No. 25: “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Travel Blog  •  Tom Swick  •  05.07.06 | 1:04 PM ET

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1977
Territory covered: Europe

This is a glorious feast, the account of a walk in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. The 18-year-old Fermor began by sleeping in barns but, after meeting some landowners early on, got occasional introductions to castles. So he experienced life from both sides, and with all the senses, absorbing everything: flora and fauna, art and architecture, geography, clothing, music, foods, religions, languages. Writing the book decades after the fact, in a baroque style that is always rigorous, never flowery, he was able to inject historical depth while still retaining the feeling of boyish enthusiasm and boundless curiosity.

This is the first of a still uncompleted trilogy; the second volume, “Between the Woods and the Water,” takes him through Hungary and Romania; together they capture better than any books I know the remedial, intoxicating joy of travel.

Outtake from A Time of Gifts:

The lanes opened on the Boomjes, a long quay lined with trees and capstans, and this in its turn gave on a wide arm of the Maas and an infinity of dim ships. Gulls mewed and wheeled overhead and dipped into the lamplight, scattering their small footprints on the muffled cobblestones and settled in the rigging of the anchored boats in little explosions of snow. The cafés and seamen’s taverns which lay back from the quay were all closed except one which showed a promising line of light. A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten. I made a second long entry in my journal - it was becoming a passion - and while the landlord polished his glasses and cups and arranged them in glittering ranks, dawn broke, with the snow still coming down against the lightening sky. I put on my greatcoat, slung the rucksack, grasped my stick and headed for the door. The landlord asked where I was going: I said: “Constantinople.” His brows went up and he signaled to me to wait: then he set out two small glasses and filled them with transparent liquid from a long stone bottle. We clinked them; he emptied his at one gulp and I did the same. With his wishes for godspeed in my ears and an internal bonfire of Bols and a hand smarting from his valedictory shake, I set off. It was the formal start of my journey.