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A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts (1977)

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: On Foot to Constantinople (1)

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In 1994, for reasons I still cannot explain easily, I made my first independent trip to Austria. I flew into Munich and then continued onwards by train, first to Salzburg and then to Vienna. It was a revelation. The railway from Salzburg to Vienna roughly parallels the Danube, though at some considerable distance most of the time; the towns and villages were strange to me, yet in some ways oddly familiar. Castles and monasteries dotted the landscape, often occupying lofty heights. I was amazed; nothing I had ever seen in print or on film had prepared me for this. "Zu mir ist alles in Österreich neu" I said to a fellow traveller. "To me, everything in Austria is new."

Then, about two hours into the journey, we rounded a bend in the track and a stupendous building hove into view, standing on a rocky outcrop just on the other side of a small town. It had domes, and spires, and flying buttresses, and it was gigantic and ornate and I think my jaw dropped open. I was utterly transfixed; why had I never heard of this place before?

This was my first view of the monastery of Melk. (Sadly, present-day train travellers do not have this pleasure; the upgrading of the railway between Salzburg and Vienna has meant that the high-speed trains now plunge into a tunnel avoiding Melk.) Some sixty years earlier, the 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor had a similar reaction on first encountering Melk from the banks of the Danube; and like me, he was experiencing the reality of travelling through Europe first hand for the first time. But he was doing it the really difficult way - on foot.

In 1933, Paddy Leigh Fermor dropped out of a fairly good public school and decided to walk across Europe to Constantinople (Istanbul). He determined to go on the tramp as an itinerant scholar, sleeping where he could and talking to whoever crossed his path. Within ten years, he achieved some notoriety in the fighting on Crete in the Second World War, operating behind the lines, organising the Cretan resistance, and kidnapping the German general in command of the island and spiriting him away to Cairo on a motor-boat. On the strength of the story that he starts in 'A Time of Gifts', this was a role he had been preparing for all his life. Certainly his ability to fit in and move, reasonably unhindered, across Europe at a time of political turbulence, well fitted him for masquerading as a Cretan shepherd. Like other British officers, in later life he turned to literary endeavours and had a successful career as a writer. 'A Time of Gifts' was started in the 1970s when Leigh Fermor was in his sixties; it is a reconstruction from his memories and incomplete notes. He continued the story in 'Between the Woods and the Water'; he never completed the third, concluding volume, though it has now been assembled and published as 'The Broken Road'.

He captures well the wide-eyed innocence of his youth; few of his reminiscences are marred by our, and his, knowledge of what was to come, although that is very much a subtext, especially when he explores the streets of Cologne or encounters hospitable and erudite Jews everywhere along his journey. He even maintains that sense in recounting encounters in Germany with the then-new Nazi regime, its supporters and the ordinary people who had little time for Hitler. He also has a (nearly) eye-witness account of what the Austrians call "the Civil War", the internecine conflict between militias of the Left and Right. If all your knowledge of inter-war Austria comes from "The Sound of Music", this will come as a shock.

But there are many pleasures to be had from this book, too. Leigh Fermor's complete guilelessness enables him to fall in with ordinary workers and peasants as well as members of the aristocracy which he seems to gravitate towards, only partly due to contacts from his family and friends back in the UK. He hitches rides on lorries or on a barge on the Rhine; the description of Rhineland river traffic is timeless, even though so much has changed since.

Leigh Fermor took one other thing with him on his tramp; a classical education, though his own opinion of his school career is brutally negative. Nonetheless, as a minor member of the English gentry, he had that classical education even if he did absorb it by osmosis rather than by scholastic endeavour. His reactions to the art, literature, architecture and accounts of historical personages he encounters on his way shows this, and sometimes the book does divert into detailed and quite florid descriptions of artistic movements, of minor Habsburg nobles, of events and people long since consigned to history. This can make the eyes glaze over a little, but the older Leigh Fermor manages to inject his youthful exuberance and zest for life into the account, even at something like forty years' remove.

This book will not be to everyone's taste; the historic and artistic diversions can be a distraction, though when he takes a side excursion to Prague it is fascinating to read his account in the knowledge that he did not anticipate ever being able to see it again. The political changes of the late 20th century have changed all that, and for some in our modern age of mass travel, Prague and Bratislava are perhaps too ordinary to notice when compared with more exotic long-haul destinations. I also found, from time to time, that he dropped a name into the conversation which I recognised and took delight in; for instance, he references Jaroslav Hasek's great comic novel 'The Good Soldier Švejk" in its proper setting.

In his journeys through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary), he continually comes across reminders of the only then recently departed Empire as he encounters portraits of Franz Josef in offices and living rooms, or other relics of the k.u.k (Kaiserlich und Königlich, or Imperial and Royal) past. "Alles k.u.k-lich" some Austrians say, even now, "Everything Imperial style"; I have had conversations with old boys in Viennese cafes who are surprised that an Englishman can have an interest in the "old Empire"; it appears I am certainly not the first.

In this book, I have found echoes of things I have seen, experiences I have had and the sort of conversations I have had in trains and in cafes between the Channel and Vienna. It is a book that speaks to me directly. I think I have a new favourite book. ( )
3 vote RobertDay | Jun 27, 2018 |
What a gem of a book! I can't believe I have never been recommended this book by anyone I know personally and had to find out about it reading reviews online. This book contains the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor as he left his England in 1933 and set off on foot to Constantinople at age 19. This is the first of what is a trilogy, and it takes him across the Channel through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. If nothing else, this is great literature and Fermor is a master at weaving together descriptive language, culture, history, social customs, and personal interactions. The whole time I was reading, I could not help but think of how exciting it would have been to take this journey with this impressive thinker. Very excited to have found this and am ordering the next in the trilogy right away. ( )
  msaucier818 | Apr 9, 2018 |
Half star removed for his brief forays into self-conscious artiness; otherwise, a wonderful chronicle of Europe before the war. ( )
  nog | May 9, 2017 |
What a wonderful strange crazy thing to do -- and lucky us, who get to tag along for it.
1 vote revliz | Jan 7, 2017 |
In December 1933, 19 year old Patrick Fermor set off on a walking tour from Rotterdam to Constantinople. This is the first volume of his memoir of the trip, written many years later. Setting out with a very limited budget, his traveling required a lot of flexibility and the charity of others; he spent one night in a palace and the next night sleeping in a barn. Along the way, he was befriended by everyone from ordinary workers to members of the nobility. Traveling in 1933-1934, he reports on the opinions about the political changes in the countries he visits in a way not found in more conventional history books. He did not, however, get all of his facts straight: As a small point, he identified the Inn as the river between Augsburg and Munich (the river he probably meant was the Lech).

The book belongs to the classics of travel literature and is a pleasure to read. ( )
  M_Clark | Sep 9, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
Patrick Fermor was only 18 when, abandoning a proper education in England, he decided to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. His accounts of that journey, which lasted from December 1933 until January 1937, were quickly declared classics of travel writing when they were published in 1977 - a verdict unlikely to be overturned even though the projected third and final volume has not appeared. .... Jan Morris calls Mr. Fermor a "born irregular." He is also a peerless companion, unbound by timetable or convention, relentless in his high spirits and curiosity.

» Add other authors (19 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Leigh Fermor, Patrickprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Craxton, JohnCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morris, JanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I struck the board and cry'd 'No more;
I will abroad'.
What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind.
-- George Herbert
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Dear XAN,
As I have only just finished piecing these travels together, the times dealt with are very fresh in my mind and later events seem more recent still; so it is hard to believe that 1942 in Crete, when we first met - both of us black-turbaned, booted and sashed and appropriately silver-and-ivory daggered and cloaked in white goats' hair, and deep in grime - was more than three decades ago.
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Book description
An account of the first part of a journey on foot across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople; 1933/34.
Memoir, travelogue, historical and cultural overview.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140049479, Paperback)

A renowned British travel writer's chronicle of his 1200-mile walking trip from Holland to Hungary in 1934 at the age of eighteen provides insight into a Europe hovering on the brink of World War II.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:27 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

At the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey--to walk to Constantinople." A Time of Gifts" is the rich account of his adventures as far as Hungary.

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