In 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor faced an uncertain future. His school career had been riotous but undecorated. His wild temperament was, in his own words, ‘unfitted for the faintest shadow of constraint.’ Fellow schoolboys adored him for his antics, but his teachers demurred: in one prescient school report, a long-suffering housemaster described him as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.’ All this drove his parents to despair. What on earth was the boy to do? Seek entry to a second-rate university? Apply for Sandhurst and join the army? Neither of these well-worn paths seemed suited to his personality.
Instead, Leigh Fermor — known to his friends as Paddy — tossed aside his respectable options, and jumped aboard a Dutch steamer bound for the Continent. Armed with a battered rucksack given to him by Mark Ogilvie-Grant, a friend of the travel writer Robert Byron — and with no possessions but a few clothes, a solid pair of boots, a book of English verse, and his beloved Loeb edition of Horace’s Odes — Leigh Fermor set out to walk overland from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. The journey, later recorded in A Time of Gifts, would take him through the troubled Germany of a newly ascendant Hitler; along the banks of the then-untamed Danube; through the former lands of the splintered Austro-Hungarian Empire; and into the heart of the Balkans. (Tragically, much of what he saw along the way — and many of the people he met — would disappear forever after war broke out five years later).
PLF in Greece, 1935. Photo / NLS
No guidebook existed to help him plan his route. Ancient maps showed the proximity of one town to another, and helpful villagers pointed him in the right direction, but Leigh Fermor relied mainly on his instincts and his romantic imagination to guide him. He was lured from place to place by little more than an evocative name — Bohemia! Transylvania! the Iron Gates! — and, by giving free reign to his historical curiosity and his literary bent, he travelled through time and thought as well as space. He slept in hayricks and castles, played bicycle polo with Hungarian aristocrats, and excitedly discussed passages from the Torah with Orthodox Jews in a remote Carpathian lumberyard. Sleeping under the stars beside a river one night, he was rudely awakened by two policemen, who arrested him as a smuggler and then released him upon learning that he was a mere errant student. Trudging along country roads at dawn or dusk, he would sing pop and folk songs of the day or recite Latin poetry. According to his own account:
. [Songs] sung as I moved along, evoked nothing but tolerant smiles. But verse was different. Murmuring on the highway caused raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity. Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm. When this happened I would try to taper off in a cough or weave the words into a tuneless hum and reduce all gestures to a feint at hair-tidying.
Everything Leigh Fermor encountered on his path was tinged with romanticism, be it town, river, forest, or fellow peripatetic. An itinerant chimney sweep he meets ‘on the road between Ulm and Augsburg’ seems intoxicated by the same wanderlust:
While [the chimney sweep] explained that he was heading south to Innsbruck and the Brenner and then down into Italy, he unfolded his map on the table and his finger traced Bolzano, Trento, the Adige . and as he uttered the glorious names, he waved his hand in the air as though Italy lay all about us. Warmed by another schnapps or two, we helped each other on with our burdens and he set off for the Tyrol and Rome and the land where the lemon trees bloomed (Dahin!) and waved his top hat as he grew fainter through the snowfall. We both shouted godspeed against the noise of the wind and . I plodded on, eyelashes clogged with flakes, towards Bavaria and Constantinople.
It was after reading this anecdote in my Munich dormitory that I became infected by the spirit of Leigh Fermor’s narrative, and made a quixotic decision to walk across the Alps myself. Before setting out from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in southern Bavaria, I purchased a small flask of German whiskey, for no other reason than I liked the idea of ‘warming myself up’ with it when soaked by the inevitable cold rains of the Brenner. I took shelter at a biathlete’s house in Mittenwald, met a pseudo-Conchita in Innsbruck, and stumbled onwards through Matrei am Brenner before finally reaching Vipiteno in northern Italy.
My efforts turned out to be rather ridiculous. Snow still covered the mountain paths, so I had to follow the highways. In my mind, I caught glimpses of Roman legions and World War Two troop movements (the Brenner has a long history as a major Alpine pass); but in reality, convoys of Schengen-era freight trucks roared past me, sleet pelted me, and concerned IT workers stopped to offer me lifts. At one point, after turning off a dangerous railway track by climbing a steep slope held together by pine trees, I became trapped in an empty quarry for several hours, before finally managing to scale a wire fence. All the while, I thought gratefully of Leigh Fermor — for without his example, I would never have thought it possible to have so much fun.
Following the road to Mittenwald, Germany. Photo by the author.
I have walked through medieval towns with my eyes glued to a Lonely Planet as often as the next person, but the magnificent journey recounted in A Time of Gifts made me wonder if today’s travellers tend to undervalue recklessness. Not everyone wants the same thing, of course, and it’s perfectly reasonable to put comfort and ease ahead of danger. But many travellers seem to crave something more than what they currently have. Most of us have at some point lamented that ‘all temples are the same’; that ‘this beach is overrun by tourists’; or that ‘I wanted the Taj Mahal and all I got was a thousand selfie sticks.’ For this group of disillusioned or dispirited adventurers, could there be another mode of travel out there, waiting to be rediscovered?
It’s often said that the rise of internet has made the world smaller place, and this is partly true. If Leigh Fermor had an iPhone, an Instagram account, and a habit of using Trip Advisor, the thrill of his adventure would almost certainly have been diminished. Had he used Google Maps, he would have missed the wrong turns that led him to so many serendipitous encounters. Had he striven to tick off a bucket list, he might have been able to shade more countries on his world map — but the essential aimlessness of his travels would have been lost. Technology facilitates travel; but this is perhaps an oxymoron. The word travel shares its origin with travail. Both come from the Old French travailler — to toil, to labour. Without struggle, without surprises, might we simply be cruising?
Somewhere in Nepal, 2010. Photo by the author.
Fortunately, the idea of a ‘shrinking world’ is an illusion that can be swept aside at will. The surface of the Earth is as large, diverse, and colourful as ever. To avoid the prosaic and rediscover the poetic takes a shift in habit and mindset — away from ‘doing Vietnam’, and back towards a little recklessness à la Patrick Leigh Fermor. Romance and recklessness, the richest garnishes of adventure, can offset even the blandest consequences of globalisation.
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.
Featured image by Unsplash
The Road to Oxiana – what many consider the greatest travel book ever written – starts as it goes on: its author, Robert Byron, going against the grain. He’s in Venice, and instead of waxing lyrical about the city’s architecture or otherworldly beauty, he focuses on some bathers who have gathered in the Lido and “the water like hot saliva, the cigar ends floating into one’s mouth, and the shoals of jellyfish.” It’s typical Byron: funny, acerbic and surprising.
Every story needs a protagonist who is put under pressure, and this one is filled with episodes where Byron attempts – and fails – to rise above his surroundings. Indeed, the whole book is a contrast between the glories of the architecture he sees, the less-than-glorious realities of the hotels he stays in, and the petty bureaucracy he encounters. As a writer, he pulls no punches, there’s no sentiment for the grim lives many of those he encounters have lived, a testament of Byron’s own rather gilded upbringing. Born in London in 1905, he was educated in Eton and Oxford, from which he was expelled, apparently for his “hedonistic and rebellious manner.”
The book is a travelogue, chronicling the journey Byron and his friend Christopher Sykes took to Persia and Afghanistan, passing through Jerusalem, Baghdad and Damascus on the way. Byron’s goal was to discover the origins of Islamic architecture, and their 11-month journey is beautifully rendered, indeed, in many ways, the book has hardly dated at all. Paul Fussell, in his renowned study of literary travel writing between the wars (called Abroad), described Byron’s book as “what Ulysses is to the novel between the wars, and The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.”
In Jerusalem, Byron begins to engage in his love of aphorisms: “The King David Hotel is the only good hotel in Asia this side of Shanghai.” While these sorts of statements resonate, they are also probably wrong, something some of the book’s critics have pointed out. Indeed, Byron – coming from a privileged background – has the air of a colonial on tour, travelling for the scenery and the architecture, but hampered by the supposed incompetence of the locals.
At one point in his journey, stuck in Tehran, he decided the quickest way to Afghanistan would be to buy a car. He chronicles the Byzantium hell that process entails brilliantly, a four-day process that sees him shuffling between various government departments until finally he manages to purchase a Morris Minor (for £30). His joy is short-lived, however, as we find out in the next chapter: “The back axle has broken, sixty miles from Teheran. ‘To Khorasan! To Khorasan!’ shouted the policeman at the city gate. I felt a wonderful exhilaration as we chugged through the Elburz defiles. Up or down, the engine was always in bottom gear, only this could save us from being precipitated, backwards or forwards as the case might be, over the last or next hairpin bend. Seven chanting peasants pushed the car uphill to a shed in this village. It is a total loss. But I won’t go back to Teheran.”
Indeed, Byron has spectacularly bad luck with cars and trucks and motorised vehicles in general. The car taking him from Beirut to Damascus breaks down soon after departing, forcing the author to take the bus. As he writes at Nishapur, in a remote area of North-East Iran: “One can become a connoisseur of anything. Never in all Persia was there such a lorry as I caught at Damghan: a brand new Reo Speed Wagon, on its maiden voyage, capable of thirty-five miles an hour on the flat, with double wheels, ever-cool radiator and lights in the driver’s cabin.”
Although Byron’s air of entitlement may permeate his writing, there’s no denying the risks he takes in his travels. The journey between Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan was more dangerous back then than it is now. Afghanistan, of course, is as far as Byron got. Yet the country is utterly fascinating, and Byron gets up to all sorts of mischief during his stay: he’s arrested, he’s the guest at high society balls, and, unsurprisingly, almost every mode of transport he takes breaks down. He clearly loves Afghanistan, more than anywhere else he visits. At one point he writes about the country: “At last, Asia without the inferiority complex.”
Mules and Camels assemble in market place in Herat, Afghanistan, 1955
The mid part of the 1930s was a time of real shift in the region, the era of emperors and colonialism was ending, while the era of global oil and nationalism was just beginning. At Rutbah in northern Iraq, Byron notes the changes he noticed since he visited six years previously, the area now filled with pipelines and oil workers. It was a region still dotted with English clubs, with society balls filled with well-to-do Englishmen as well as the local elite. It was the last gasp of an empire, albeit one that Byron doesn’t examine in great detail.
Indeed his interest in politics is largely reserved for the petty: who killed who, who spied on who, who wants who dead. To be fair, that accurately represents the attitudes of the local leaders who he meets, all of whom seem caught up in cheerful paranoia. And it was impossible for Byron – or anyone else – to foresee the sweeping changes that would overcome the region in the following two decades. Large parts of the book are spent chronicling the incompetence of the various border officials he encounters. To take just one example, after he crosses the Iraq-Iran border, he writes: “The Persian officials offered us their sympathy in this disgusting business of customs and kept us three hours. When I paid duty on some films and medicines, they took the money with eyes averted, as a duchess collects for charity.”
There is an air of wistfulness about some of the writing. Byron is very much aware that the “modern world” is arriving in this part of the world, not something he is entirely happy about. “In the old days you arrived by horse,” he writes after visiting the great ruins of Persepolis in South-Eastern Iran. “You rode up the steps of the platform. You made a camp there while the columns and winged beasts kept their solitude beneath the stars and not a sound or movement disturbed the empty moonlit plain. You thought of Darius and Xerxes and Alexander. You were alone with the ancient world. You saw Asia as the Greeks saw it, and you felt their magic breath stretching out towards China itself.”
Byron’s strength is his prose: it’s remarkable in terms of its clarity and ability to evoke a sense of place. He seems able to construct the most unexpected sentences to describe a valley, or the way the light bounces off the walls at a religious site. He never deals in clichés – the bane of many travel books – and his writing is only matched by his powers of observation. He was a sharp reader of people, albeit one unable to suffer fools – witness his hilarious, rather cruel account of a well-off American named Farquharson, who he briefly considers travelling with from Tehran to Afghanistan: “I beheld an unattractive countenance, prognathous yet weedy, with hair growing to a point on the bridge of the nose. From the mouth issued a whining monotone.” Byron, unsurprisingly, made the trip alone.
For all Byron’s adventurous spirit, large parts of his journey are spent ticking off boxes. He must go to Shiraz or Herat or Persepolis – indeed a whole chunk of the trip seems to be spent completing his bucket list, or mired in some catastrophe of his (or some ineffectual bureaucrat’s) making. Byron’s writing is a world away from much of the modern travel genre, awash as it is in hyperbole and breathless prose. In this brave new world of travel writing, views are always “breathtaking,” the locals are always “friendly” and travel is what we do when we want to “find ourselves.”
Yet, some critics have pointed out that for all Byron’s musings on say, Islamic architecture, he actually doesn’t know that much about it. One writer puts this down to Byron’s Eton and Oxford education, which equipped him with the confidence to wax lyrical on anything and everything. The Road to Oxiana wasn’t Byron’s first travel book, he wrote The Station at 22, after travelling with friends to Mt. Athos in Greece, then The Byzantine Achievement in 1929, followed by The Birth of Western Painting the following year. In 1933, First Russia, Then Tibet was published, establishing the author as an important new voice. That tome chronicles Byron’s travels through Russia, a country where he explores the Byzantine origins of Russian iconography. The second half of the book – in Tibet – is where the real treasures are, a valuable insight into a country before it became part of China. While many of his contemporaries acknowledged Byron’s talent, he wasn’t universally liked. The great writer Evelyn Waugh had this to say about Byron: “It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years, and think he was a dangerous lunatic better off dead.”
Byron finally returned home to England in July of 1934, deflated and underwhelmed to be back. His home country looked “drab and ugly from the train,” and he writes that he is “dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between 11 months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.” It’s a feeling familiar to many travellers, as the possibilities of the road recede, the realities of life at home loom large.
Bruce Chatwin, in the introduction to the 1981 re-issue of the book, describes Byron as a “gentleman, a scholar and an aesthete.” While some of the people Byron encountered on the road may have bristled at the first descriptor, there’s no doubt his acerbic, slightly entitled air made him a much more interesting writer than the vast majority of mundane cultural relativists who ply their trade today.
Byron’s life was cut short in 1941, when, aged 35, the ship he was on was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Although we missed out on tales of his future escapades – and inevitable complaints – the world is left with his most momentous work. Imperfect it may be, but in that way still reflects our travels: messy, sometimes unfulfilling, but always worth the journey.
welcome to trouvaille travels, a travel + lifestyle blog.
i’m alex & this is my passion project – writing, traveling, sharing pictures & stories & places & people.
my family has always collected old postcards. i would marvel at the penmanship & personal correspondence, and wish that people still sent them. it’s a lost art. i long to go back to the days of written postcards and plastic photo albums, but i think we’ve just adapted digitally – instead of postcards, it’s text messages and instead of photo albums it’s instagram posts. we’re still sharing & preserving our stories, though i will always prefer the classic pen & paper. i want to write until my hand goes numb so i can remember here and now. the road trips, the hardships, everything about my little life.
now, i pick up a postcard whenever i travel, a souvenir of a moment in time. and my blog posts are a digital keepsake of my most treasured memories.
five quick facts about me:
you’ll often find me with my nose in a book. many historical fiction novels & biographies fill my shelves.
my favorite places in the world are the ones i haven't been to yet, but if i had to pick just one it’s my home, west virginia. as much as i love to get away, i’ll never tire of coming home. just call me a traveling homebody!
i’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking!
mcdonald’s fries are always a must.
i’m a proud west virginia university alum who will cheer on the mountaineers any given saturday until my lungs give out.
that’s me summed up in a few bullet points. this little corner of the internet is my creative outlet & i’m excited you’ve chosen to follow along.
no hard sell here, i just hope it’s a chance encounter with something wonderful.
'It was easy enough to get across India with an incomplete passport. The biggest worry was standing at the border of Turkey and Iran wondering what would happen. This was my first taste of anti-Western feeling. I could feel bad vibes all along the way and noticed that people were staring directly at me and not in a friendly way.
'I picked up another driving job to Tehran, but ended up killing a donkey on the way. There was an almighty thud, the windscreen went through, a hell of a lot of blood with the donkey, or large ass as I found out, flying over the car.
'Work animals are sacred there, so the owner was't very happy. It was quite lawless. You could lose your head.
Iran was his first taste of anti-western feeling. 'I could feel bad vibes. People were staring directly at me and not in a friendly way.'
'In India I got seriously ill. I had been sensible enough to have the basic jabs before I left home, but I caught amoebic dysentery from eating fish which had been frozen in New Dehli. I was young and didn't take any precautions.'
Sproston hiked through Nepal feasting on buffalo steak, admiring Mount Everest and regretting not bringing a better camera than his Kodac Instamatic.
He said: 'The most hair-raising moments were crossing a rope bridge which had been cut on purpose and then getting covered head-to-toe in leeches.
'The return journey from India was more dramatic. I arrived by bus from India to Afghanistan at the same time as the Russians invaded. The bus was interrogated, but when they found a bunch of hippies they just let us go.
In Afghanistan Sproston began to feel like the infidel. 'Anyone who looked western was fair game,' he says. Stock picture
'When we entered Iran from Afghanistan, it was more hairy. Anyone who looked Western was fair game. We were all ordered off a bus once, and then it was blown to pieces. I thought we were going to die. Ten or fifteen tourists had been killed in this way.
'We managed to escape, but began to feel that we were the infidel, things were not looking too good.'
Sproston, and his travelling buddy Shaun, began to travel by night until they reached the border of Russia. They then crossed back into Turkey.
He said: 'By the time we got there I weighed just eight stone, through illness and stress.'
Sproston's second big trip was to the USA, one which saw him picking apples, getting into scrapes with Inuits and hitch-hiking to San Francisco, where he slept in a skip.
He said: 'I had nowhere to sleep and a couple of dollars on me, what little I had I wanted to preserve. So I lived there for a while, I used to clamber out of my skip and collect metal cans to make some cash.
Sproston's second big trip was to the USA, one which saw getting into scrapes with Inuits and sleeping in a bin in San Francisco
'Then I stayed in the Cecil hotel, flophouse, a landmark hotel, making money by selling ice cream. But the van got stolen when I went to go and get some bananas, I was left holding the bananas. I had to high tail it out of town.
'When I was leaving LA I got picked up by a bloke, who turned out to be the Freeway Strangler. He was mumbling about Palestine and Israel, he got a piece of rope and ripped it round my neck. I opened the door and threw myself out of the car. I'm just glad I survived.'
Roger Sproston's brand of travel was not about selfies and box-ticking, it was real adventure, but he says there are things he wishes he had had on the road.
He said: 'The media has changed. I couldn't talk to my parents on Skype - I didn't speak to them in months, I couldn't record my travels. There were no such things as digital cameras then and I regret not being able to photograph what I saw. You can do that easily now with your phone. Travel is probably better in that sense.
'But it is also more controlled now, the spirit has changed. The route I took, you can't take anymore. The countries I visited are at the forefront of war with the west.
'I don’t think the hippie trail was all brilliant. If you took time to study and were more political aware, maybe you wouldn’t have done it. But sometimes it is better to be naïve. If you think too much, your own mind can limit you.'
Fighting for Light: The Travels of a Tin Pot Warrior is available in all good book shops.
A recent movie made me realize the importance of lost travel memories - remembering old trips and the things we saw may not seem so important until later
There she is. Small, no?
This past weekend I saw the movie The Monuments Men. And besides the grammatically awkward title, I found the story compelling and interesting. And no wonder because I once had an intense fascination about that part of the World War II history. As an art history and design student, I always held a slightly morbid interest in what the Nazis wanted to do and (sometimes) ultimately did with remarkable art.
The movie, based on actual events, tells the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allies during World War II. They were tasked with preserving (and finding) lost art due to Hitler’s obsession with either collecting or destroying world treasures. I first stumbled on this particular history of the war years ago when I read the journalistic novel Is Paris Burning? — a compelling story about the occupation of Paris during the war and the city’s art treasures.
But what stood out the most during George Clooney’s Monuments movie wasn’t necessarily its story, or even its simple but stunning cinematography. It was one particular aspect of the story — the theft of the “Bruges Madonna.” This became an integral part of the movie, but I couldn’t care. All I could think was how I’d seen that very Madonna just two years ago. Having never known about its existence until recently, suddenly I’m watching a Hollywood movie that focuses a good amount of screen time on its history.
I can’t believe they made a movie about that.
That’s the kind of experience only aimless traveling gets you.
Outside the church in Bruges where you’ll find the famous “Bruges Madonna” inside
The Bruges Madonna is a marble sculpture from the 16th century, similar to the famous Pieta in that it’s also of Madonna and child. Sculpted by Michelangelo, it’s one of only a few works that’s actually outside of Italy. I wouldn’t have known that the Bruges Madonna existed unless I’d just happened to stumble upon it while visiting Bruges. I was there for a music festival and one morning, in my free time, I went sightseeing.
Bruges isn’t a terribly big city — nor is it spectacularly interesting. Perhaps its greatest attraction is just that it’s a very pretty city. Cobblestoned streets, canals, windmills and bicycles everywhere — this is your picture-perfect Belgian city. But tucked away amongst the pretty buildings is the Church of Our Lady. And somehow (I don’t know how), they’ve come to be the home of the very special Bruges Madonna. I saw it listed in a guidebook and after having seen first-hand Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican, I knew this was a similar sculpture I needed to see for myself.
At the time, I didn’t find the sculpture particularly amazing. Maybe it was my mood, the setting, or the fact that it just didn’t touch me in a special way. I took photos while I was there (you see them here in this blog post) but other than that, I filed the travel memory deep into my mind. And I probably wouldn’t have remembered much of it until I saw the Monuments Men movie.
How strange and surreal it was to pick out an obscure object in a Hollywood movie. To be able to say: I’ve seen that! I’ve been there! Those kinds of moments are only possible when you’re willing to let yourself get lost, when you’re willing to let yourself have boring, inconsequential experiences. I maybe spent no more than 10 minutes of my life inside this Bruges church, and here it was a prominent setting, story and theme in a movie. Not all experiences when you travel are big or life-changing. But even those small moments have the power to reach far into your life—months or even years down the line.
There are so many moments from all my travels that are packed tightly into my memory. And when they pop out—at the most unusual and awkward times—it’s hard not to smile. That knowingness that I’ve seen something, that I’ve done something, that I’ve been somewhere.
And for good measure, some of my photos of the Bruges Madonna:
The famous Bruges Madonna – one of only a few works by Michelangelo that are not in Italy Nameplate inside the church describing the importance of the Bruges Madonna. I’m betting this has been updated since the Monuments Men movie Inside the Bruges Church of Our Lady Bruges Like Bruges in general, the church left me feeling less than inspired. I was expecting it to be prettier.
Looking for more travel tips & information on Bruges, Belgium? Be sure to check out my hipster guide to the city which includes restaurant recommendations and a listing of the coolest things to do.