I recently mentioned the section on Mount Athos contained in Patrick Leigh Former’s book The Broken Road.
However, the larger portion of The Broken Road deals with his walk from the Iron Gates through Bulgaria and Romania and back along the Black Sea coast again in Bulgaria towards (what he calls) Constantinople. The detailed descriptions of those he met and his impressions of the countryside are fascinating. Of course, as is sometimes said, the best way to see a country is on foot, and there was much to observe, including the numerous ethnic groups he encountered and their lives in an era that in many ways were yet to change much from the way things had been for centuries. Only for a little while in Bulgaria does he admit to a touch of dejection, while “in the most primitive village house I had so far seen”, where there could have been “little change since Omurtag’s day“.
Fermor seems to have had an uncanny knack of landing on his feet, and so it was in Bucharest where, after initially staying at a cheap hotel where the main clients were “ladies of the night” – with whom he struck up good (platonic) relationships – he ended up staying with a German diplomat and thus was introduced to the upper echelons of Bucharest society. In the next few years, he spent quite some time in Romania, so his initial impressions as set out in this book are (as he admits) influenced by his later experiences.
In relation to Romania, he also states that nearly all the people mentioned in this book “were attached to tails of powder which were invisibly burning, to explode during the next decade and a half, in unhappy endings” (during World War 2 and the subsequent communist regime in Romania).
He also gives an “overview” of Romanian history. “Overview” is perhaps over-stating it; his description is more an extremely high-level account of what is now Romania over the last 1000 years. I can’t pretend to have absorbed it all, but clearly there’s a lot of history behind the principalities of Wallahia and Moldavia, the boyars, the relationships with the Ottomans and the emergence of “modern Romania” under King Carol 1 – aspects of history that we don’t learn about here.
Also of interest was an insight into how Fermor managed to keep up his supply of cash, before the advent of travellers cheques and ATMs. This was by having money sent by registered mail from England, several pounds at a time (those were the days), apparently on an approximately weekly basis. He wrote to whoever was the source of the funds naming the town he was heading for, and collect the funds at the poste restante.
Seemingly the mail was reliable in those days, as he says not once during his entire journey did any money ever go astray. And it seems that English currency could be quite readily exchanged, although in Romania and Bulgaria the black market rate – readily available in shops or at money changers – was almost double the official rate given by banks.
The book finishes half-way through a sentence – as Fermor had left it – while he was in Burgas, a Bulgarian town on the Back Sea. Cursory fragments of his diary while in “Constantinople” are set out, although the editors comment that, had he put his mind to it, Fermor’s description of that city would have been fascinating.
A fascinating read.
UPDATE: Since first posting this post, I have started reading A Time for Gifts. In that book, Fermor mentions that he did study classical Greek at school which subsequently helped him come to grips with modern Greek. He also explains his allowance was £1 a week.