A Time Of Gifts

“I knew it was my last night in Holland and I was astonished how quickly I had crossed it. My heels might have been winged. I was astonished, too, at the impressive, clear beauty of the country and its variety, the amazing light and the sway of its healing and collusive charm. No wonder it had produced so many painters!” (page 29)

I was browsing around Amazon one day a few years ago and I came across a book called A Time Of Gifts. It sounded interesting and it had pretty good reviews so I decided to give it a try.  I am really glad I did because Patrick Leigh Fermor quickly became my favorite author!

a time of gifts

“The scene was beginning to change. My path followed a frozen woodland stream into a region where rushes and waterweed and marsh vegetation and brambles and shrubs were as densely entangled as a primeval forest. Opening on expanses of feathered ice, it was like a mangrove swamp in the Arctic circle. Encased in ice and snow, every twig sparkled. Frost had turned the rushes into palisades of brittle rods and the thickets were loaded with icicles and frozen rainbow-shooting drops.” (page 128)

In 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor left London and headed to the Hook of Holland. From there, his goal was to travel to Constantinople… on foot.  A Time Of Gifts covers the first part of his journey and as soon as I started reading it I knew I was going to love it.  The way he describes his experiences – from the people he meets and the places he travels through – is wonderful and he is never short on details. It’s not unusual for several pages to be used to describe an architectural style or the transformation of a certain region’s clothing over the years. “We shall never get to Constantinople like this. I know I ought to be moving on; so does the reader. But I can’t – not for a page or two.” (page 238)

I think my favorite part about Fermor’s writing style is his ability to bring history to life. His knowledge of the history of most of the areas he travels through is outstanding and I find myself jotting down notes about people and places I would like to know more about. “It was an amazing vision. Few stretches of Central Europe have been the theatre for so much history.  Beyond which watershed lay the pass where Hannibal’s elephants had slithered downhill? Only a few miles away, the frontier of the Roman Empire had begun. Deep in those mythical forests that the river reflected for many days’ march, the German tribes, Rome’s Nemesis, had waited for their hour to strike…” (page 80)

About The Book: In 1933 at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey – to walk to Constantinople. It was to be a momentous experience, and one that would change the course of his life.
A Time Of Gifts is the rich and sparkling account of his adventures as far as Hungary, after which Between The Woods And The Water continues the story to the Iron Gates that divide the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. Acclaimed for its sweep, intelligence and observation, the moment in time that it captures is remarkable: he heads through the Lowlands to Mitteleuropa, the Teutonic and Slav heartlands, the Gothic north, the cockpit of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War and the baroque remains of the Holy Roman Empire; up the Rhine, just after Hitler came to power, and down the Danube into the old Balkan and sub-Byzantine realms.
With a ‘lifeline’ allowance of a pound a week, he planned to live ‘like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’, sleeping in work-houses, monasteries and barns. But a chance introduction in Bavaria led to a counterpointing of this rough existence with leisurely sojourns in castles: one night he would be kept awake by cattle, the next by heavily-embroidered coronets on the linen of a rococo four-poster.
At once a memoir of coming-of-age, an account of a journey, and a dazzling exposition of the English language, it is also a portrait of a continent already showing signs of the holocaust to come.

Just One More Thing: “There is nothing more absorbing than maps of tribal wanderings. How vaguely and slowly nations float about! Lonely as clouds, overlapping and changing places, they waltz and reverse around each other at a pace so slow as to be almost stationary or work their expanding way across the map as imperceptibly as damp or mildew. What a relief it is when some outside event, with an actual date attached to it, jerks the whole sluggishly creeping osmotic complex into action!” (pages 159-160)

This Edition: Paperback published by John Murray (2004)

Other Books In This Series: Between The Woods And The Water, The Broken Road

You Might Also Like: They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy


Hippolyte’s Island

“He loved this point in travel, the very beginning, the moment when the decision to go hit his heart and his gut, when the whirl of topography careening through his brain burned his feet, when the fine lines of maps tangled themselves around him like a net and drew him up and away, when his mind traveled the world before he even walked out the door.” (pages 5-6)

I’ve not been able to travel a lot… mostly just to some surrounding states (and usually to hunt down some elusive ancestor), although I did spend an afternoon in Canada a few years ago.  So I guess to make up for a lack of personal experience I love read to books about travel – both fiction and non-fiction.  One of my favorite fictional travel stories is Hippolyte’s Island by Barbara Hodgson.

101“The sky was putting on an amazing show: bright, huge stars, twinkling fiercely in a code only they could understand.  Whether it was a trick of atmosphere, a gift of the utter blackness, the nature of South, or a combination of all three, the Milky Way revealed itself exquisitely.  Now, more than ever, Hippolyte understood the sensation of reaching out to touch the stars, of tugging on the visible cord that they are all strung along and sweeping them down around him and watching them dance upon the rise and fall of the waves.” (page 75)

Hippolyte Webb is an avid traveler and as the story begins he is ready for his next journey.  This isn’t going to be an ordinary trip though.  This time he’s looking for the Auroras, a group of islands that may not even actually exist.  As he sets out on his adventure, you really get drawn into his excitement with the illustrations and Hippolyte’s log entries.  The trip itself doesn’t take up much of the story (the beginning deals with him getting ready for the voyage and the end is about him working with his editor on his book) but it is well-written from start to finish and a very beautiful book!



From The Cover: Craving a new adventure, Hippolyte Webb, quixotic traveler, writer, and natural historian, sets his sights on the Auroras, a group of tiny islands in the middle of the South Atlantic.  His destination wouldn’t be so unusual, except that these islands were last spotted almost two hundred years ago. Equipped with outdated charts, an inadequate sailboat, and an advance for a book about his quest, he heads for the Auroras-and finds more than he ever imagined.  But the challenges that he meets on his voyage are nothing compared to those that await him when he returns.

Marie Simplon, his non-nonsense book editor, is appalled by Hippolyte’s strange tale and wants nothing to do with the Auroras-or with him.  However, as he inudates her with centuries-old maps, sketches, and specimens from his journey, she is drawn against her better judgment into the mysterious details of his experiences in the South Atlantic. The two are soon joined in a race-Hippolyte to prove that his islands exist, Marie to refute his claims. Marie finds herself succumbing to a tide of conflicting emotions about the journey and the man, and she realizes she must embark on her own quest to discover for herself the limits of logic and the power of belief.

Just One More Thing: “She guided him into a plush, windowless boardroom deep in Rumor’s bowels and flicked on a reading lamp, its light cunningly placed as though to burn a hole through his manuscript already lying there. Either she wanted him to work, or she wanted to set his work on fire.” (page 195)

This Edition: Hardcover published by Chronicle Books (2001)

Other Illustrated Novels By Barbara Hodgson: The Lives Of Shadows, The Sensualist

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No Fear Of Any Failure

I’m not much of an “outdoors” type of person.  Bugs creep me out and spiders of any size have me running for backup.    In other words, you’ll not find me putting myself in a position that will involve a prolonged exposure to creepy-crawlies.  But I have a lot of respect for people who aren’t bothered by nature’s creepier side.  And Colonel Percy Fawcett certainly wasn’t.

exploration fawcett


A good part of Exploration Fawcett covers Fawcett’s boundary-survey work and the adventures he had while completing that work.  With all the obstacles he and his teams had to face, it’s surprising that he was able to finish any of it!  

Naturally, there are a lot of cities and areas named when describing the work and it’s easy to just skim over them if you’re not careful.  One review I read before I bought the book suggested that you read it while having Google Earth open.  It does help to get the full scope of what Fawcett was doing, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area.  

Fawcett’s survey work took him on many expeditions between 1906 and 1914 and it was during these journeys that he became convinced there was a lost city.  In 1915 he returned to Britain for active service in World War I, but after the war was over he was right back at it.  In 1921, he set off on another expedition, this time to see if he could find the lost city, which he called “Z”.  By the end of that journey he was by himself and spent the last three months traveling alone!  It didn’t seem to bother him though: “Loneliness is not intolerable when enthusiasm for a quest fills the mind.”  And the result of the expedition?

“I found enough to make it imperative to go again.  The hints that follow may be sufficient to indicate the extraordinarily interesting nature of the research.  With the right companions, the right organization, and knowledge of the way to go, it can, I am confident, be brought to a successful conclusion.  I have probed from three sides for the surest way in; I have seen enough to make any risk worth while in order to see more, and our story when we return from the next expedition may thrill the world!”

After that expedition was over, he returned to England with his family while he tried to raise support for another trip.  It was during this time in England that he wrote the book.  He never really elaborated on what he found that made it imperative to go again except a few mentions of stories he had heard.  But he must have been sure because in 1925 he set off again.  The “right companions” for this trip were his eldest son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell.  The events leading up to the final expedition is covered in the book by his younger son Brian and includes quite a few snippets from letters that were written by the travelers.

Fawcett was right; his last expedition did thrill the world… just not in the way he was hoping.  After they disappeared, there were several rescue attempts which all ended in failure.  A lot of rumors emerged as to what exactly happened and Brian Fawcett talks about some of them.  The mystery remains to this day and it seems likely that we’ll never know what their fate was.  

Going into the final journey, Fawcett knew it would be difficult and extremely dangerous.  But again, he didn’t let it get to him.  In his last letter, his final words to his wife were: “You need have no fear of failure.”  As uncertain life is for any of us,  I think that is a pretty good attitude to have!


A Trip To Provence

The best kind of book is one that can make you feel like you are actually there where the story is taking place.  If you are able to get away by yourself for a little while and read uninterrupted, the world in the book becomes your world.  That’s why I love A Year In Provence!

I’ve never been to Provence but Peter Mayle gives a pretty good idea of what it’s like.  It’s broken down, appropriately, into months and takes you through a year of their life.  From dealing with guests and tourists to bad weather and frozen pipes, Mayle covers it all in a funny and engaging manner.

He’s written a couple of other books about Provence, including Toujours Provence and Encore Provence and several works of fiction.  Have you read any of Peter Mayle’s books?

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


I spent a few hours traveling on the highway today and passed many a little town.  I found myself wondering what could be discovered in them if I had the time for a quick detour:  a specialty shop or clothing boutique or a family deli or even a little bookstore… the kind that are so hard to find these days.  And every once in awhile, I passed a solitary road that seemed to come out of nowhere and then just fade into the distance.   Wouldn’t it be fun to see where it led?  I wish I had the time to find out, but there’s always the trip back!