Between the woods and the water – Part 1 (Hungary to Romania)

“Between the woods and the water” is one of my favourite books of all time. People say this frequently, but in this case it is true. I have many books which are like dear friends, to which I return time and again. Many of Paul Theroux’s volumes on travel fall into this category, as do Colin Thubron’s. However, this book is one which I will treasure, as I find myself on Patrick’s journey in my mind, and think of particular sections when I need to cheer myself up. That is what makes this book so special. As well as wishing that I could have met the author, I also found myself wishing to meet one of the animals he encountered, a horse named “Malek”. Malek’s character adds to the atmosphere of Leigh-Fermor’s writing, and brings a new dimension to his travels.

A book like this deserves more than one post, but it would likely be as long as his book!

For anyone coming fresh to Patrick Leigh-Fermor (PLF) and his writing, a brief introduction is in order. PLF set out in December 1933 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, modern Istanbul. The journey took almost two years, and even in modern times, this would be a daunting task.

This volume starts where “A time of gifts” ends, on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, in Esztergom. Friends made along the way tended to write to people they knew, in order to procure assistance for him. In this instance, he ends up meeting the Mayor of Esztergom, and finds himself in a church service on Holy Saturday. His attention to detail is remarkable, though my favourite sections of his writing are when he is in between towns, describing the countryside and people that he comes upon at random.

Esztergom Basilica (Image copyright NatashaP)

What a magnificent building. There is a link to Natasha’s Flickr stream below the picture. After the service, the Mayor puts him up at a friend’s house, but not before checking out some storks nesting in a nearby belfry. The procession to the basilica causes them, and most of the others in the town, to rise into the air with a distinctive clapping sound. By the end of the service, they are snoozing peacefully again.

Budapest, to hear PLF describe it, had just been recaptured from the Turks when he visited. Put up by Tibor and Berta, he spends time at a Ball with a charming girl called AnnaMaria, and bumps into friends from earlier in his trip, “A csodalatos Koschkak!”, the Koschkak Brothers. Another contact made for him was with Paul Teleki, the ex-Prime Minister, who had mapped the Japanese Archipelago, and the boundaries of Mesopotamia. He notes with sorrow that his friend subsequently committed suicide, when the Germans invaded Yugloslavia across Hungary in 1941. Budapest is something of a chance to recharge batteries and regroup for him, and he makes the most of his visit, planning the next stages carefully, and riding at a military stables just outside the city. He describes this as a “discrete form of vetting”, and he was equipped with Malek shortly afterwards.

It is clear that he is aware of travelling through a Europe that was vanishing, even as he wrote about it. There is a strong sense of nostalgia in his writing, as he describes treaties, sieges and conquests. I find his writing very educational as well, and am always tempted to go and try to learn some of the jaw-breaking languages that he tackled. To be sure, a good Classical education stood him in good stead, regardless of school reports. A familiarity with Horace’s Odes would ultimately prove a point of common ground during the Second World War, when he abducted General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete.

The Great Hungarian Plain brings PLF back to the kind of writing that I enjoy best, full of evocative description. Here is a bit from his first evening out with Malek on the plain:

“These lonely uprights give an air of desolation to the plain: they resemble derelict siege-engines by day and the failing light turns them into gibbets or those wheel-topped stakes in pictures by Hieronymous Bosch where vultures wrangle over skeletons spread-eagled in mid-air.

The evening was full of the see-saw creak of their timbers. At one of them, by a ruined farmhouse with a stork’s nest in the rafters, two dismounted drovers were toiling: their wide, white linen trousers, worn loose outside black knee-boots, came halfway down the calves of their legs. They had finished watering a large herd of remarkable pale cattle with almost straight horns of enormous span that filled the air with trampling and lowing and dust. When the drovers had remounted, I waved a greeting. They lifted their black hats with ceremony and wheeled their horses around, then, abetted by rough-coated white dogs, they spurred after the herd, trotting or cantering on the outskirts and whirling long goads to keep strays from wandering. The declining sun outlined all their silhouettes. Haloed in dust and trailing long shadows, they moved westward with a noise of harsh cries, dogs and a jangle of horns and bells. a stork joined its mate in the rafters, probably after swallowing a last frog captured at some quieter oasis and I trotted east towards the darker end of the plain. The clouds had flushed an astonishing pink.

But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants…the less said the better.”

Arad at sunset

His travels across the plain and into Rumania took him to a town called Arad (above), where he was interested to hear more Hungarian than Rumanian, and noted Hungarian, Jewish and German names above many of the shops. He describes Arad as being about the size of Guildford (as it was in 1934), and famous for the Austrian execution of thirteen Hungarian generals, after Kossuth’s uprising against Habsburg rule in 1848. While there, he encountered and sketched Izabella. He found the sketch at the back of his notebook, while writing this book, nearly fifty years later, looking “almost as pretty as she had in real life”. This is the shade of someone long since gone, and I find myself worrying about wether or not they survived the coming war. I’ve often found myself thinking like that about people, in my favourite books.

I think that this is a good place to stop, with PLF getting ready to play skittles with Brother Peter of the Franciscan Abbey of Maria Radna. The story continues, but I’ll finish it in a second post. Dracula, Ada Kaleh and the Iron Gates of Kazan are still to come.