Paddy’s journey: Gifts, woods and broken roads

Paddy’s journey: Gifts, woods and broken roads – a review of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about walking across Europe in 1933, and of the allure his story still holds

Gifts: Patrick Leigh Fermor passport photo
Patrick Leigh Fermor aged 18 – his passport photo

In December 1933 a young Englishman, just 18 years old, stepped off the ferry from London in Rotterdam. He shouldered a rucksack and set out on a walk across the continent that would take him, eventually, to Istanbul. His name was Patrick Leigh Fermor – Paddy. Forty-four years later he published an account of his journey. Or, rather, the first part of his journey – the book was conceived as a trilogy.

Although Paddy was known as a travel writer in 1977, it was this book – A Time of Gifts – that introduced him to a wider audience. Between the Woods and the Water, the second part of the trilogy came out in 1986 and suddenly he was famous. One reviewer described him as “perhaps the most captivating travel writer of the century”. But it was not until 2013 that the story was concluded in The Broken Road. And now you understand the title of this article.

Paddy’s spell

Paddy was not a prolific writer. In the end he wrote little more than a handful of books. But his style, observation, fascination with the most obscure and esoteric subjects, charm, daring and above all his command of English make each one of his books a fascinating read. His readers fall under a spell. There are societies dedicated to his memory, websites where his books are debated and many travellers have set out to follow in his footsteps.
I’m going to guess many, many more have thought about doing so. I’m one!

Gifts and Woods

A Time of Gifts coverA Time of Gifts tells the story of his journey through Germany, Austria and into Czechoslovakia during the earliest period of Nazi control. Paddy was aiming to live off £1 a week. (His family sent him his money by post a week or a month at a time, so he wouldn’t overspend. In the book he describes how sometimes, when his plans didn’t work out, he would be in fairly desperate economic straits. How he struggles to get to the next post office where his cash is waiting for him post restant.) He travelled on foot, sleeping out under the stars, or he stayed in the cheapest of hostels, or with people he met on the way.

The journey had a hard beginning. After a time, though, good fortune (and Paddy’s charm) led him into more aristocratic circles. A few introductions he’d brought with him from friends in London helped too. By the time he reached southern Germany and Austria he was being passed from one Schloss to another.

Between the Woods and the Water coverBetween the Woods and the Water sees him across Hungary and Yugoslavia to the Iron Gates, a gorge of the River Danube on the border with Romania. Continuing on from A Time of Gifts, Paddy keeps moving in aristocratic circles. At the same time he insists on walking and spends long periods alone on the road or travelling with gypsies.

The two books taken together, although written so long after, are still a fantastic record. They paint a picture of a post-First World War world that still remembers the pre-war empires of central Europe. A world soon almost completely erased by the horrors of the Second World War and the long period of Communist dictatorship that followed.

Broken roads

The Broken Road coverPaddy’s fans looked forward to the final volume. The book that would take him across the Balkans and bring him finally to Istanbul. It never came and Paddy died in 2011.

However, in 2013, his biographer Artemis Cooper and fellow travel writer Colin Thubron published The Broken Road. This is the conclusion to the story, edited from Paddy’s notes and diaries. It goes some way to satisfy those of us who were captivated by the first two volumes and looked for closure.

Paddy’s journey, which started in December 1933, came to an end in January 1935 just a month before his 20th birthday. He had a life of action and adventure ahead of him. He became a war hero and, after the Second World War, dedicated himself to Greece and all things Panhellenic. Travelling in the footsteps of the poet Byron, he was himself a Byronic character. One of his obituaries described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”. Another said he was a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”.

Ill met by Moonlight

Ill Met by Moonlight film posterAll his obituaries seem to mention the trilogy Gifts, Woods and Broken Roads as the second thing of importance about Paddy. They all start by describing his most daring exploit of the war. In 1944 on the island of Crete under German occupation, he led a group of Greek partisans to kidnap the German commander of the island. The partisans took the commander across the island, hiding him from search parties, and then smuggled him away to British-held Cairo. Later – in 1957 – this dramatic story was filmed as Ill Met by Moonlight. (Night Ambush in the USA, Generalen kidnappad in Swedish.)

There is an incident in the film that is very revealing of Paddy’s character. (It is described in the memoir Ill Met by Moonlight. If memory serves, I think it also made it into the film.)

The partisan Kreipe Abduction Team - Paddy is in the middle
The partisan Kreipe Abduction Team – Paddy is in the middle

As they were moving their German prisoner, General Karl Kreipe, across the island they came to Mount Ida. This, the highest point of Crete, was capped with snow. Looking up at the peak of the mountain, Kreipe recited the beginning of a Latin poem about another snow-capped mountain. Paddy recognised the poem and immediately recited the rest of it. Captor and captive realised they had something in common – a love of classical literature.

Common ground

Time and again in the trilogy Paddy demonstrates a similar ability to find common ground with people he meets – whether through literature, experience or empathy. It seems to me this is one of the secrets of his success, both as a traveller and a travel writer. His ability to open himself and build bridges with everyone he meets, whomever they may be. Early in the first book he stays overnight with a young man, a labourer he meets on the road. The young man turns out to be a Sturmabteilung member – one of the Brownshirts. Paddy gets him to confess that up until quite recently he was a Communist. They explore the reasons the young man switched sides.


Gifts: Paddy photographed by Dimitri Papadimos
Paddy photographed by Dimitri Papadimos

Paddy’s account of his adventure continues to inspire people. The idea that you  can just pick up your pack and step out onto the open road to meet adventure one day after another – it’s very alluring. One man who succumbed, journalist and travel writer Nick Hunt, set out in December 2011 to follow in Paddy’s footsteps.

Beyond buying roadmaps and putting out calls for accommodation, I deliberately did no research into where I was going. Paddy’s books, eight decades out of date, would be my only travel guide. With his experience underlying my own, I would see what remained of hospitality, kindness to strangers, freedom, wildness, adventure, the mysterious, the unknown, the deeper currents of mists and story I believed – or longed to believe – still flowed beneath Europe’s surface.

Nick Hunt completed the journey in 221 days – less time than it took Paddy. He also produced a book of his whole journey in far less time than it took Paddy! The book – Walking the Woods and the Water – is a very worthwhile read as a pendant to Paddy’s trilogy. I recommend it.

And my own walking adventure ambition? It is to cross Sweden in the footsteps of a gentleman with the mouth-filling name Bulstrode Whitelock. Whitelock was the ambassador of the Republic of England to the court of Queen Christina between 1653 and 1654. But more of that another time.

Picture acknowledgements: The passport photograph of the 18 year-old Paddy comes from the website of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society. The book covers all came from websites selling second hand copies of the books, except for The Broken Road, which is on my shelves here. The film poster of Ill Met by Moonlight I found on Pinterest and unfortunately can’t be more precise than that. The picture of the Kreipe Abduction Team and portrait of Paddy in middle-age are both from Wikipedia.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Age of Discovery at Museu de Marinha

I like history museums. It’s always interesting to see what history the museums choose to present, and the way they present it. It’s also telling to see what history they avoid presenting. Lisbon’s Museu de Marinha – the Maritime Museum – is a case in point.

Lisbon street with seaOn our way to the airport, the day we left Lisbon, the taxi driver asked how we’d enjoyed our visit. We made the usual noises about the fantastic weather, the food, the architecture. We said how much we liked that the city was built by the water. How much we missed that, living in Brussels which doesn’t even have a decent river, just a canal.

“And the history,” I said. “I like the history. I thought it was interesting to visit the Maritime Museum.”

“Ah, yes,” said the taxi driver. “If we have history, it’s all about the sea.” He was right about that.

Optical waves in tiles on Rossio squareLisbon is built on a tidal estuary – the mouth of the Tagus River where it opens into the Atlantic. You can see the water from many points in the city. Even when you can’t see it, it’s often present – in the architecture, in decorations, in monuments. And in the smell of the sea when the warm wind blows.

The second day of our holiday we took a train westward along by the side of the Tagus, four stops to Belém. In Belém, history and the sea are married even more closely. The train was crowded, every seat taken. Many teenagers in shorts and singlets and tennis shoes, suntanned limbs and cheerful faces, rolled towels and bottles of water. This was obviously the train to the beach. But the beach was not at Belém and only a few other tourists got out with us.

Tourist tram and Tuktuk at Praca de ComercioNot to say that Belém wasn’t busy. Tourist coaches, tourist trams, tourist tuk-tuks and private cars had all brought their share. The queue to get into the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Monastery of Jerome) snaked across a wide square and stood still under a blazing sun. We decided not to join it. What does it have to show anyway? We consulted our guidebook. “A monument to the wealth of the Age of Discovery… financed by ‘pepper money’, a tax levied on spices…” And it houses the tomb of Vasco de Gama.

Belem the queue at Mosterio de JeronimosOK. Let’s visit the Museu de Marinha instead, housed in one (more modern) wing of the Monastery. Cool, out of the sun, un-crowded, with maps and instruments of navigation, models of ships and… interesting lacunae.

Portugal’s maritime history begins with fishermen and traders long before the Reconquista and the siege of Lisbon. (See last week’s entry.) Right up until the early 1400s Portugal was little more than an outpost of Europe. A largely insignificant country – like England or Norway – on the edge of Europe, just scratching by. Because of a long coastline, many people fished for a living in the coastal waters. Because there were fisher folk, there were also sailors and shipbuilders. Inevitably there were merchants too, people who helped build trade routes up and down the Atlantic coast.

Henry the Navigator tileThen in the early 1400s, along came Infante Henrique – Prince Henry the Navigator. Henry was the third son of King João I and his English Queen, Philippa of Lancaster. (Incidentally, Philippa was the sister of England’s Henry IV. Henry’s daughter, also Philippa of Lancaster, later married Eric of Pomerania – Erik av Pommern – and became Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.)

Prince Henry (1394-1460) took what Portugal had in the way of seafaring expertise and made something more of it. His motivation – he claimed – was wholly holy. He wanted to carry the Reconquista onward into Africa, to take the crusade to the Moors. And he wanted to get back at the Arab pirates who regularly raided Portugal to carry villagers off into slavery.

Lateen sailTo this end he encouraged the development of faster, more nimble sailing vessels – the Portuguese caravel with its lateen sail. He financed exploration further and further out into the Atlantic and south along the western coast of North Africa. He may have set up a school of navigation, although this seems to be more of a legend than a fact.

It was on Henry’s efforts that future Portuguese exploration built – and a century of effort finally paid off in 1499. That was when da Gama returned to Lisbon after the first European voyage to India round the south of Africa. The cargo of spices da Gama’s ships brought back was worth many times more than the cost of the expedition.

Vasco da GamaThat’s the story the Maritime Museum tells, and it tells it well. A good story, with lots of detail and many objects displayed to bolster its veracity.

But it’s not the full story. Not by a long chalk.

So what’s missing?

Well, slavery for one thing.

It’s true that Henry the Navigator wanted to spread Christianity. It’s true he wanted to put an end to slaver raids on Portuguese territory. It’s also a fact he wanted to make money from the expeditions – but more often than not lost money instead.

Museu de Marinha - Portuguese discoveries camelsWestern Africa was a land of gold – certainly gold came out of western Africa. The Portuguese reasoned it must come from somewhere, and Henry’s explorers were trying to find where. They were not very successful. However, they could see that slaves were a valuable commodity in Morocco.

Rescuing kidnapped Portuguese from the pirate slave markets of Morocco, the Portuguese saw that black Africans were also being traded as slaves. Though they couldn’t find gold, they could certainly find people. From a very early stage, Prince Henry and his explorers started financing their exploration by raiding African villages for slaves. To begin with they sold the Africans to Moroccan slavers – the same people they wanted to stop trading in captured Europeans. Very soon, though, the Portuguese started using African slaves themselves.

Museu de Marinha - Portuguese discoveries map detail 5 - AtlanticAs the explorations continued, more Atlantic islands were discovered, claimed for Portugal and colonised. The Portuguese started to colonise Madeira from 1425 and the Azores from 1433. In both places, from 1450 Prince Henry was encouraging the colonists to cultivate sugar cane and sugar beet. Refined sugar was in great demand in Europe and so a valuable cash crop – but cultivating it was labour intensive. Slavery was the answer.

The transatlantic slave trade was born in the Portuguese island colonies. Throughout the 1400s it was the principle source of finance for the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

Hunted by fishAfterwards, of course, the Portuguese slave trade was eclipsed by the Spanish, the British, the French, the Dutch…  (Even Sweden had a small corner of it.) However, the former Portuguese colony of Brazil became the last country in the Americas to end slavery. It hung on till 1888.

Nowhere in the Maritime Museum is there a breath about any of this.

Quite a serious oversight I feel.

Parque metro station - Ship with negroesInterestingly, we did find one place where there’s at least a hint that some Portuguese have not completely forgotten this dark side of the Age of Discovery. Each of Lisbon’s underground stations has it’s own unique decorative theme. The nearest station to our hotel, Parque, was themed around the Age of Discovery. All the illustrations for this post that have dark blue backgrounds come from the tiles of the Parque station. And, as you see, here at least the slave ships figure.

There were other interesting absences in the Museu de Marinha. Nothing, for example, about the Portuguese Empire between 1600 and the French Revolution. (It was a period of decline when Portugal lost out to the Dutch and the British.) It was also curious to see how the museum chose to describe the loss of Portugal’s colony Goa to independent India in 1961. (Complete with a recording of funereal music.) Not to mention the veil drawn over the independence struggles of the African colonies 1961-1974.

Still, we enjoyed our visit. I’d go back again!

Museu de Marinha, Belem - Portuguese discoveries map detail 1 - navigator

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon – visited by tourists for at least 970 years, and by Mrs SC and me last week

Old Lisbon street in AlfamaIt’s a long, steep climb up from the river, through the narrow winding streets – some of them stairs – of the Alfama. Up, up to the highest battlements of the Castelo de Sao Jorge – Lisbon’s Castle of St George. You need to stop at times on the way. Stand in the shade of a wall. Sit for a glass of fresh pressed orange juice or a cup of coffee. Feel the heat and the history radiating from the walls and the streets’ mosaic paving.

You can see why these heights were attractive: easy to defend, hard to take. They command the mouth of the River Tagus – the Tejo – and the harbour below; the routes out to the Atlantic in one direction, inland to Iberia in the other.

Battlements of Castelo de Sao Jorge and view over LisbonThe castle was built by Portugal’s Moorish rulers in the 700s, though the archaeology confirms previous fortifications from Roman, Carthaginian and pre-historic times. From the 700s to the 1100s the castle grew, and the city it protected. By 1147 it was, if not impregnable, certainly a tough challenge. At that point the Reconquista – the Christian re-conquest of Islamic Iberia – had been underway for a good 300 years. The current local leader was Dom Alfonso, Count of Portugal. The Count’s army wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to the challenge of Lisbon’s fortifications.

Fortune brought him reinforcements.

Part of Castelo de Sao Jorge held together with staplesThe Second Crusade was underway. The Pope in Rome had given the Catalans, Castilians, and Portuguese dispensation to fight their own fight at home. He summoned everyone else to spill blood in the Holy Land. An armada of ships from around the English Channel and the North Sea collected and sailed from Dartmouth in England. Figures differ, but there may have been upward of 160 ships. They ran into bad weather and put into Oporto where Dom Alfonso seized the day.

He persuaded this motley gang of bruisers – sorry, army of noble knights – to stay and besiege Lisbon. In keeping with their Christian faith, they drove a hard bargain. Dom Alfonso had to agree to let them hold the city after they had captured it. Just for a period. Just until they had taken everything of value they found and all the ransom they could squeeze from their prisoners. Don Alfonso also promised them feudal estates in the territories they captured if they chose to stay. They wouldn’t have to pay taxes either.

Lisbon from Castelo de Sao JorgeThe siege began on 1st July 1147 and ended on 25th October. The castle was starved into submission, though later Portuguese mythology gave the credit to a Portuguese knight, Martim Moniz. The story is that Moniz saw the Moors had left a door open (because after a four-month siege the defenders would of course open a door). He forced himself into the doorway, sacrificing his own life to stop the Moors closing it. His heroism allowed time for his comrades in arms to reach him and break through door to capture the castle.

In fact the defenders negotiated a surrender which would allow them to leave the castle with their lives and goods intact. Once in possession the Crusaders reneged on this agreement.

Arches in the Cathedral CloisterAfterwards, while some Crusaders sailed on to Palestine and the otherwise unmitigated disaster of the Second Crusade, others stayed. One English knight – Gilbert of Hastings – became the Bishop of Lisbon. No doubt his holy work during the siege had qualified him for the job.

Gilbert’s Cathedral – Sé de Lisboa – was constructed on part of the ruins of the city after the siege. An archaeological excavation under the Cathedral’s cloister reveals Moorish, Roman and earlier remains, and the site is open to the public. Mrs SC and I stopped there on our climb to the castle and looked into the depths of history. A blackbird was singing in the excavation and then it flew down and under the arch of a Roman sewer where, presumably, it had a nest.

Mrs SC reviews the archaeology in the Cathedral CloisterUp on the battlements, when we finally reach them, the limestone of the walls is weathering. I can see fossilised mussel shells and the imprint of clams created millennia ago. Along one of the castle’s lower, broader shoulders pines in the hot sun scent the air. Hollow and decayed trunks of olive trees, looking old enough to remember the siege, yet sprout twigs with small bunches of grey-green leaves. There’s life in the old wood yet.

View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge
View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge looking west

A few words of extra information. My rather sententious account of the Crusaders capturing Lisbon depends to some extent on Wikipedia, to some extent on accounts available at Castelo de Sao Jorge and to some extent on the eye-witness account by Osbernus De expugnatione Lyxbonensi (The Capture of Lisbon) at the Medieval Sourcebook. I should probably add that by 1147 Dom Alfonso was recognisd by his own people as King of Portugal, but not by any other state or ruler. It wasn’t till 1179 that he managed to finesse his achievements in the Reconquista into Papal recognition as the first King of Portugal.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Flying the Yellow Jack

I’m now flying the yellow jack – carrying an international vaccination card. You may already know that the card is yellow, but it was news to me when I was given mine. I found the colour almost more interesting than the conversation I had with the doctor about what vaccinations I ought to have.

There was a queue of five outside the door of the Saint Pierre hospital’s Travel Clinic at 8.30 when they opened, and two more people and a family walked in directly after. Even though I had misread the opening times and been there since 8 o’clock, I still wasn’t first in line. Not that I was in a great hurry. I took my queue ticket and settled in the waiting room, watching the long ad for National Geographic that was looping on the TV screen. The American voices on the ad were muted but still audible under the French voice-overs. This, of course, was why we were here. All of us. The dream of travelling the world to film ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar, swim with whales off Baja California, fly with condors in the High Andes…

Well, perhaps not.

Most of my waiting-room fellows were French speakers, so, though I could overhear their conversations with the receptionists, I couldn’t understand what they said. Still, one worried looking young man cautiously picked his way through an explanation in English about losing his vaccination card, while the family turned out to be Canadians resident in Brussels but now on their way to Sri Lanka on a diplomatic posting.

My conversation with the receptionist (limping French and halting English) resulted in a form to fill out. Country of destination? Date of departure? Staying in the city or visiting the countryside? In hotels or with locals? Have you ever hade an inoculation for… and a list of diseases from mumps and measles via tetanus to cholera, hepatitis and rabies. There were clipboards and pens to borrow, The pens were with either red ink or green. I hesitated. Green seemed more appropriate somehow, healthier, but in the end I went for red. The colour of blood. (Not really, I know.)

The international vaccination card (Carte Jaune in French) – effectively a medical passport – is yellow. A rather dull and dirty yellow, mine anyway. You may already know this, but it was news to me when I eventually received mine. The colour was almost more interesting, I thought, than the conversation I had with the doctor about what vaccinations I ought to have.

I ended up with tetanus, (My old friend – can it be nearly twenty years since last? Yes, it can. Bitten by a dog while walking Hadrian’s Wall – but that’s another story.) And yellow fever.

Now, I know I’ve been inoculated against yellow fever before. It was when I was five-years-old and in preparation for our trip to Ghana. I remember it because I had a nasty local reaction to the jab, which seemed to be very deep and painful and produced a scab that left a scar. Theoretically, one yellow fever inoculation should last a lifetime, but with no documentation (come on, it was 53 years ago) it’s better to get the jab again and get a vaccinations card to prove it.

In fact, yellow fever is the one vaccination that is required for the vaccination card. Admiring the stamp in my card, I couldn’t help thinking there must be a connection – I was sure I’d read about it – a connection between the yellowness of the vaccination card and the yellowness of yellow fever. I was sure. I was certain. I was, it turned out, wrong.

Well, right, in a kind of roundabout way, but mostly wrong.

Once upon a very long time ago – possibly as far back as the early Middle Ages – people in Europe started to use a yellow mark or a flag as a plague warning. Houses where plague had broken out might be marked with a yellow cross, towns that were suffering from the plague might fly a yellow flag, warning visitors and travellers to keep their distance. Later hoisting an all-yellow flag (called the yellow jack in English) was a sign that there was plague on board a ship.

Now, plague doesn’t have to mean bubonic plague. Many things can plague us. Certain pop songs and advertising jingles come to mind. The Biblical plagues of Egypt included locusts and lice as well as boils and death.

From the end of the 15th century, as people learned to sail around the world, diseases from one place could easily be transported to another, where people had no resistance, and wipe out millions. Smallpox was one of Europe’s plague gifts to the Americas. Yellow fever was one of Africa’s plague gifts to Europe and the European colonists.

What yellow fever does to you, among other things, is attack your liver. This affects your blood supply because your liver is the organ where your body builds new red blood cells and filters out old ones blood cells. When the liver stops doing its job because it is under attack, old blood cells are not cleaned up properly. With a build up of old blood cells, your skin will begin to look increasingly yellow. Hence yellow fever. (Hepatitis and some other diseases do the same thing with much the same result.)

Yellow fever became a major terror in the 18th and 19th centuries. In cases where it was introduced to a population that had no resistance, it could have a mortality rate of 50% or more. Consequently, ships carrying passengers or crew who had gone down with yellow fever would raise the yellow jack when they came to a port, announcing their intention to go into quarantine.

From this comes one of the alternative names for yellow fever – yellow jack. Also the letter that the all-yellow flag signifies in flag semaphore – Q (for quarantine).

Customs change. Nowadays (so I am reliably – ahem – informed by Wikipedia) ships with disease aboard will fly a black-and-yellow checked flag (which signifies L – for leprosy – by the way). The all yellow flag nowadays indicates the ship believes it is now free of disease and is requesting a doctor’s visit to confirm this. In other words, the yellow jack is now a sign of health.

Which is why the international vaccination card is yellow – to show that the bearer is protected.

I have spent hours chasing after all this on-line – especially, I tried to find out why yellow, of all colours (it’s the colour of the sun and summer, damn it!) Why yellow has been associated in the West with disease. I turned up nothing definite there. But did you know that yellow fever, dengue, and the new media sensation zika are all related? All produced by strains of the flavivirus. Talk of a soon to be discovered vaccine for zika is based on the fact that we have an effective vaccination for yellow fever, but dengue has been with us as long as yellow fever and for dengue there is still no effective vaccine. So… don’t hold your breath. And try not to get bitten by mosquitoes wherever you may be travelling.

And why am I getting myself a yellow card and a yellow fever inoculation? I’m glad you asked! I’m setting out to collect a series of new and boosted vaccinations because I am rather hoping to be travelling back to Africa this year, next year, sometime…

My goal is to return to Ghana.

It’s now 52 years since I was there and I have been toying with the idea of going back for more than 10 years. I’m hoping 2016 or 2017 will be the year I finally do it. Inoculating myself is a first step on the way.

Yellow jack with yellow fever stamp in carte jaune

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.