There was a Golden Age of travel writing between the world wars, Robert Byron, Freya Stark, and Peter Fleming, among others. (Fleming wrote three terrific books in the 1930's, BRAZILIAN JOURNEY, ONE'S COMPANY, and NEWS FROM TARTARY.)
Given their daring and dash, maybe it's
|PADDY FERMOR 1966|
Late in 1933, when he was eighteen, he set out on a tramp across Europe, on foot, with a backpack, starting in Holland, and ending up in Constantinople, a year or so later. He kept detailed
journals, but he didn't actually write about it, or publish, at least, until he was well into his sixties. The first book---of three---A TIME OF GIFTS, came out in '77, BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER appeared in '86, and THE BROKEN ROAD wasn't published until just this year (Paddy Fermor died in 2011, at ninety-six).
The really interesting thing is that although the books were written in recollection, there's no hindsight, no foreshadowing, no historical irony. Fascism was on the rise in '33. Hitler had come to power in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, there was the Iron Guard in Romania, and Fermor takes vivid note of all this, but he maintains his relative innocence. The point of view is not the older man looking back, but the younger man seeking
adventure. He doesn't entirely ignore the events of the years between, but the present intrudes very little. We get Hapsburgs, milkmaids, Gypsies, ostlers and monks, stables, cloisters, minarets, black bread and cheese, with straw for a bed, venison and wine and damask sheets. The sense of an old order fading, at times, or the past manifest and alive, an inhabited reality, in stones, in language and landscape, in gesture, or costume, or habit of mind. Fermor is, above everything else, evocative. Smells, shapes, or sounds. He doesn't simply notice, he inhales.
The best of this generation of writers, Paddy Fermor, or Peter Fleming, convey a sense of
wonder, not weariness. We know the worlds they describe are lost to us, the Balkan monarchies, the salt-harvesters of the Iraqi marshes, the nomadic herdsmen of the steppe, as far removed from our own experience as they themselves were from the Crusades. On the other hand, they give us context and continuity. They may be closer to the Crusades than we are to them---an enormous gap opens in history, in the second half of the 20th century, the mechanics of war and tyranny, mass murder, the atom bomb. Reading somebody like Fermor isn't just a bridge to the past, it's a journey of discovery, to a time, we might say, when our hearts were still open and glad.