A procrastinator's trek across Europe

A procrastinator's trek across Europe

As viruses hop with impunity across countries, it’s perhaps best to stay put and read a classic travelogue

A Time of Gifts

At this moment, travel seems to be a risk that only the truly adventurous — and strongly immune — can undertake. As viruses hop with impunity across countries and continents, thumbing noses at passport control and customs’ checkposts, it’s perhaps best to sit back in a cosy armchair and read a good travelogue and let someone else take the trouble and discomfort of bad food and inhospitable weather. And no book seems more apt right now than Patrick Leigh Fermor’s classic of travel writing, ‘A Time of Gifts’.

The book, the first in a trilogy, is Leigh Fermor’s memoir of his adventures while tramping across Europe just before the Second World War broke out. He set out on his epic journey in 1933 when he was 18 years old. He’d been thrown out of school after romancing a local girl and he headed to London with the vague idea of becoming a writer. But even in those days, it was a rather hard vocation to follow and so he decided that he’d be better off making his way on foot across Europe. This legendary trek would take him from Holland all the way to Constantinople.

Not just a travel journal

Leigh Fermor was known as much for his procrastination as his wit. It took him almost four decades to finish writing ‘A Time of Gifts’. It was published in 1977 when he was 62 years old. However, the time that lapsed between the actual journey and the author’s recounting of it, has, as Jan Morris, that other great English travel writer said, made it even more fascinating. Time adds a layered perspective to the narrative from the author who wrote it both as a young man and an older person. 

One of the great pleasures of reading this book is that it’s not just a travel journal. Instead, it captures a Europe where the old world was slowly disappearing and the shadow of fascism was lengthening across the continent. The year 1933 was when Hitler rose to power in Germany and Leigh Fermor arrives in the country to observe a society on the cusp of radical change. He moves through these towns and cities, making friends both high and low who open their houses — castles and more modest abodes — and lives to this charming Englishman.

As he wanders from the Rhine valley to the regions by that other great European river, the Danube, the ghosts of a culture that was soon to vanish crowd the pages. My favourite part in the book is where Leigh Fermor briefly meets a Syrian Jacobite Christian woman from the erstwhile Travancore who had made Vienna her home. Nothing much is said about her or how she came to be there, but Leigh Fermor’s description of her magnificent mauve and gold sari and fur coat is enough to whet the imagination. It’s unexpected cameos of these sorts and Leigh Fermor’s felicity with historical, literary and musical knowledge — a talent that erudite English raconteurs of a certain class and generation possessed in spades — that makes reading him such a delight.

The author is a Bangalore-based writer and communications professional with many published short stories and essays to her credit. 

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great. Come, raid the bookshelves with us.