In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, aged 18, set out on foot – carrying only a backpack and boots – from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn of Istanbul, walking through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. His subsequent trilogy (consisting of A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road) documents his experiences. Together, they form a portrait of a changing Europe, as “Paddy” journeys though a plethora of cultures and meets people from all walks of life, bearing witness to landscapes and societies along the way.
Reading these books in early 2021 (aged 18, just as Paddy was), during yet another month of enforced lockdown seclusion, I wanted nothing more than to do the same. So I am.
Down the Rhine, down the Danube
I started putting together a list of the places Paddy visits in the trilogy, using, of course, the books themselves, and also a list fellow fanatic and emulator Nick Hunt put together. Having collated a rough list, I began to plot the place names: reordering them and, in a few cases, figuring out the modern-day renderings of their place names (this was most common in the ex-communist nations). This left me with the basis for my route and a nigh-concrete plan for Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary.
Regarding my planned route through Romania and Bulgaria in particular, this I had to alter pretty drastically from the path Paddy took in the 30s. In the books, it becomes especially hazy here where exactly he stayed and the line he took: often doubling back on himself or re-entering the country from a different point. Either way, it is both confusing and impractical, and the Romanian and Bulgarian lands of the 1930s are rather different from their outlook today. After consulting some family friends, colleagues and guidebooks, I hope the route that I have chosen through Eastern Europe builds on its predecessor.
The Dutch spanner in the works
Unfortunately, Covid and an indecisive Dutch government held up my departure. I delayed a good few weeks, waiting and waiting for the Netherlands to open back up and allow in UK tourists. However, it reached a point in mid-January when I realised I needed to make a decision. I needed to start.
Not wanting to spend ten days in Covid quarantine in the Netherlands, I opted to save this short – less than a week’s walking – and flat part of the walk till the end of my adventure. Bureaucratic fine print — ever so graciously — allowed me twelve hours to transit the country; by tram, bus, and train I made my way from the ferry port of the Hook of Holland (Paddy arrived off the Stadthoulder Willem directly from Tower Bridge, while I off a Stena Britannica from Harwich), through Rotterdam to Nijmegen and then finally on to Groesbeek a few miles from the German border. There began my walk.
Merely points on a map
The map above represents the overall route I plan to follow. It was the culmination of the research described above (i.e. not Paddy’s route, but rather my route). During the walk, I am keeping the logbook page updated, which reflects where I visit and the distances I travel more accurately.
Paddy is of course the initial inspiration for the walk, but the walk is not at all intended to be a point-by-point act of imitation and/or devotion.
Authenticity through inspiration: this is my own pilgrimage and every path tells.