In December 1933, nineteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out alone on a great adventure, a walking trip from Amsterdam to Istanbul, or as Fermor still called it, Constantinople. (It was renamed in 1930.) He had no idea when he left that he would not return until 1937. In 1977, he collected his notebooks from the trip and wrote A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water.
Although Leigh Fermor had one notebook stolen from him with all the rest of his gear, he otherwise must have kept careful account and his memories of the trip must still have been vivid, for the result is an entrancing account of scenery and architecture, tales of chance encounters, glimpses of foreign customs and celebrations, and so on. Jan Morris, who wrote the introduction, calls him “one of the great prose stylists of our time,” and Wikipedia, quoting an unnamed British journalist, “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” presumably for his work with the Cretan resistance in World War II as well as his writing. (He was also a friend of Ian Fleming.)
After his journey, Paddy settled in Athens and then Rumania with Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a fascinating older woman separated from her husband. However, after World War II broke out, he hurried back to England, not realizing how long it would be until he saw her again.
Paddy spent most of the war in Crete working with the resistance. He is famous for kidnapping a German general and removing him to Egypt, an act meant to improve Cretan morale. (A movie, Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy, was made about this feat, but Paddy was unhappy with how far it drifted from the facts.) For the rest of his life, despite the unfortunate political differences that evolved between England and Greece after the war, Paddy was beloved in Crete.
After the war, Paddy lived a gadabout life with many famous friends, only settling down in Greece with his wife Joan in his late middle age. He and Joan had been together 27 years before they married and for many of those years, had an open relationship.
Paddy chose the profession of writer and wrote several books about his travels and adventures. He was a raconteur who demonstrated an impressive range of knowledge and was interested in everything. Apparently very charming and loved by many people, he was not always sensitive to the feelings of others.
From his drinking bouts with Dutch barge men to his extended stays in various German, Austrian, and Czech castles, Leigh Fermor plunges enthusiastically into every experience on offer. At one moment he is sleeping in a barn, in the next hanging out with fashionable youth in Vienna. Along the banks of the Danube he is mistaken for a 50-year-old smuggler. All of these adventures as well as his observations of nature are described in beautiful, evocative prose. To add interest to the modern reader, he is describing a Europe that no longer exists.