The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

At the age of eighteen, Patrick Fermor was something of a lost soul. The child of a broken home who hardly ever saw his father, he was wasting his time in London whilst his contemporaries were starting their university careers. With nothing better to do, he decided to set off on an epic journey from Holland to Istanbul, travelling the whole way on foot.

The Broken Road

It was an experience that stayed with him throughout his long life. He published two volumes of memoirs of the journey, leaving a third in scattered notebooks that he was never able to complete. After his death in 2011, two of his acolytes pieced these missing fragments together to produce this volume, a record of Fermor’s journey across Romania and Bulgaria in the 1930s. The materials they used were in a poor state of repair: the memoir actually ends mid-sentence (with although) but this is still a mesmerising read.

Fermor can spend the night in a one-room hovel with a family of peasants one minute, and then be driven about by a liveried chauffeur the next. He has friends in high places throughout Eastern Europe, but he’s as happy to live like a wildman in the woods as to spend the night as a guest of the German embassy in Bucharest.

Not knowing anything about these countries, I loved Fermor’s novelistic descriptions of the places he passes through, such as this Bulgarian tavern scene:

In the trellised outdoors eating-house in the little square where I settled down to a rather good, very oily stew of mutton, potatoes, tomatoes, paprika pods, courgettes and ladies’ fingers, all ladled from giant bronze pans… A group of officers, in white tunics buttoning under the left ear in the Russian style, with stiff gold epaulettes, black, red-banded, Russian caps with short peaks and high-spurred soft-legged boots, sat smoking and talking, or strolled under the trees with the hilts of their steel-scabbarded swords in the crooks of their arms. No women. Dogs wrangled over a sheep’s jawbone.

As Fermor had never completed his manuscript, the book does lapse into purple prose at times (as he himself admits) and he perhaps would not have published The Broken Road in this form, but I for one am pleased that it has finally seen the light of day.

Fermor seems like an honest storyteller and he is not afraid to complain of depression and boredom, two travails that frequently assault the solo traveller. However, most of the book is a joyful remembrance of youthful adventure. He is constantly getting into terrible scrapes only to be rescued by the most unlikely benefactors. On one occasion, he finds himself forced to spend the night in a cave with some Greek fisherman who have saved him from exposure. Their subsequent drunken party by candlelight is like something out of Virgil’s Aeneid.

The Broken Road was written many years after the events it describes. Fascinatingly, this volume is fleshed out with a selection from Fermor’s contemporary diaries of a trip to Mount Athos in Greece. Here we can compare the older chronicler with how he really felt and wrote at the time. Happily, the teenage Fermor is something of a literary prodigy, and his younger efforts can easily stand side by side with his later, more polished prose:

 … as we rounded the cape the most astonishing hermitages came into view, each perched on a perilous ledge of rock, looking scarcely big enough for a bird’s nest. They are the wildest, remotest and saddest-looking dwellings I’ve ever seen, and the thought that people spend their whole lives in them baffles me. There are not even paths leading up to them, only rungs and pegs driven ladder-like into the rock, and food is sent up to them every week or so, in baskets on the end of ropes.

Reading this book is a reminder that travel writing at its best is the most satisfying kind of read there is. You can lie comfortably on your sofa poring over the toils and tribulations of a stranger in a far off time in a faraway land, always conscious that this is not a story, but something that really took place. Like all the best journeys, The Broken Road is hard-going at times, but the view from the summit is one that will stay with you for a long, long time.