It’s a tip told to all travelers: seek treasure in the journey, not the destination. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s cross-continental trip, A Time of Gifts, celebrates this simple-daily-pleasures perspective – and reminds us that joy will always be discovered in the unlikeliest places.
A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1977
Recently removed from school for a minor discretion (flirting with a local girl), 18-year-old Fermor declares himself unfit for further academics or the popular alternative, a military career. His best and only option is to head out, just weeks before Christmas, 1933, from his English apartment to Constantinople, Turkey. On foot.
Fermor is too young to feel daunted by this scheme, and his idealistic enthusiasms serve as the best companion during the ensuing months’ walk. Sleeping in barns and relying on the astonishing kindness of strangers, the Brit documents Europe’s eminent political changes with rarely a complaint for the snowy track, or the state of his hobnailed boots. Whether trading cigarettes for a fresh loaf of bread or crashing the dinner party of a hospitable Count, Fermor never loses appreciation for travelers’ joys (like an extra boiled egg at breakfast).
What’s more remarkable about this already distinctive journey? Fermor kept a detailed journal but only turned the trek into a travel book nearly 40 years later. Thus A Time overflows with subtexts and updates, foreshadowing and the sort of detailed pedagogical facts that came from his lifetime interest in language, art, history and nomadic traditions. Many of the regional cultures he interacted with would disappear soon after, leaving an additional legacy of remembrance between these pages.
Fermor disembarks at the Hook of Holland, boots laced for the trek ahead. Though the Rhine and the Danube rivers guide the author’s westerly direction, he is vocally susceptible to detours.
He crosses The Netherlands to Cologne, Germany, following the Rhine up to Bavaria. Outside Munich, Fermor meets a generous Baron, whose many European connections will hook the traveler up with bedrooms for lucky portions of his journey. Next: Salzburg, Austria; the old Kingdom of Bohemia; the famed abbey of Melk.
Fermor’s 19th birthday arrives outside Vienna. Nearly broke, he sells portrait sketches for spare change, then continues on to Czechoslovakia and Bratislava. Prague captivates his attention as one of the strangest and most beautiful places in the world.
Wandering across the Hungary/Czechoslovakia border, Frontier Guards arrest him as a suspected smuggler, before realizing the mistake and send Fermor over the Danube once more. At Esztergom, we leave our traveler on a bridge, savoring one last glance of the city as a To Be Continued . . . settles over his shoulders.
This book is not for everyone. While I strongly dislike that caveat – because I believe that all readers are of capable of trying – Fermor’s narrative may challenge even the most well-rounded armchair escapist. His meandering insights often require a pause with Google to clarify some Latin phrase or Germanic myth.
If you’re comfortable losing a few nuggets along the way (or are the sort to enjoy earmarking lines with penciled musings), then consider Fermor a long-lost favorite. I confess to missing quite a few facts from start to finish, but still reached the To Be Continued page with a nostalgia typically saved for goodbyes with old friends.
One can’t help but follow Fermor’s route with affable admiration. His explosive wonder at the world is infectious – and reading this renowned travel narrative is a gift of its own. Thank goodness he split his tale into two more additional titles, Between The Woods And The Water and The Broken Road. Because if the world needs anything right now, it’s unrestricted positivity and a hopeful, daily march toward unknown horizons.
Have you read this book? What historic travel tale would you recommend next?
Looking for another travel book infused with optimism? Read about what happens when one man’s loss of direction turns 12 months into an opportunity for feathered discovery…