picked up his raki glass, took a meditative sip, deaf to the clamour, and subsided unhurriedly among the rest of us.

Truly a feat that would have caused Zorba the Greek to die with envy.

I write this at a time when the British immigration debate has reached hysterical proportions. The entry of large numbers of workers from Poland and the Baltic states in the early 2000s has stoked concerns – thus far unsubstantiated – that a mass immigration from Romania and Bulgaria will follow the opening of our borders to citizens of those countries.

Leigh Fermor’s book shows the reader that while a slice of public opinion in the UK regards the eastern Balkans as a semi-alien outpost of Europe, the people of that region have a heritage as rich as ours. Poor they may be, but they don’t deserve the grudging welcome they receive on our shores – a welcome conditioned by images of itinerant peasants whose main mode of transport is carts and horses.

Whatever the economic arguments over whether Britain can sustain another wave of immigration (more thoughts on this here), we should welcome those who do arrive with respect and warmth, just as we have the Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and other migrants who – often temporarily – have become part of our demographic landscape over the past ten years. The alternative is to break treaties and ultimately to leave the European Union. To bring about such an outcome is clearly one of the motives behind the fear-mongering.

The Broken Road is a superb piece of descriptive writing. In one sense it’s a poignant tale, both because of the destruction wreaked upon the societies portrayed by war and despotic regimes, and because of the fate of some of the people he met, of which two particularly come to mind.

Josias von Rantzau, the German diplomat with whom he stayed in Bucharest, manifestly not a Nazi, ended up in the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. He married in 1941. Shortly thereafter he left his wife and baby child for the Eastern Front. Like many of those taken prisoner by the Soviets, he never came home. He died in captivity in 1952.

Balasha Cantacuzene, the Romanian princess, who does not feature in the book, ended up after the war living in an attic, having lost her estate under communist rule. She and her sister scraped a living teaching English until her death in 1976. Leigh Fermor had met her again clandestinely on a visit to Romania, and stayed in touch for the rest of her life. It’s Balasha that we should also thank for The Broken Road. For during an intense 36-hour encounter, she handed back the author’s green notebook that she had kept safe since 1939. It subsequently served as the primary factual source for the work.

The road has been broken many times over the past century for the people of the Balkans, rich and poor. So I for one look kindly on the new arrivals to British shores, and wish them the best of luck, as well as happiness – something their ancestors enjoyed so fleetingly in recent times.

From → Books, History, Travel, UK

  1. Jacky Darville permalink

    Just finished The Broken Road and have been totally absorbed by it, as I was by the previous 2 books. Was interested in Josias von Rantzan among many of the characters and so was thrilled to read your blog which I found fascinating and positive. We have a Bulgarian friend and will also be sharing this with him. Thanks

  2. Andreas Zapatinas permalink

    Thank you for the very interesting article.My compliments.I will try to find “The Broken Road” asap!

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