Perceptive Travel Book Reviews April 2014
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: A 1930s romp through central Europe, a tagalong’s look at the modern shipping industry, and a book you can judge by the bad pun on its cover.

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos
by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Although not widely known outside the United Kingdom, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011, is one of the 20th century's doyens of British travel literature. He spent the last decades of his colorful life living in a remote corner of the southern Peloponnese of Greece (in a house that was featured in the 2013 film Before Midnight), and is well known for classic travel books to Greece. But it was the trip he took in his extreme youth that turned him into a travel writer and which gave rise to the posthumously published book under review here.

When he was just eighteen and after having been expelled from various schools in England, Paddy (as he was always known) set off to walk across Europe from the North Sea to Constantinople. The first two volumes of the trilogy published in 1977 and 1986 got him as far as the Iron Gates, a gorge on the Danube in Southwest Romania. The final installment that covered his months of walking through Romania and Bulgaria was eagerly awaited for decades. It was not until Fermor was into his 90s that he was persuaded to return to a long neglected draft about those long-ago adventures of the mid-1930s and, with the help of two sensitive editors, bring to fruition the final volume.

Given the passage of time (and the loss of his notebooks), the vividness of the landscapes and escapades recounted is astonishing. The fearlessness and exuberance of youth leap off the page: people and events are larger than life, mountain landscapes are sublime, hovels are like Aladdin's caves. Perhaps it is necessary to suspend our disbelief a little—Fermor confesses that he may have embroidered memories—but his brio, enthusiasm, and story-telling gift carry the reader along. It may not be altogether likely that after finding himself lost and half-drowned on the shores of the Black Sea, he would be rescued by some rough but kind-hearted fishermen, who bring out their ancient musical instruments and begin to dance. But who cares? Near the beginning of the book he is befriended by a pretty Bulgarian girl, Nadejda. From a chest of costumes, he dresses her up as a Circassian princess in order to draw her. It is as though many of his memories have been similarly attired in fancy dress creating a delightful spectacle for the reader.

We are exposed to a Middle Europe that no longer exists. This was a far less suspicious time than our own, when a well-connected young Englishman might be invited to stay with the British Consul and local hospitality to strangers was lavishly bestowed. The historical aspect is fascinating but also poignant. Only a few years later, Hitler would be rampaging over the continent. With hindsight, Fermor inserts, "Nearly all the people in this book, as it turned out, were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning, to explode during the next decade and a half, in unhappy endings."

The engaging vigor of the man inhabits his prose style as well. He loves language and throws in asides about the origins of words, for example who knew that "bugger" comes from Bulgarus, a name given to a Bulgarian sect of heretics later associated with abominable practices? But it is the beauty of the writing that gives most pleasure. For example describing a valley in Bulgaria where the main industry is distilling attar of roses: "The valley is aswoon, and the petals, bursting out of their sacks on the carts and wagons in which they are piled, scatter the dusty roads with crimson like the lurching retreat to his cavern of a mortally wounded ogre."

This is the travel equivalent of a picaresque novel, recounting the entertaining adventures of a charming hero who lives by his wits. The final third of the book is taken directly from a surviving journal Fermor kept in the first months of 1935 when he stayed in the semi-autonomous region of Mount Athos in northeast Greece. He walked between most of the Eastern Orthodox monasteries on the Holy Mountain, which can still be visited with the right permit (but only if you are male).

Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men
by Horatio Clare

From a world where youthful appetites of all kinds can be indulged, this book plunges us into a much more abstemious regime, the world of commercial shipping. While researching a chapter called "Working a Passage" in the first edition of my book Work Your Way Around the World in 1982, I unearthed occasional tales of young adventurers who had exchanged hard graft for transport on a cargo ship. Although that kind of thing doesn't happen any more, the life of a working freighter continues to fascinate, and this book provides a penetrating insight into this little understood world.

container ship

The author managed to persuade the mighty Danish container shipping company Maersk to accept him on two long voyages, as a kind of writer-in-residence. (As an aside, it was a Maersk ship that was hijacked in the 2013 film Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks. Fervently as Horatio Clare longed to remain onboard as the ship crossed waters potentially infested with Somali pirates, the company made him disembark at Suez and rejoin the ship in Singapore.)

Although the back cover boldly categorizes this book as Travel Writing, it hovers on the margins of the genre. The "traveling" of seafarers is not the kind we would recognize. Twenty-first century cargo collection and drop-offs are so mechanized and swift that shore leave is seldom possible and exposure to foreign lands is confined to soulless container terminals. No pyramids or souks for these sailors, let alone a "woman in every port", because these men occupy what Clare calls the "parallel world" of shipping lanes, cranes and oil refineries. In this parallel world, even something as tame and familiar as the English Channel becomes exotic and potentially dangerous. Yet the harshness is relieved by the beauties of the natural world which Clare describes so lyrically: "We approach Egypt as night falls, passing south of Crete and beating on through spectral waters. The moon's broad path is cut with shadows like phantom ships. The air is milky and hot. The sea lies right down, darkest silver-blue and alive, flowing past us like a snake".

Evocative as his descriptions of the sea are, the central interest of the book lies with the characters he comes to know over two long and arduous voyages. The majority of crew are non-unionized Filipinos, and he is exercised by the disparity in their pay relative to Europeans hired through less exploitative channels. Whatever their nationality and background, these seafarers bear privations stoically, from the diesel fumes that pour into their cabins to the suffocating heat of the engine room, from the absolute prohibition on alcohol on board to the patchy internet connection. The author's gathering respect and even affection runs deep for these men whose labors make it possible for tons of Iranian dates, Vietnamese toys, Dutch flower bulbs, Latvian clothing, Polish glue, and a thousand other products to scoot over oceans and show up in our stores.

Strip Pan Wrinkle (in Namibia and Botswana)
by David Fletcher

The tortured pun of the title does not bode well, referring to the Caprivi Strip of Namibia, the Makgadikgadi Pan of Botswana and I never did figure out what the wrinkle was. At one of the expensive safari lodges described in excessive detail, we hear of a man seen at the poolside who combines "a posing pouch with an imposing paunch". You begin to see why Dr. Johnson believed that puns are the lowest form of humor, though arguably the slapstick of the narrator putting his rain cape on back to front so that the hood covers his face sinks even lower.

A fictional curmudgeon, Brian, is on an expensive wildlife-viewing holiday in Southern Africa with his long-suffering wife Sandra. Apparently this is only one in a series of "Brian's World" travel tales. The light trivializing tone is inappropriate when digressing on the suicide of a professor in South Africa or how the Lozi people ("poor saps") of the Caprivi Strip lost the rights to their land at the stroke of a pen.

Perhaps the book is not quite as boring as your Uncle Al and Auntie Jean's slide show of their vacation, but it is moving in that direction. (There on the right you see Raymond and Gertrude from Switzerland who were very pleasant people… This was our guide Peter who drove the boat so fast, it frightened off all the birds…) And so on. We hear about every bottle of beer and sundowner that Brian and Sandra consume which, if added up, would be enough to fell one of the many elephants they see on their safari drives. Tedious repetition is almost inevitable if you decide to spin a five-week holiday into a 286-page book. I don't wish to be uncharitable because some episodes and aperçus are mildly amusing. But the author's bizarre riffs on what is wrong with the world and his crackpot theories about how to fix it soon become very wearing and have nothing whatsoever to do with travel in southern Africa.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 16 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

The Broken Road

Buy The Broken Road in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Down to the Sea in Ships

Buy Down to the Sea in Ships in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Strip Pan Wrinkle

Buy Strip Pan Wrinkle at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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