What with the Queen Mary 2 anchored idly in the Channel off Weymouth, airlines taking our temperatures and requiring that we raise our hands to use the loo, and the fate of Harry’s Bar in Venice uncertain, travel these days is pretty much kaput. There is no way to know, when the world really opens again, whether China will revert to sending masses of tourists abroad, but even if she relents it still won’t be a pretty picture. Better perhaps to resign ourselves to that armchair for the long duration, which for some of us could be forever. The author, who is just past his allotted three score and ten, took a fine European trip and sea voyage a year ago and is very glad he did.

 Reading about travel need not be a mere surrogate for the real thing if we are selective. Travel writing is an abused genre, but we may skip the great bulk of it: the thousands of articles and books extolling life-changing experiences in the rainforest and proffering clichés about how travel broadens the mind and increases international understanding. There is a sliver of travel writing, however, that ranks as literature and rewards attentive reading. It is writing that suggests connections, extrapolations, echoes to a reader’s mind because those things suggested themselves within the writer’s mind during travel. It is less about movement as such than the place which one moves through or in which one happens for a time as a visitor to set down. 

Recently, I returned to two of the finest observers of history and culture through the lens of the open road—Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor— by reading them “at a distance” to a friend sealed off for the duration in a care home who can no longer read for himself. He has no computer, and so we commune the old-fashioned way, over the telephone. He has a speaker, which, when he pushes the button thereof, is my cue to begin. My friend is a former foreign service officer and widely traveled, and we share a certain fondness for Europe as we first knew it fifty years ago, when we were young.

Morris (b. 1926) and Leigh Fermor (“Paddy” to everyone who knew him; 1915–2011) share the same lofty constellation of great travel writers.  In one instance, their words appeared between the same covers. When A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor’s memoir recounting his walk at age nineteen from the Hook of Holland toward Constantinople in 1933 and 1934, appeared in 1977, his publisher John Murray VI asked Morris to write an introduction. Even then, Morris had written far more than Leigh Fermor, across a global canvas, and probably enjoyed greater fame. Nevertheless, she tipped her hat without hesitation to her colleague’s “preeminence as one of the great prose stylists of our time” and seconded Murray’s judgment that A Time or Gifts was genius: “I agree with him, and so will posterity.”

Leigh Fermor’s great tale (which ultimately ran to three volumes, the last left unfinished and published posthumously) manages a rare trick. It speaks simultaneously through two voices of two parallel journeys. First it is Paddy Leigh Fermor the exuberant, expensively educated English youth of the 1930s, kicked out of King’s School in Canterbury for flirting with the greengrocer’s daughter, bitten by wanderlust and looking for something to write about, who actually made the journey. Then there is Leigh Fermor the legendary kidnapper of a German general in Crete and the learned, lyrical writer who forty years later fashioned a piece of historical literature from memory. It is a true story, even though it could not have possibly been experienced in the moment exactly as the sixty-something author wrote it.

Anthonie Delorme, Interior of the Grote Kerk, Rotterdam, 1656,
oil on canvas.  Photo: Johnny Van Haeften Limited, London.

Leigh Fermor’s slow wander up the Rhine and down the Danube, talking to everyone, alternately living rough and hosted by nobility, comprises the most remarked passage of the book. He had the touch, though, from the very start, when the Dutch steamer Staathouder Willem deposited him in Holland on a snowy December 10, 1933. That first morning on the Continent, as recorded in the first pages of A Time of Gifts, sets the pattern. He happened into Rotterdam’s Groote Kirk, where his keen visual sense as a young man is given full voice by the writerly perspective he developed as he aged. Leigh Fermor depicts gray masonry and whitewash, high arches and chessboard black-and-white flagstone floors. Though it was empty at that early hour, he populated the church with what he knew of art: “So compellingly did the vision tally with a score of half-forgotten Dutch pictures that my mind’s eye instantaneously furnished the void with those seventeenth-century groups which should have been sitting or strolling there: burghers with pointed corn-coloured beards—and impious spaniels that refused to stay outside—conferring gravely with their wives and children, still as chessmen.” He traveled without set itinerary or schedule (but for a few prearranged post offices where he picked up his monthly allowance from home), and how long he paused here or there came down to whim. This occasioned, later, some gentle regrets. “Except for this church,” he wrote of Rotterdam, “the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.”

For utter ignorance of politics Leigh Fermor later confessed embarrassment, but it was an omission that kept his head and eyes clear at the time. That very year of Hitler’s rise to power, Paddy could talk with an obnoxious young stormtrooper in a Westphalian Weinstube with the same equanimity with which he flirted with the innkeeper’s pretty daughter. As a document of the last of the old Europe, A Time of Gifts stands out poignantly. What better material than such a free-form journey, wrote Morris (who applied the same technique in her wanderings about countless locales) in her introduction, “for a retrospective book looking back at pre-war Europe across a darkling plain of history and experience.” Still alive in the public consciousness when Leigh Fermor set out was “the Europe of the princes and peasants, of Franz Josef and Kaiser Wilhelm, of grand old cities still intact and ancient traditions honored.” The aristocrats, Jews, and gypsies with whom young Paddy so merrily consorted would be swept away and paved over by heinous totalitarianism, against which a decade later Leigh Fermor fought heroically as a soldier. Through his books, he constructed a lasting literary memorial to a continent that quickly changed. Counting from when he began up until his death in 2011 when he was still struggling with the third volume, it required of him a lifetime.

As chroniclers of places that once were but are no longer, Morris and Leigh Fermor have few equals. One of Morris’s finest works, on her favorite city, Trieste (in the days of the Habsburgs, “Vienna’s port”), is one such meditation on loss and getting on with life in history’s long shadow. A smaller-scale example, though one to which this writer can testify personally, involves Chicago. For a magazine I once edited, Morris agreed to write an essay on the Second City.  She had initially visited Chicago, “my first American city,” in 1953, riding west on The Twentieth Century Limited just a day after stepping off the boat from England. Her requirements for a revisit in the late 1980s, in addition to the fee, were round-trip business-class tickets from London and a good hotel for four or five days. She was very professional and promised delivery on departure. We breakfasted that morning at the old Mayfair Regent on East Lakeshore Drive, and on the corner of the table beside the orange juice rested a neat pile of manuscript, face down. She said nothing about it until it was time to go. “Now Tim, here it is, but you can’t have it quite yet.” She promised to overnight it from Manhattan in a couple days, which she did. We ran it proudly, and it was later republished in her book Locations as “Chicago: Boss No More.”

To finish the piece, she had to leave the place, because she wanted to recount her rattling departure from Chicago on The Lakeshore Limited (“no Twentieth Century”), back to New York.  Paddy Fermor also needed distance, one of several decades, from his experience of place before he could tell us about it. She needed space. He needed time. Both had to get away from it, before they could get it down.