Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915–2011

The writer who walked across Europe

Even before he wrote the books that established him as one of the finest travel writers of the 20th century, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a legend in Britain. In 1944, he spent a year and a half harassing the German occupiers of Crete as a British soldier disguised as a shepherd. To cap off his exploits, he and a team of resistance fighters boldly kidnapped the island’s harsh commander, Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, and evaded German patrols for weeks as they marched him over the mountains. As the party reached the Aegean island’s Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus, the German captive muttered the first line of Horace’s ode “Ad Thaliarchum.” Leigh Fermor recited the rest of the poem by heart, recalling a common European heritage then very much under threat, before bundling Kreipe off to Cairo for interrogation.

Leigh Fermor was born in London, but his family soon left for India, where his father was director of the Geological Survey. Paddy, as he was known, was installed with a farmer in Northamptonshire. One inspired tutor imbued him with a love of poetry and history, but he “grew up independent, unable to adapt for long to any school’s regimen,” said The New York Times. In expelling him from King’s School in Canterbury, his headmaster called him “a dangerous mix of sophistication and recklessness.”

Instead of university, Leigh Fermor took to the road at the age of 18. “Taking only a sleeping bag, the Oxford Book of English Verse, and a volume of Horace,” said the London Guardian, “he walked up the Rhine and down the Danube, sleeping in barns and shepherd huts along the way.” The first volume of his exuberant travelogue of prewar Europe, A Time of Gifts, was published in 1977, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water, came out in 1986; he reportedly completed the still-unpublished third volume before his death.

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Along with two volumes on his beloved Greece and several on the Caribbean, Leigh Fermor published A Time to Keep Silence, about his time in a French monastery. “To his last breath, he remained curious and open-minded to an almost innocent degree and was a conveyor of optimism and humor to his younger admirers,” said Christopher Hitchens in “For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one.”

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