The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

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In the winter of 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out on a walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople. Decades later, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, works now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, and beautifully written travel books of all time.

The Broken Road is the account of the final leg of his journey, catching up with Paddy in ...

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The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

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In the winter of 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor set out on a walk across Europe, starting in Holland and ending in Constantinople. Decades later, Leigh Fermor told the story of that life-changing journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, works now celebrated as among the most vivid, absorbing, and beautifully written travel books of all time.

The Broken Road is the account of the final leg of his journey, catching up with Paddy in the fall of 1934, following him through Bulgaria and Romania and ending in Greece. Days and nights on the road, spectacular landscapes and uncanny cities, friendships lost and found, leading the high life in Bucharest or camping out with fishermen and shepherds—such incidents and escapades are described with all the linguistic bravura and astonishing learning that Leigh Fermor is famous for, but also with a melancholy awareness of the passage of time. Throughout it we can hear the still-ringing voice of an irrepressible young man embarking on a life of adventure.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Robert F. Worth
…an unforgettable book, full of strange encounters with a prewar Balkan cast of counts, prostitutes, peasants, priests and castrati. The greatest pleasure of all, as usual, is Leigh Fermor's own infectious, Rabelaisian hunger for knowledge of almost every kind. His memory seems eidetic; his eyes miss nothing. He seems to carry within himself a whole troupe of sharp-eyed geographers, art historians, ethnologists and multilingual poets. For anyone who has tried to document a journey, reading him is a humbling and thoroughly inspiring experience.
Kirkus Reviews
A posthumous completion of an adventure British author and adventurer Fermor (1915–2011) began more than 70 years ago: a walk from Holland to Istanbul. In 1933, then 18, "Paddy" Fermor—the subject of co-editor Artemis Cooper's biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (2013)—set out on that long trek. As he recounted in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), both written half a century later, he encountered all sorts of people, not least of them the Nazis and nationalists who would soon set Europe aflame, whereupon Fermor began a guerrilla life that James Bond would have envied. When he died, he left behind bits and pieces of this closing volume. Why he never completed it is a mystery; as Cooper and co-editor Colin Thubron observe, "The problem remained obscure even to him, and The Broken Road is only its partial resolution." On reading it, one wishes that Fermor, a fluent and supremely literate writer, had spent more time in closure; the book seems a touch unfinished and not quite up to its predecessors. Even so, he is in fine form as he travels from the Iron Gates of Bulgaria toward his destination, meeting a succession of beguiling women and, as ever, being in the right place at the right time. As readers will learn, the title of the book is just right; and if Fermor encountered endless obstacles as well, his enthusiasm for description and discovery remain undiminished, as he recounts the ethnographic and historical details of life in the Balkans: "When their crust of frowning aloofness is broken, and their guard down and the maddening banter lulled, they are often spontaneous, enthusiastic and—despite the opposite intention—extremely naïve and transparently innocent"; "Brandy in large quantities pumped in a fresh impetus, which was hardly needed by this time, and we danced and sang." Incomplete but lovely nonetheless. Admirers of Fermor's writing will not be disappointed.
From the Publisher
“An unforgettable book, full of strange encounters with a prewar Balkan cast of counts, prostitutes, peasants, priests and castrati. The greatest pleasure of all, as usual, is Leigh Fermor’s own infectious, Rabelaisian hunger for knowledge of almost every kind. His memory seems eidetic; his eyes miss nothing. He seems to carry within himself a whole troupe of sharp-eyed geographers, art historians, ethnologists and multilingual poets.” —Robert F. Worth, The New York Times Book Review

“Fermor’s gift of observation transcends time, fusing the classical with the modern in prose of voluminous richness.” —Robert D. Kaplan, The Wall Street Journal

“When you put down The Broken Road you feel what [Leigh Fermor] himself felt on departing from Mount Athos…‘a great deal of regret.’” —Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books

"By any standards, this is a major work. It confirms that Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation, and this final volume assures the place of the trilogy as one of the masterpieces of the genre, indeed one of the masterworks of  postwar English non-fiction." —William Dalrymple, The Guardian

“The descriptions of waking in unfamiliar places are so seductive that even the most home-hugging reader will long to wake somewhere unknown. And some of the evocations of landscapes and views will live long in the memory.” —Anthony Sattin, The Observer

“In the end, it’s his moments of joy, his revelling in a young man’s moments of epiphany, which stay in the mind.” —Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books

"The Broken Road is superb, towering about the usual run of travel books....The Broken Road is better than any gleaming capstone: while giving us a more than satisfactory idea of Leigh Fermor's Balkan adventures, it also, in its raggedness, accentuates the seamless magic of the books that came before, and it wraps the whole enterprise in a pathos that humanizes his superhuman gifts." —Ben Downing, The Times Literary Supplement

"In a lamplit frenzy of mystic dance and song, among Homeric fisherfolk and swains, young Paddy discovers the underground ecstasies of rebetika in all its 'quintessence of fatalism.' Glimpsed from the future, he sets a course for the Greece that would keep his prose dancing ever after." —The Independent

“The now-complete trilogy documenting his journey is essential curriculum for any traveler….Fermor’s youthful forays across Bulgaria and Romania to the coast of the Black Sea make the reader wish all of life were one long journey of slow mornings on Turkish divans, welcome platters of raki and Turkish delight, crackling firelight and long conversations in various languages…Even those who have never seen the Danube will be struck with nostalgia—not for the author’s memories, but for their own, encapsulated in that same crystal mien of idealized youth…” —Longitude

"A fitting epilogue to 20th-century travel-writing and essential reading for devotees of Sir Patrick’s other works." —The Economist

"How fitting, for a man so young at heart, with such a boundless appetite for life, that his last published words should be those of a wide-eyed 20-year-old, embarking on what will be a lifelong love affair with Greece. His editors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, have put this book to bed with skill and sensitivity. Friends and fans, acolytes, devotees and disciples can all rest easy. It was worth the wait." —Justin Marozzi, The Spectator

"The youthful joy shines through, and the deep cultural learning that was superimposed in later years is there in sufficient quantity to lend wonder to this fragmented tale....Anybody who loved its two preceding volumes will fall upon it hungrily. Anybody who has not read the two preceding volumes should do so without delay." —The Scotsman

Praise for Patrick Leigh Fermor:

"One of the greatest travel writers of all time”–The Sunday Times

“A unique mixture of hero, historian, traveler and writer; the last and the greatest of a generation whose like we won't see again.”–Geographical

“The finest traveling companion we could ever have . . . His head is stocked with enough cultural lore and poetic fancy to make every league an adventure.” –Evening Standard

If all Europe were laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.”—Ben Downing, The Paris Review

Praise for A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the first two volume in the trilogy:

"This is a glorious feast, the account of a walk in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. The 18-year-old Fermor began by sleeping in barns but, after meeting some landowners early on, got occasional introductions to castles. So he experienced life from both sides, and with all the senses, absorbing everything: flora and fauna, art and architecture, geography, clothing, music, foods, religions, languages. Writing the book decades after the fact, in a baroque style that is always rigorous, never flowery, he was able to inject historical depth while still retaining the feeling of boyish enthusiasm and boundless curiosity. This is the first of a still uncompleted trilogy; the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him through Hungary and Romania; together they capture better than any books I know the remedial, intoxicating joy of travel." — Thomas Swick, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

“Recovers the innocence and the excitement of youth, when everything was possible and the world seemed luminescent with promise. ...Even more magical...through Hungary, its lost province of Transylvania, and into Romania... sampling the tail end of a languid, urbane and anglophile way of life that would soon be swept away forever.” —Jeremy Lewis, Literary Review

“A book so good you resent finishing it.” —Norman Stone

"The greatest of living travel writers…an amazingly complex and subtle evocation of a place that is no more." — Jan Morris

"In these two volumes of extraordinary lyrical beauty and discursive, staggering erudition, Leigh Fermor recounted his first great excursion… They’re partially about an older author’s encounter with his young self, but they’re mostly an evocation of a lost Mitteleuropa of wild horses and dark forests, of ancient synagogues and vivacious Jewish coffeehouses, of Hussars and Uhlans, and of high-spirited and deeply eccentric patricians with vast libraries (such as the Transylvanian count who was a famous entomologist specializing in Far Eastern moths and who spoke perfect English, though with a heavy Scottish accent, thanks to his Highland nanny). These books amply display Leigh Fermor’s keen eye and preternatural ear for languages, but what sets them apart, besides the utterly engaging persona of their narrator, is his historical imagination and intricate sense of historical linkage…Few writers are as alive to the persistence of the past (he’s ever alert to the historical forces that account for the shifts in custom, language, architecture, and costume that he discerns), and I’ve read none who are so sensitive to the layers of invasion that define the part of Europe he depicts here. The unusual vantage point of these books lends them great poignancy, for we and the author know what the youthful Leigh Fermor cannot: that the war will tear the scenery and shatter the buildings he evokes; that German and Soviet occupation will uproot the beguiling world of those Tolstoyan nobles; and that in fact very few people who became his friends on this marvelous and sunny journey will survive the coming catastrophe." — Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic

"Those for whom Paddy’s prose is still an undiscovered country are to be envied for what lies ahead-hours with one of the most buoyant and curious personalities one can find in English." — The New York Sun

"Mr. Fermor…is a peerless companion, unbound by timetable or convention, relentless in his high spirits and curiosity." — Richard B. Woodward, The New York Times

"We are aware at every step that his adventure can never be duplicated: only this extraordinary person at this pivotal time could have experienced and recorded many of these sights. Distant lightening from events in Germany weirdly illuminates the trail of this free spirit." — The New York Times

"The young Fermor appears to have been as delightful a traveling companion as the much older Fermor a raconteur." — The Houston Chronicle

"[A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water] are absolutely delightful volumes, both for those who want to better understand what was lost in the violence of Europe’s 20th-century divisions and for those who appreciate the beauty and thrill of travel writing at its best." — The Houston Chronicle

"Leigh Fermor is recognizably that figure many writers of the past century have yearned to be, the man of action." — The Guardian

"He was, and remains, an Englishman, with so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient-pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope, and no more fruitful than sleepwalks. We fret about our kids’ S.A.T. scores, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, shouldered a rucksack and walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul." — Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

“Even more magical...through Hungary, its lost province of Transylvania, and into Romania...sampling the tail end of a languid, urbane and anglophile way of life that would soon be swept away forever.” —Jeremy Lewis, Literary Review

The Barnes & Noble Review

There is a library in limbo of great books by great writers never written: some mere notes, some stalled at a chapter or two, some in various pieces and drafts. For decades, the long- promised third volume of Patrick Fermor's walking trip across Europe has had a place on those ghostly shelves. This was the book that was meant to follow A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), accounts that, beginning in the fatal year 1933 and ending in January 1935, brought the eighteen- and then nineteen-year-old Fermor from the Hook of Holland to the Iron Gates, on the border of today's Serbia and Romania. Fermor had, in the early 1960s, written a version of his journey's last stage, which brought him to Constantinople (as he insisted on calling it), and he returned to it a number of times over the years. But, distracted by other affairs and tortured by writer's block, he could not complete the book, and it remained a persistent misery to him until his death at ninety-six years of age in 2011. Now, I am happy to report, travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron and Fermor's biographer, Artemis Cooper, have entered the breach to bring out what they have titled The Broken Road, the trilogy's final installment, knitted up nicely with care and discernment.

The book brings Fermor from Oroşva on the Danube through parts of Rumania (then the accepted spelling for Romania), Bulgaria, and Turkey. It also includes his time in Greece, staying in monasteries on the sacred island of Mount Athos in early 1935, an account drawn from his one extant journal. As for the other journals kept during the trip, they and his richly detailed letters to his mother were lost in three separate tragedies. Fermor had to recreate the long journey from "surviving cartouches of memory," the stamps on his old passport, and his markings on a tattered map. Again and again, he laments the impossibility of recapturing the entirety of that vanished past.

Often, I must have-completely failed to remember, owing to some private defect, buildings of tremendous interest (which I would give perhaps a great deal to see now), whole mountain ranges teeming with history and with natural wonders, political trends and events of momentous importance. This last consideration prompts the thought that even after such a long time-lag, this must be one of the most unscoopiest travel accounts ever to see the light.
As it happens, the young Fermor was not especially interested in political developments, and his account only now and again touches on them, one instance being the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in October 1934. Its announcement resulted in maniacal, glass-smashing rejoicing among the Bulgarians with whom he was drinking at the time. Still, writing much later, he is sadly aware that as he traveled across Central and Eastern Europe, he was witnessing the very end of an epoch, one whose death throes began with the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and whose end was marked by the obliteration and horror of the Second World War, the near extinction of the region's Jewish and Gypsy populations, and the vitiating effect of the Iron Curtain. "Nearly all the people of this book, as it turned out, were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning, to explode during the next decade and a half."

The vein of melancholy that runs through this work is more than offset by a ravenous curiosity — Fermor calls himself "unboreable." The book is punctuated by eruptions of joy and filled with sparkling, eccentric descriptions and eldritch scenes of enchantment and accursedness that possess the timbre of folktales. He tells, for instance, of a long, grueling encounter with a pestilential talker who harangued him as they walked, "catching me by the elbow and prodding me with his forefinger?. Once I turned round in a circle and he danced briskly round in a wider circle still talking faster and faster. I tried to counter-attack by resolutely bawling Stormy Weather, but it was too slow. He dived in between the bars," Young Fermor tries to shake off this demon through various tricks, only to have him reappear as if by magic, the last time with such exquisite improbability that I will not spoil it for you.

Another day he makes his way across a plain suddenly invaded by four towering dust devils, "all of them whirled mopping and mowing with a loud rushing noise across the wilderness, all leaning in the same direction and appearing to gesticulate wildly with the loose ends of their fraying and widening summits-these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet, and came to bits in the distance."

Fermor's flair for the fantastical is everywhere evident. In Bucharest he enters a grand café, a vast, nightmarish chamber whose patrons wore "a lupine predatoriness of expression, a cynical croupier glint in every eye?. The older faces looked like allegorical masks of the Seven Deadly Sins?. I had the illusion that the talk of this gleaming and over- upholstered Babylon consisted entirely of sneers." And in the Romanian countryside, trudging along at dusk, he is struck with wonder as the Orient Express comes rocketing by, its windows charmed and glowing, its mystique overpowering: "The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms' manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau."

Seen through the eyes of this young wayfarer, the world is wild, exotic, and sometimes truly bizarre. He finds that the coachmen in Bucharest belong to a religious sect whose men castrate themselves after having one or two children. (They also believe that Czar Paul, murdered son of Catherine the Great, will return as the Messiah.) Lost in the countryside, he eventually finds shelter with a couple of Turks who introduce him to the "dizzily powerful" pastourma, a pemmican- like substance that gives the breath of those who have eaten it "the violence of a blowlamp-people reel backwards and leave an empty ring around the diner, as though one were whirling in incendiary parabolas."

With only a few entertainingly dismal exceptions, Fermor meets extraordinary hospitality from even the poorest peasant and enters happily, if fleetingly, into all ways of life. He strikes up impromptu friendships with everyone, from a companionable dog who engages in a furious barking attack on an insolent moon, to the British Consul in Burgas — this shortly after Fermor polished off the last of his pastourma. ("I say, what have you been eating, old boy?") The book is a marvel of plenitude and generosity and joyousness of description. The editors' fine job in putting it together and the gorgeous, ebullient style of the text from which they worked have resulted in a magnificent book. It may be the afterglow of reading it, but I like The Broken Road even more than the previous two volumes.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590177549
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 3/4/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 345,674
  • Product dimensions: 8.20 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) was an intrepid traveler and a heroic soldier who is widely considered to be one of the finest travel writers of the twentieth century. After his stormy school days, followed by the walk across Europe to Constantinople that begins in A Time of Gifts (1977) and continues through Between the Woods and the Water (1986)  and The Broken Road (published posthumously in 2013), he  lived and traveled in the Balkans and the Greek archipelago.  His books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) attest to his deep interest in languages and remote places. During the Second World War he joined the Irish Guards, became a liaison officer in Albania, and fought in Greece and Crete. He was awarded the DSO and OBE. Leigh Fermor lived partly in Greece—in the house he designed with his wife, Joan, in an olive grove in the Mani—and partly in Worcestershire. In 2004 he was knighted for his services to literature and to British–Greek relations.
Colin Thubron
is the president of the Royal Society of Literature. Among his books are The Lost Heart of Asia, Shadow of the Silk Road, and most recently, To a Mountain in Tibet.

Artemis Cooper is the author of the biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure as well as the editor of Words of Mercury, a collection of Leigh Fermor's writings. She has written several works of history, including Cairo in the War.

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